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Stokowski conducts Russian Music
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird Suite [20:17]
Petrushka Suite (arr. Stokowski) [15:33]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 4 in F minor, Op 36 [40:31]
Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op 64 [44:33]
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op 36 [12:39]
Capriccio Espagnol, Op 34 [14:21]
Eduard Steuermann (pianist: Petrushka)
Nicola Moscona (bass: Overture)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. live broadcast recordings NBC, 1941-1944
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC596 [2 CDs: 152:06]

Recordings by Leopold Stokowski are always an exasperating affair. On the one hand, the constant fiddling with tempo, liberal retouching of phrase markings and dynamics, addition of heavy string portamenti, occasional re-orchestration, etc. all tend to wear poorly on repeated re-hearings. On the other hand, why doesn’t anyone conduct like this anymore? Few living conductors can force the listener to sit up pay attention quite like Stokowski does, mostly due to the sheer strength of his zany convictions.

To provide a few examples of Stokowski’s musical shenanigans; in the Russian Easter Festival Overture, the conductor replaces the bass trombone soloist with an actual bass, having the Greek-American Nicola Moscona intone the Old Slavonic of the Orthodox Easter service. Some of the tempi in Petrushka are frenzied to an extreme extent, coming right to the border of unplayability, even for such excellent musicians as the NBC band. The Tchaikovsky symphonies have more than their fair share of lurching rubato and slurpy strings. For listeners already accustomed to the conductor’s interventionist readings, these recordings will hold few surprises. For newcomers: grab your popcorn and buckle your seatbelts.

These performances date from 1941 to 1944, the period in which Stokowski served as principal conductor of the NBC Symphony, spelling for Arturo Toscanini during a contractual dispute, and then staying on as a co-conductor with Toscanini until the end of Stokowski’s contract. The orchestra plays well for Stokowski, perhaps enjoying this opportunity to play musical hooky under the baton of an equally exacting (but less overtly abusive) maestro.

The Stravinsky performances are dynamite, particularly the Petrushka. The pianist in Petrushka is Eduard Steuermann (1892-1964). Steuermann was a student of Busoni and Schoenberg, and he left few recordings of standard repertoire. The pianist’s contributions are accurate and athletic. Thanks to the work of Andrew Rose, they are also audible. Stokowski’s tempi are at times pushed to the limit, but always in service to the drama. Petrushka’s innate nastiness is on full display here, the harsh dissonance of the winds and brass (trumpeter Harry Glantz in particular) underlining the savagery of the tale. Unlike some modern conductors, Stokowski does not round off any edges or prettify the music.

The Rimsky-Korsakov and Tchaikovsky performances are musically consistent with their commercially-recorded siblings, and as such, perhaps not necessary for anyone other than Stokowski completists. That being said, they are involved, passionate performances, with all of the conductor’s usual merits and demerits. The sheer volume of the enthusiastic strumming in the Scherzo pizzicato movement of the Fourth Symphony in Stokowski’s hands is always worth the price of admission (did anyone else ever get so much sound out of the orchestra in this music?), as is the zesty quasi-balalaika effect he achieves in the Capriccio espagnol.

It goes without saying at this point that Andrew Rose’s transfers are pristine, living up to the label name. I have never heard broadcast recordings of this vintage offer such clarity; the playing of the percussion battery in the Stravinsky pieces is particularly vivid, as is the woodwind playing. The strings seem to have a slight sonic lid in the Stravinsky works, but open up to their full potential in the Tchaikovsky symphonies and Rimsky-Korsakov pieces. Moscona’s solo in the Russian Easter Festival Overture is unfortunately too distant (the fault of the original radio engineers); his contributions are inaudible, particularly compared to the commercial recording Stokowski made for Victor soon after this March 1942 performance. Pristine includes the announcer commentary, as well as brief thoughts from Stokowski. The snippets of his voice offer an amusing chance to hear his shifting faux-Eastern European accent, which sounds at turns American, English, and Slavic.

Richard Masters

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