GHCD 2329 – Leopold Stokowski

Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart, Leopold Stokowski(cello)

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From our twenty-first century vantage point, it is easy to conclude that Leopold Stokowski was an old school conductor dedicated to the repertoire that we know today as the core. But it is pertinent to remember that at the time of Stokowski’s birth in 1882, all but one of the composers on this recording were still very much alive. Tchaikovsky had yet to compose his fifth symphony, Wagner was putting the finishing touches to Parsifal, and Debussy’s landmark Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun was still ten years in the future.

Indeed Leopold Stokowski was very much a child of his time, and more importantly, he was a visionary. He leapt at technology and was fascinated with recording, constantly experimenting with orchestral seating, microphone placement and he even tweaked the orchestration of classics for what he perceived to be a better effect. This latter practice, while to our now well-established sense of so-called authenticity seems sacrilegious, was a common practice of the day with composers and conductors from Mahler to Toscanini mucking with works that we now consider to be religious relics. Stokowski had a great respect for the past, and through his transcriptions and even completions of works by composers such as Mussorgsky, left us with a vast treasure that might otherwise have been lost. Taken at their face value, his “paraphrases” for orchestra of music from grand operas are delightful and most worthy works of art for their own sakes.

In this remarkable collection, Guild have assembled music from two 1955 Broadcast concerts from Stuttgart and Frankfurt respectively. Not only is this remarkable music-making, but it is a major plus to have recordings of a British conductor in Germany at a time when such collaborations were rare. Opening with music that through the efforts first of Rimsky-Korsakov and later Stokowski himself would be known as the Prelude to Act IV of Khovanschina, we are treated to the kind of rich and colourful sound that was a Stokowski calling-card. His timeless reputation for being able to mold an orchestra into a glorious sound machine in record time is borne out in this supple performance.

Next comes the Fifth Symphony of Tchaikovsky, a work which was composed during the conductor’s lifetime, and which became a staple of his concerts and his commercial recordings. There is no shortage of drama in this performance, and Stokie doesn’t allow maudlin sentimentality to overtake the score. His tempos are brisk and his sense of forward motion is palpable and exciting. The only flaw here might be some over-blowing in the brass section, which usually sounds very out of tune in the blazing triple fortes. It’s exciting, but at the same time, a bit ugly.

The Wagner Prelude and Liebestod is a Stokowski arrangement, and would become one of his most popular concert and recorded works. It receives loving and passionate treatment here, with a string sound that is glorious even in a recording that is a bit compromised by its age. Again the brass sounds over-heated and out of tune, but I am beginning to wonder by this point if that is more of a problem with the sound source than with the playing itself.

Debussy’s famous Prelude is given some pretty aggressive treatment in this rendition. No tender petting zoo creature here. Rather Stokowski coaxes some pretty solid and colourful playing from the Frankfurt Radio Symphony. What it lacks in subtlety, it more than regains in the breathtaking sweep of the phrases.

I never cease to be amazed at the treasures that the Guild Company continues to find for our enjoyment. They are to be commended for their finely re-mastered sound and even for the wonderful nostalgia trip that they induce with these gems. Robert Matthew-Walker has written an excellent biographical essay of the conductor that is made all the more noteworthy by its careful attention to placing these recordings in a proper historical context. One could however wish for the same careful attention to detail in the cover art, which through a careless lack of proofing tells us that the three nineteenth century composers on the program all died in the late 1900s. That’s a brand of sloppiness that drives this consumer mad.
Kevin Sutton

Classical Net 2007

Live Recordings – May 1955

Recordings from the hugely prolific Leopold Stokowski continue to turn up and now Guild have fished these mid 1950’s recordings from Stuttgart and Frankfurt, surely the ideal tonics to a still war-ravaged nation.

There’s mystery and brilliance in the dark and dusky Prelude to Act IV from Mussorgsky’s ‘Khovanschina’, a piece which somehow always crops up in the Stokowski file. Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony is similarly one of the great master’s old showcases and here it receives a fine recording although still I prefer the later more popular version for Phase 4 Decca which has been resurrected in an Original Masters set. Obviously one cannot really fault Stokowski in Wagner and this scintillating account of the Prelude and Liebestod from Tristan und Isolde does add fuel to that fire.

Finally we move from Stuttgart to Frankfurt where we have a sensuous account of Debussy’s ‘Prelude’, another much loved work by the great conductor who was already over 70 when these recordings were made.

Beefy, typical West German radio sound adds to the allure of these performances and with impeccably stylish notes by Robert Matthew Walker, you really cannot fail to do wrong by purchasing this admirably priced CD, more so if you’re one of those numerous Stokowski fans out there.
Gerald Fenech