Reviews

GHCD 2335 – Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) – Prokofiev, MacDowell, Brahms – 1941/1943

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski – Conductor, Frances Nash – Piano

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Fanfare Magazine September / October 2008

History has turned Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) into a bit of a Walt Disney caricature. In large part, he had himself to blame. Born Antoni Stanislaw Boleslawowicz in London to an English­born Polish father and a native Irish mother, Stokowski drew his own cartoonish portrait with his affected Eastern European accent, his tinkering with the scores of the Works he conducted, and his flamboyant podium manner and appearance which, minus the sequined dinner jackets, boas, and other outrageous Outfits, were worthy of Liberace. Audiences ate it up; but music critics seldom took him seriously and were often appalled. It retrospect, it has to be admitted that Stokowski cut a laugh­able figure with his long White hair combed straight back to resemble a lion’s mane (his adopted first narre, Leopold, means lion-like) and his frequent acts of self-serving showmanship, such as tossing the score aside during performances to show he didn’t need it, and arranging special lighting that would Illuminate only his hands and head, or that would cast shadows on his hands. Rumors circulated that he was lacking a musical education and that his own musicians had little respect for him.

Unfortunately, Stokowski the “flamer,” too often overshadowed Stokowski, the “tamer.” With his appointment as director to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1912, he embarked on a number of

groundbreaking, controversial changes that were largely credited for the famous Philadelphia sound. Among them were free bowing from the string sections and free breathing from the wind and brass sections. Even in modern orchestras today such innovations have not been adopted; we still see all the first violins’ bows going in the same direction at the same time. Interestingly, another of his innovations at the time, which was widely adopted by modern orchestras, but is now, in the era of surround sound, beginning to move away from it, was the seating of first and second violins together on the left, violas seine-circled to the Center-right, and Cellos on the right. Today, we find more and more orchestras, especially period-Instrument ensembles, reverting to first violins on the left and seconds on the right to produce a more antiphonal effect than the massed sound Stokowski was after.

A unique feature of these recordings is that we hear Stokowski in a brief spoken introduction to each of the works on the disc, except for the Deems Taylor Ramuntcho excerpt. Beyond that, I wouldn’t recommend this release to anyone but die-hard Stokowski fans. The MacDowell Second Piano Concerto is misseng its final movement, and the Brahms Fourth Symphony picks up such speed in the last movement (critics called Stokowski’s performances of the score the fastest they’d ever heard) it reminded me of that hilarious recording of Conchita Supervia singing the Queen of the Night’s aria from The Magic Flute, in which she accelerates to such warp speed that by the end the orchestra can no Tonger keep up with her and finishes after she does.

Deems Taylor’s third opera, Ramuntcho, was not a great success when it was premiered in Philadelphia in 1942. The Introduction and Ballet Music from act III given here is in the American populist style for which Taylor became noted. As with the MacDowell Concerto, which is not presented complete, neither is Prokofiev’s Suite from his opera, The Love of Three Oranges. Of the six movements Prokofiev himself assembled for the suite, we hear only three, and in reshuffled order: 2, 5, and 3.

As I said, this is a CD for the hardcore “Stokiphile,” not for those who are sure to have far superior and complete performances of these works in their collections.
Jerry Dubins


MusicWeb – Wednesday May 21st 2008

A balanced and valuable programme for the assiduous collector …  Jonathan Woolf
Stokowski Time from Guild. Specifically Stokowski and the NBC between 1941 and 1943. The Prokofiev and the Brahms derive from the same concert, given in Cosmopolitan Opera House (City Centre), New York, on 18 November 1941. Both pieces are announced by the conductor, albeit briefly. The Suite from The Love of Three Oranges was presumably a trial run for the commercial recording he set down about ten days later. In any case the NBC sounds superbly drilled and ready to give of their proverbial all. The Inferno is powerful, the Prince and Princes done with Stokowskian succulence; and the March – very, very brisk by the way – is military in its intensity.
Talking of which, the same concert’s Brahms E minor Symphony registers with very much the same kind of kinetic force as all his surviving performances of it. There’s a galvanic, surging sweep that remains exciting even if one finds oneself resisting the torrid momentum he invokes. It’s actually quicker by nearly two minutes than his last, live thoughts on the matter (see review). In that performance, given with the New Philharmonia at the Albert Hall in 1974, I noted the basic consistency of approach since his first 1931 recording of the Fourth. Local incidents of course differ; so too questions of dynamics and especially accelerandi, but it is evident that his essential approach remained intact over the years and didn’t undergo great re-appraisal. The surging cantabile of the NBC in the first movement is notable, so too the typically volatile power keg nature of Stokowski’s leadership. Sometimes the acoustic is watery and that does dissipate things slightly. But the tensile and lithe instinct for drama, the portamentos in the second movement (especially), and the taut bracing determinism of the reading are cleansing. A pity the brass begin to tire but all Stokowskians will want to hear this major symphonic statement if they’ve not already done so.
Don’t be misled by the MacDowell. The third movement wasn’t played so we have the torso of the first two movements only. This was a concerto Stokowski returned to a few times; there was an unpublished recording in 1966 with Andre Watts. Here in 1942 he is paired with Frances Nash, a good though not outstanding player. The piano tone is a bit murky but it’s fascinating to hear Stoky whipping up the NBC in the agitato pages of the Larghetto calmato – it’s not always calmato when Stokowski’s around. Finally there’s Deems Taylor’s enjoyable and engagingly colourful, vital, vivid – choose your adjectives, they all apply – Ramuntcho which is duly dispatched with Stokowskian élan.
I believe the Prokofiev, Brahms and MacDowell have all been issued on Enno Riekena, a German CD label. I’m not aware of previous transfers of the Deems Taylor. In any case Guild gives them all a first international CD vantage. They sound in pretty reasonable shape, with provisos as noted, and with the usual good standard of documentation maintained it’s really a question of how balanced and valuable the programme is to the assiduous collector.
Jonathan Woolf

Audiophile Audition – Monday April 07, 2008

Stokowski loved to premier new works that he did not necessarily program again, such as the music from Deems Taylor’s opera “Ramuntcho.”
Broadcast performances 1941-1943 from the NBC Symphony under Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) in good to muddy sound, with Stokowski himself offering commentary prior to each of the works except for Taylor‘s.  The most curious of the pieces presented is the MacDowell (7 April 1942), the concerto truncated, presumably, to fit the 60-minte format of the sponsored radio performance.  Stokowski liked MacDowell’s D Minor Concerto and programmed it with several distinguished soloists over his career: Teresa Carreno, Leo Ornstein, Gary Graffman, and Andre Watts. Frances Nash proves a worthy exponent of the two movements we have preserved, moving with brisk, powerful chords through the first movement, Stokowski’s graceful strings and winds underneath. Better sonic definition for the fleet Presto, kind of perpetual motion for keyboard and orchestra, with a jaunty middle section.
Stokowski’s NBC programs open with three movements from Prokofiev’s opera The Love of Three Oranges (18 November 1941), of which the last section, the popular March, Stokowski drives with furious aplomb, ending before the audience is quite ready. The large work, the Brahms Fourth Symphony (18 November 1941), like the Prokofiev comes from the Cosmopolitan Opera House, unlike the other two, from Studio 8H.  Stokowski’s introductory remarks suffer some shears, but the music starts off quickly and never slows down. The first to record the complete Brahms Symphonies (in Philadelphia), it remains difficult to place Stokowski’s Brahms into a definite tradition, unlike Toscanini who admired Nikisch and Steinbach in Brahms. Given the frenetic pace of this E Minor Symphony realization, we might speculate Boult (via Nikisch) to be an influence.
The speed and spontaneity of execution testify to the virtuoso status of the NBC players, who had to adjust their usual perceptions of this work from Maestro Toscanini. A terrific peroration ends the first movement’s counterpoint, and the audience applauds. The Phrygian Andante moderato receives the broadest treatment of any of the four movements, Stokowski allowing his winds and French horn breathing room, then his strings sing and usher in the martial procession. A grand final peroration, and the audience applauds. The Scherzo moves at blinding speed, at least to bar 181 (Poco meno presto), then hustling for all the NBC is worth to the three tympanic thuds, and audience applause. One gripping, gnarly passacaglia ensues, no kidding around, the strings in a molasses of somber fury. Only the flute variation basks in its own sound, then intertwines with oboe and clarinet. The whole symphony took 36 minutes, breathless but not shapeless, and often gripping.
Stokowski closes (26 December 1943) with music by critic and composer Deems Taylor (1885-19660, his orchestral music from the opera Ramuntcho (1942).  The music has a swaying power and rich orchestration that might pass for Hollywood Latin America. An oboe solo leads to an Amazon-sounding ostinato and a flimsy melody that rises in volume, if not in power. Another musical curiosity from Stokowski, who loved to premier new works that he did not necessarily program again.
Gary Lemco