GHCD 2341 – Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) – Jean Sibelius (1865-1957)

Helsinki City Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski – Conductor

To the CD in our Shop August 2008

Geniale Aussenseiter
In lichten Augenblicken zählt Leopold Stokowski zu den großen Interpreten spätromantischer Sinfonik.
Sibelius hat es schwer gehabt im mitteleuropäischen Kulturraum. Adorno trug darum Sorge, das Ansehen des vorgeblichen Komponierdilettanten gründlich zu beschädigen. Sehr wenige Dirigenten, zuvörderst Karajan, führten Sibelius-Sinfonien auf. Zu exotisch erschien deren düstere klangliche Imagination, zu weit (und selbstbewusst) hatte Sibelius sich vom Sonatenbau, von ‘thematischer Arbeit’ und periodischer Syntax, wahren Götzen mitteleuropäischer Musiktradition, abgesetzt. So ist es ein sinnreicher Zufall, dass sich ein anderer Verfemter des Musikbetriebs, Leopold Stokowski, geschmäht wegen ‘Dilettantismus’ und ‘Effekthascherei’, für Sibelius’ Werk verwendete. 1953 reiste er eigens nach Finnland, um mit Helsinki City Symphony Orchestra ausgewählte Werke des Meisters zur Aufführung zu bringen: die Sinfonien Nr. 1 e-Moll und Nr. 7 C-Dur, Sibelius’ Schauspielmusik zu ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’, und sein womöglich populärstes Stück, die tönende Huldigung ans Vaterland ‘Finlandia’.
Mochte Stokowskis nicht selten clowneskes Gebaren verstören – dies sind strenge, hochseriöse Interpretationen, ohne Scheu vor klanglichem Bombast (das Booklet nennt es ‘rocky strength’), doch klanglich wie dynamisch, zumal in den Bläsern, reich abgestuft. Moderate, unforcierte Tempi schaffen Raum für präzise Phrasierungsarbeit und wuchtige Steigerungen. Das motorische Element kommt bestens zur Geltung, ohne je in die Nähe rhythmischen Stumpfsinns zu geraten. Helsinki Symphony lässt keine technischen Begrenzungen erkennen, in Sibelius’ musikalischen Welten bewegt es sich wie der Fisch in kühlen baltischen Wassern. Nicht, dass der Mitschnitt spätere Bemühungen um Sibelius’ sinfonisches Schaffen, z. B. Karajans Fünfte (eine sinfonische Lieblingsaufnahme Glenn Goulds…) oder, in jüngster Zeit, Salonens Produktionen vergessen machen könnte. Dennoch ist Guild, dem eigensinnigen britischen Label mit Sitz in der Schweiz, für die CD-Veröffentlichung herzlich zu danken. Dies ist nicht allein ein diskographisches Kuriosum, um Porträtphotographien Stokowskis in charakteristisch exzentrischer Pose und Robert Matthew-Walkers intelligenten Begleittext ergänzt. Es ist vor allem eine Referenzaufnahme, die von Sibelius selbst mit dem Siegel musikalischer Richtigkeit versehen wurde. Das Booklet enthält einen Dankesbrief des Komponisten an Leopold Stokowski, der dessen Studioeinspielung der Ersten und die Konzerte des Jahres 1953 in durchaus überschwänglichen Worten belobigt: ‘My dear Friend, some days ago I received your wonderful recording of my First Symphony. Many cordial thanks for it […]. Your concerts here last June are unforgettable for us all and we all hope to see and hear you here again. […] Yours with admiration and gratitude.’
Dr. Daniel Krause

Fono Forum 06/10

Blinders seem to be unfamiliar to Peter Croton and Theresia Bothe with regards to making music. They are as comfortable performing early music as they are folk and jazz. One inevitably thinks of Sting, who also tried his hand at Dowland. Unlike him however, Theresia Bothe avoids the artificiality which so quickly becomes mannered. With her beguiling naturalness and crystal-clear voice she does much more justice to the text and music, and succeeds in moving the emotions more strongly. Peter Croton, who contributes a few of his own compositions, impresses with his subtle virtuosity.

American Record Guide January/February 09

These performances derive from the 1953 Sibelius Festival, and as soon as I knew, in the early 70s, that recordings existed, I made every effort to snag them for my Stokowski collection. After all, the composer was very much alive at that time and was listening to the broadcast – a circumstance that must have inspired the conductor. I ordered cassette dubs but was grievously disappointed when I played them – the Sound was just short of unlistenable; it seemed to be copied from very poor home-recorded acetates, which themselves were dubbed from a badly-tuned short­wave transmission! When I complained, my dealer told me he’d been scouring the globe for a better-sounding source for 15 years and had never come across one. Presumably, the national radio Station in Helsinki had master tapes in its vaults, but Bither they weren’t being released or they had gotten lost or damaged.

I had high hopes for this Guild release ­ this collectors’ label has turned up come priceless concert recordings by Koussevitzky and other podium titans and has marketed them honestly and responsibly. But when I cued-up this disc I heard the very Same grisly Sound that was an my tapes from 30-odd years ago!

To be fair, Guild has managed to wring SOME improvements from this badly compromised source material – distortion isn’t quite as pervasive, and a few of the drop-outs have been corrected. Some parts are now audible that had to be more-or-less imagined before. There’s probably enough here to justify purchase by Stokowski die-hards who are very tolerant of technical problems. Finlandia comes off Best, in a heavily italicized reading that restores a Sense of patriotic fervor to the music. Stokie isn’t shy about pulling and hauling the tempos for expressive purposes. The excerpts from Pelleas are so heartfelt and richly colored that they might rival Beecham’s magisterial readings-if you could hear them without ear-strain.

The First Symphony is cut from the same interpretive cloth as Stokowski’s RCA studio recording of three years earlier, but is even stronger: the percussion is much more audible (even if it’s often coarse and wobbly) and it sounds like the conductor was following his usual custom of having the woodwinds seated at the front on his right. Their parts are projected fiercely (sometimes shrieking like wounded animals!). It’s an ardent, tempestuous reading and probably a great one, if we could hear more than half of what’s going on. Stokie dispatches the Seventh in 17:48, almost the same as Koussevitzky’s pioneering pre-war BBC recording. But where Koussevitzky gives us the excitement of discovery and urgency, Stokowski is merely too damn fast. A lot of fascinating inner detail gets blurred; the symphony’s great bronze-foamed climax rushes at the listener without much preparation, smacks him on the head, and then is over before its power can register. The hardpressed musicians can barely hang on, and it doesn’t sound like they care for what their guest conductor is trying to do.

Unless a really decent recording of this concert turns up, this new Guild release will have to do. But I am far from ready to endorse this release to any but the hardiest of Stokowski completists.

Fanfare Magazine January / February 2009

This issue documents the final concert of the 1953 Sibelius Festival in Helsinki; that Said, it is not the rediscovered treasure-trove that one might hope an seeeng the program.

The first problem is the Sound. It is easy to discern that, as Guild forthrightly tells us, this disc was mastered from second-generation transcriptions; that is, it is an air-check (from a CBS station in the U.S.), with announcements included, taken from discs (presumably acetates), rather than tape. Thus, the Bonics are far below 1950s standards, distorted, and dynamically constricted, with prominent dropouts an top of disc surface noise. Even so, this still seems, an paper, to be a priceless bit of Sound preservation. Alas, Stokowski’s performances are full of the mannerisms that make much of his work so infuriating, especially in the context of his genius for producing his unique orchestral Sound and his flair for turneng in brilliant performances of out-of-the-way repertoire.

Annotator Robert Matthew-Walker observes that Stokowski’s interpretations of Sibelius were “essentially fixed very early on, and . . remained constant” virtually throughout his life. On the other hand, Stokowski’s performances tended to become increasingly idiosyncratic as he became older, or more familiar with the repertoire. Some manifestations of this are apparent in Finlandia, in which the opening brass chords, marked f with a crescendo, are played fp instead. Stokowski also transposes violin lines up an octave, and substitutes piccolos for fluten in several places; this is a practice he used in Philadelphia as early as his 1930 recording, and survived into the Ormandy era (they probably used the Same Set of orchestral parts!). The Pelleas music, an the other hand, which I don’t believe Stokowski ever recorded commercially, is played “straight,” other than the elimination of the opening bars of “The Death of Melisande.”

The symphonies receive performances that are interesting to hear once, but to which I can’t imagine returning. The First, at 33:10, trims a full mimte off the 1950 Studio version, already the fastest of the 44 recordings I surveyed. At one point, just before the final climax of the first movement, Stoky leaves half the orchestra behind in the dust; the second movement, at 9:00, is shorn of all expressiveness; and, the introduction to the finale is absurdly fast. The Seventh, which Stokowski recorded with the All-American Youth Orchestra in 1940 (the recording, however, remained unissued Needless to say, recorded competition in this repertoire abounds, from the incomparable Rostropovich who recorded both concertos multiple times, to the efforts of such well-known cellists as Yo-Yo Ma, Lynn Harrell, Heinrich Schiff, Pieter Wispelwey, Truls Mark, and Mischa Maisky. It is always dangerous to use the Word “definitive” in describing a particular reading or Interpretation of a musical work; for great music is capable of revealing hidden facets and veiled secrets to different hearts and minds. So instead I shall say that Shostakovich’s Cello concertos are great music, and these are great performances of them. Müller-Schott is, in my book, one of the top, if not the top, Cellist an the scene today; and Yakov Kreizberg, largely thanks to his association with the PentaTone Label, has rapidly risen in the ranks of noteworthy conductors. The Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra is, of course, a well-known, highly reliable ensemble. And the Orfeo recording, made in September 2005, delivers exceptionally solid and satisfying sound. A superb release not to be missed.
Jerry Dubins

Gramophone August 2008

RCA record of the First Symphony also mentions some “unforgettable” Helsinki concerts from the previous year. One of the those concerts featured Finlandia, the First and Seventh Symphonies and music from Pelleas and Melisande and has just appeared on a Guild CD, generally well refurbished though not wholly successful in eradicating some disruptive drop-outs. The performances, although occasionally imprecise, frequently catch fire (the symphonies are particularly cumbustible) and add significantly to an already well stocked supply of “Stokowski Sibelius” on disc.

MusicWeb International Tuesday January 13 2009

For the closing concert of the 1953 Helsinki Festival, one of Sibelius’s greatest international champions, Leopold Stokowski, was invited to conduct the Helsinki City Symphony Orchestra. Part of the programme was familiar Stokowski territory. He had made the first ever recording of Finlandia in 1921 (with the Philadelphia Orchestra) and had set down the First Symphony not long before, in 1950. But, although he had conducted the American première of the Seventh Symphony (Philadelphia 1926) his sole studio recording of it, with the All-American Youth Orchestra (1940), had remained unissued and appeared only in 1994. Furthermore, the present five movements from Pelléas et Mélisande may be his only surviving recording of this music.

Sibelius himself listened to the concert on his radio at home. The booklet reproduces his letter to Stokowski of September 10th 1953 in which he says that “Your concerts here last June are unforgettable for us all”. As Robert Matthew-Walker points out, if “we possessed broadcast recordings of … orchestral music by, say, Tchaikovsky or Brahms, made when the composers were still alive and possibly giving their approval of the performances – such aspects of ‘authenticity’ which we, in our history-obsessed age, seek to recreate, would be there for us to experience…”.

All the same, I think too much can be made of this. During his unproductive later years, Sibelius seems to have been a fairly assiduous listener to broadcasts and recordings of his music and expressed his gratitude for quite a range of interpretative solutions. Just to give one example, in Koussevitsky’s première recording of the Seventh Symphony, the strings of the 1933 BBC SO can be heard applying quite lavish portamenti. Since Sibelius was delighted with the recording it may be supposed that he liked this sort of playing. But portamento was already in its death throes. The next issued recording, by the St. Louis SO under Vladimir Golschmann (1942), already sounds like normal modern orchestral playing. Sibelius’s favourite interpreter at the end of his life, Tauno Hannikainen, set down a number of recordings which made no attempt to revive portamento. He also adopted a more austere, literal interpretative style than that of earlier conductors, including Sibelius’s favoured interpreter in his younger days, Robert Kajanus. In other words, in the end we’re simply left asking ourselves, as we do with Mozart or Beethoven, whether the performance communicates something to us and whether, perhaps, it meets our – necessarily subjective – criteria of what is “Sibelian”.

Another problem is that I sincerely hope Sibelius himself enjoyed better wireless reception than did the home taper to whom we owe the present disc. The announcements show it to have been a relay by an American broadcasting station and the ether was pretty busy that evening. Swishes and fizzes of varying intensity provide a fairly constant barrage, and they seem to go round in cycles. This is particularly noticeable in long-held chords, which acquire blips in the middle as the disturbance reaches its apex. They then recompose themselves as we await the next wave. The general lines of the music come through but in all truth, a listener who didn’t already have a clear aural picture of the trio to the third movement of the First Symphony, to name one especially bad patch, just wouldn’t understand anything at all. Still, it does offer a fascinating peep into the past.

Critical tastes evolve, of course. The 1955 edition of “The Record Guide”, which enjoyed almost Biblical status in its day, told us stiffly that “The deleted Stokowski SP set [of Symphony 1], with its technicolor recording, had made us think ill of the Sibelius – an unfair judgement corrected by the magnificent recording conducted by Anthony Collins”. If Stokowski himself ever read this, he no doubt took consolation in the above-mentioned letter, in which Sibelius himself described the recording as “wonderful”. Maybe we’re more ready today to accept a range of different solutions. I doubt if anyone would deny Collins’s “magnificent” centrality, but I was quite bowled over by the 1950 Stokowski (see review). Rob Barnett was also highly impressed. It’s obviously of some interest to hear that the conductor could create the same white-hot tension three years later with a lesser orchestra, but in view of the sonic problems I doubt if even the most rabid Stokowski-phile would need to hear the point proved more than once. It may be of worth noting that the timings are fractionally faster in 1953, but by a mere few seconds. Or perhaps they were not, really. The present CD is marginally sharper in pitch compared with the studio recording. For all I know, concert pitch may have been a tad higher in 1953 Helsinki than in 1950 New York but I think it more likely that the amateur taping plays just a little too fast, probably not enough to affect our perception of the performance but enough to lop a few seconds off each movement. It’s interesting to reflect that, in view of the very full timing, had the tapes been transferred at the same pitch as the New York version, the entire concert would not have fitted onto the CD.

I’m afraid I found “Finlandia” rather irritating on account of the way Stokowski never plays two consecutive bars in the same tempo in the big theme. This, to my ears, is merely capricious and I retreated gratefully to Jensen’s fervent performance, where the tensions seem to arise from the music itself.

The “Pelléas” pieces certainly demonstrate Stokowski’s ability to create a potent atmosphere and his plastic moulding of phrases. Yet, turning to Berglund’s more austere versions I find the atmosphere if anything more hypnotic still, with a sense of shadow more in keeping with Maeterlinck’s play.

Stokowski’s 1940 Seventh Symphony was to have been the second recording ever, the first studio recording and the first American recording except that, as I noted above, it wasn’t issued till 1994. Unusually for those days, the first recording was made live, by the BBC SO under Koussevitzky. It was a hard act to follow. In spite of the old-fashioned portamento, there is a vibrancy and fervour to the string playing, and a bite and precision, that remain amazing. The tempi are fairly broad and the overall impression is of passion, power and grandeur. Both this and the next issued recording, under Golschmann, took around twenty minutes and the pacing of the individual sections is not dissimilar. Golschmann could hardly screw up the tension like Koussevitzky but the more pastoral sound of his orchestra has its own attraction. Tension builds up over the span of the work while the closing bars, leading to the enigmatic “Valse triste” quotation and the final crescendo with its hair-raising suspensions that seemingly never want to resolve, are handled with great poetry and insight. Probably not an essential version, but Sibelians who come across it will not regret hearing it. I don’t know the 1940 Stokowski or the 1942 Beecham.

It will probably not be thought surprising that the live Boult performance issued fairly recently on BBC Classics also takes around twenty minutes, or that Berglund – I have his Helsinki version – takes a minute more. Slightly more unexpectedly Bernstein’s recording in his 1960s cycle – from the days when he was still more firebrand than sage – adds another minute still. But the point about these details is that Stokowski gets through the piece in a mere seventeen minutes – the timing given above includes applause. Just occasionally he sounds a little breathless, or the orchestra does. The big trombone theme is passed over with remarkably little emphasis and the poetry found by Golschmann at the end is not attempted. Nor do the final clashing suspensions really register. From one point of view, Stokowski could be found distressingly superficial. On the other hand, he does have sweep. There is an inexorable surge from beginning to end, and he seems willing to sacrifice any details that might get in the way. At times the combination of fuzzy recording, edge-of-seat playing and speed suggest a writhing Debussian seascape rather than the Northern pine forests in their sharply-etched, snow-clad detail. The trouble is, without the possibility to hear this interpretation with a clear recording and a front-rank orchestra, it is difficult to be sure if this is what Stokowski was actually aiming at, or even what his listeners heard. And another difficulty is that, if we dismiss it as impressive but not quite what Sibelius was driving at, we have to explain away the fact that Sibelius apparently enjoyed it very much. The 1940 recording should help to clarify Stokowski’s view of the piece, but a quite detailed review I have seen – not on this site – describes a different sort of performance altogether, the opening slow and grand, for example. Under the circumstances Stokowski’s admirers can hardly afford to miss the present issue, whatever its shortcomings. For the more general music lover, the historical Sibelius Seven you really can’t be without is the Koussevitzky, but Sibelians may like to make up their minds about a performance that is sui generis.
Christopher Howell

Audio Phile Audition Friday May 16 2008

Recorded live at Helsinki University’s Festival Hall, 17 June 1953, Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) leads the same orchestra long associated with Sibelius’ first great champion, Robert Kajanus. While the sound occasionally flickers and orchestral definition suffers wow and blurred timbres, the intensity of music-making never wavers. Typical of Stokowski, even the popular and over-performed Finlandia enjoys some long-held caesuras and an elastic singing line. The opening announcement by Jim Fassett possesses a musical counterpoint of the vocal version of the piece, a male chorus intoning “Be Still My Soul” in Finnish.

The E Minor Symphony is one of four Stokowski led and inscribed with some constancy. After its long pedal and woodwind introduction, the upward rising figures and bucolic chirpings gain ascendancy over the pizzicati. A crackly haze covers some of the sonic patina, but the sensuality and underlying pulsation of the motives quite sweep one away. The musical evolution, according to truncated aspects of sonata-form, Stokowski takes to majestic heights, especially the central climax of the first movement, which sounds as if it were led by an inflamed Celibidache. The Andante bears several points of departure with the symphony in the same key by Tchaikovsky, and Stokowski warms up to the affects in equally poignant terms. A distinct winter wind blows through these northern trees and lights, the music gusting with elemental fury. Gallant thunder for the Scherzo, whose flute, trumpet, string, and tympani parts oppose each other in colorist combat. Sonic deterioration and flutter plague the glorious finale, a rather hectic tempo adapted by Stokowski, but the largamente theme rises with a glacial majesty over our horizon.

The five excerpts from Pelleas et Melisande exude that same dark-hued melancholy that Faure realizes from the same tale.  Melisande, By the Sea, Pastorale, Entr’acte, and The Death of Melisande each flow with somber energies, occasionally obviated by broken sound. But the tenacity of purpose, the lyric impulse, never falters. Stokowski seems to have cherished the C Major Symphony, whose one-movement fantasia evolves out of a series of through-composed chords and modal harmonies. Distant in sound, the music still maintains a vivid, striking character as its main, melodic impulse snakes and hesitates its way into prominence.  I found that raising the volume helped matters, the woodwinds and strings’ antiphons gaining in anguish and angular symmetry. Stokowski takes the middle section, storm-like, furioso, the sea perhaps a factor in the sense of storm and stress. After ten minutes, the elegant theme ascends and the energetic flurries and diaphanous string runs carry us into a northern world like few others. The final intensities bear a striking resemblance to the B Minor tone-poem Tapiola.
Gary Lemco


Invaluable for Sibelians and Stokowskians – atmospheric historic recordings … Rob Barnett

This disc is of the greatest musical interest. It contains a complete concert from Helsinki entirely devoted to the music of Sibelius in which the Helsinki City Orchestra is conducted by Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977).

Sibelius did not lack for concert performances during his long life. Ironically this popularity coincided with his ceasing ambitious composition activity after circa 1925. Kajanus, Wood, Bantock, Beecham, Stokowski, Ormandy, Collins and so many others took his music worldwide. It held the stage until the lurch of fashion moved it into eclipse for a decade or so after Sibelius’s death. After this the upswing in interest guaranteed it recordings from a new generation of conductors including Maazel. Even then Boult, Cameron and Collins championed the symphonies during the post-mortem ‘darkness’. Now, some fifty years after the composer’s death recordings abound. Most recently we have had three momentous volumes of Bis’s glorious Complete Sibelius series alongside a landslide of new recordings and reissues.

This Guild collection is new to the commercial recording field. It is decidedly vintage stuff but those who demand exemplary modern sound will want to pass it by. Dedicated Sibelians will however be snapping it up and they will be right to do so. Stokowski championed so many contemporary composers during his years with the Philadelphians and in the long ‘wilderness’ years after that. He certainly knew his Sibelius and was widely respected in this repertoire. This led to the prized invitation to Helsinki as the conductor of the valedictory concert in Helsinki’s Sibelius Festival in 1953, a mere four years before the composer’s death in 1957.

The recordings derive from second generation transcriptions of a CBS complete concert broadcast and incorporates audience applause as well as hall ambience. The latter is felt most strongly during the announcements. Radio commentary is included with the commentator reminding us that Sibelius was listening to the concert in Järvenpäa over the wireless. Who is the announcer please? His voice and manner is both agreeable and dignified.

After a stern, whiplash-gruff Finlandia, reminiscent of the excellent Horst Stein/SRO recording on Decca, comes the First Symphony. This was a work which Stokowski was to re-record in London in 1976 for CBS within a year of his own death. On that occasion his orchestra was Sidney Sax’s National Philharmonic. Here we have a tetchy, even vituperative, reading in which the predominant impression is of acceleration – even impatience. The Helsinki players are pushed to the limit. This is among the very speediest Sibelius Ones (32:56). Compare this with Barbirolli’s Hallé EMI Classics recording at 41:50. That said, there is respite and balm in the yearning Andante (II 1:02). As is the case throughout this disc the mono sound is of unrefined AM quality. You also have to resign yourself to some rustling distortion and a few worse moments (I, 7:55). These only register transiently and then only if you let yourself be distracted from what is going on with the orchestra.

There are also five episodes from the music for Pelléas and Mélisande: a hesitant Mélisande with a lovely lippy oboe principal, a grumbling and rockingly inimical By the Sea in which sea is a shuddering horror, a translucent and lovingly shaped Pastorale in which the solo flute is an airy dancer and a Golovanov-hard-pressed Entr’Acte (just a shade too breathless and impatient). There’s also a well sustained and intense The Death of Mélisande in which the piled-on string tone suffers from distortion.

I am in two minds about this Seventh. It pushes forward purposefully but its epic qualities are generalised. Compared with Ormandy this is sometimes almost ordinary, even perfunctory. Mravinsky – and his Melodiya engineers – made more of the hieratic eminence of the trombone and the whooping climax at 15:10. I should also just note that with the disc under review there is some hissing and tizzing distortion at 10:34. On the other hand more is made of the storm element and parallels are drawn, consciously or unwittingly, with the Prelude to The Tempest and the supernal gale in Tapiola. A firm grip is maintained by Stokowski on the sense of grandeur and summation that soaks the final two minutes of this performance.

The insightful notes are by Robert Matthew-Walker who time and again hits the spot with fresh observations and perspectives. Interesting to be reminded that Stokowski, like all his contemporaries, including that doyen of the Sibelius acolytes Kajanus, failed to leave a complete cycle of the symphonies. This honour ultimately fell to Ehrling, Collins and Watanabe.

Sibelians will quite properly want this invaluable collection. I hope that Guild have more Sibelius concerts in their recording roster. What I wouldn’t give to hear Stokoswski conducting Pohjola’s Daughter or some of the symphonies conducted by Basin Cameron one-time conductor of the SFSO and once-known as Basil Hindenburg! Meantime do snap up this collection and you will encounter a mixed Seventh, a white hot First, and a very fine Pelléas suite.
Rob Barnett