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Leopold Stokowski. The Complete 1925 Electrical Recordings
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)

Danse Macabre
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)

Polovtzi Dance
Mikhail IPPOLITOV-IVANOV (1859-1935)

In the Village
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Marche Slave
Symphony No. 6 Pathetique – Andante Theme from the First Movement
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Symphony No. 9 in E minor From the New World
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Recorded 1925
BIDDULPH BID 83072 [70.21]

Stokowski first recorded in 1917 but technological advances in the early 1920s meant his attitude to the acoustical system had somewhat softened by the time that electrical recording became a commercial reality. This disc collates an eight-month period of recording in 1925, all electrically recorded, and all bearing the mark of practical bet-hedging with regard to the properties of the new method. As was fairly common practice for a few years the bass line was reinforced; collectors are well used to the double bass line being reinforced by tubas but Edward Johnson in his elegantly candid sleeve notes quotes the Victor session sheets in their deposition of the orchestra – no double basses at all in the Borodin and Saint-Saëns, instead, amazingly, a bass saxophone substitute (had Victor learned from their brass and jazz recordings that the bass saxophone could profitably thicken the orchestral texture?) In addition the timpani here was replaced by a double bassoon. The compromises inherent are noticeable throughout the disc and therefore this can’t realistically be said to be a genuinely embryonic Philadelphia sound on disc, not least because the string complement was drastically reduced pretty much in accordance with proto-acoustic recording balances. Still, as a slice of technology in action it’s most revealing and given that it’s Stokowski on the rostrum never without interest.

The good news is that Biddulph have used fine sounding Victors and Mark Obert-Thorn has transferred them without fuss. In the Saint-Saëns violin fanciers can crane to hear the long time concertmaster of the orchestra, the stentorianly named Thaddeus Rich, who otherwise only recorded four 78 sides for Okeh. The Borodin is an abridgement – orchestra only – from the last of the Polovtsian Dances. This and the Ippolitov-Ivanov were of course staples of Stokowski’s performing career – though the latter was only returned to on disc in 1947 with the NYPSO. The colouristic and exotic qualities of the music are obviously rendered problematic by the orchestral limitations and by the rather dull sounding recording. The strings have a chance to show their flexibility and weight in the Tchaikovsky, even if dogged by brass bass line impedimenta. The meat of the disc is the December 1925 recording of the Dvořák New World, a work Stokowski recorded six times in total. The relatively unsatisfactory nature of the recording and the rapidity with which studio engineers gained a relative degree of mastery over it necessitated a remake almost immediately in 1927. The other recordings were again in Philadelphia in 1934, the All-American Symphony in 1940, His Symphony in 1947 and finally nearly thirty years later in London with the New Philharmonia. In 1925 there are powerful portamenti, expressive diminuendos, idiosyncratic touches and a strongly etched personality controlling the music making. But the recording all too faithfully picks up the lugubriously heavy substitute bass instruments – the counterpoint of filigree strings and stygian tubas was a little too much even for me, and I’m a notorious admirer of the acoustic era Stroh violin (the one that attached a mini horn to the fiddle to direct the sound). I’d stick with Stokowski’s 1927 or 1934 Philadelphia recordings.

Still, a rather fascinating slice of Stokowski’s musical life on record, preserved in excellent sound given the inherent limitations of poor acoustic venues and compromised orchestral balances. I’m glad I’ve heard these early electrics.

Jonathan Woolf


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