Reviews

GHCD 2388/89 – Stokowski: Schoenberg ‘Gurrelieder’

Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, Herrick Bunney (choirmaster), London Symphony Orchestra, Hugh Maguire (leader), Leopold Stokowski (conductor)

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American Record Guide – May/June 2013

While Stokowski performed all Schoenberg’s orchestral works, Gurrelieder may have occupied a special place in his affections, recalling the Wagner-steeped late-romanticism of his early youth. Like Schoenberg, Stokowski took pride in keeping always current; yet neither would, or perhaps could, entirely cut loose from the musical idiom that informs Gurrelieder.
In this 1960 Edinburgh performance it is vibrant, flowing, and youthful, the farthest thing from a musicological dissection. It is not the equal of the first, landmark Philadelphia recording Stokowski so improbably issued in the depths of the depression – cannot even compare with it sonically, given the limitations of broadcast recording – but it comes off very well and is a fitting testimony to what this formidable man could accomplish while suffering from limited rehearsal time and a broken hip. With apparent ease, the old magician wafts players and listeners on the gossamer wings of ;tude. The disc is filled with a glowing 1952 rendition of Verklärte Nacht made with a New York orchestra consisting of stellar musicians.
RADCLIFFE

Classical Record Collector – August 2012

This extraordinarv release commands immediate and significant attention, for several reasons. Firstly it presents a relatively late account, from 1961, of Schoenberg’s massive Gurrelieder, by Leopold Stokowski , one of this works’s foremost advocates, to place against his historic pre-war commercial recording for RCA. The benefits of this later version are several: very good sound; considering that the broadcast was not preserved by the BBC and was captured on tape by an enthusiast; outstanding soloists throughout, led by an impassioned James McCracken, heard at his very considerable finest, and an equally powerful Gré Brouwenstein; and extraordinarily rich playing and singing from the London Symphony Orchestra und Edinburgh Royal Choral Union. Even the smaller parts, which usually go for little, are here given full value, for instance Forbes Robinson’s pungent Peasant, John Lanigan’s mesmerising Fool, and Alvar Lidell’s authoritative Speaker, not to forget Nel Rankin’s moving Tove. But above all these riches, there stands Stokowski’s magnificent vision of one of the great masterpieces of late Romanticism. The whole performance, despite the work’s stylistic incongruities, is all of a single, wonderful, sweep. As Edward Johnson has shown, Stokowski had conducted three performances of the work earlier in 1961 with the Philadelphia Orchestra, so he was clearly fully “worked in” with a composition that he was closely associated with throughout his career.
The second reason why this performance is significant is that, as the opening concert of the late Lord Harewood’s tenure as the Director of the Edinburgh Festival, it stood very much as a clear statement of future artistic intent. It put the highest artistic standards foremost, and ignored current critical opinion, which mistakenly still held Stokowski to be a showman and not a master. Would that there were still such culturally brave impresarios around today – we need them! Finally, this issue matches a great account of a seminal work, with an ideal coupling: Stokowski’s beautifully realised studio 1952 recording of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, made for RCA with a hand-picked group of New York based instrumentalists. Once again the hand of the master is fully evident throughout.
Guild’s presentation is exemplary, with notes by Hans Keller, Lord Harewood, and Robert Matthew-Walker, as well as several fine photographs of Stokowski in action. And no praise is too high for the brilliant re-mastering of Peter Reynolds. With this release Guild places itself at the forefront of publishers of historical recordings.
David Patmore

Letter in International Record Review – September 2012

Stokowski and Schoenberg
I was pleased that Calum MacDonald found much to praise in Guild’s release of the 1961 Edinburgh Festival performance of Gurrelieder under Stokowski (June issue). However, I fear it is not strictly correct to say that this was a BBC recording as there never was one! It was in fact relayed ‘live’ from Scotland but somewhat incredibly not recorded by the BBC itself, so the only sources for this release were tapes made off-the-air by listeners at home.
The sound problems with the broadcast, as noted by CMacD, were due entirely to vagaries that bedevilled parts of the transmission. It was a hot August evening and the resulting atmospherics caused occasional wavering levels and distortion that affected all domestic tapes of the performance. As I have my own copies of the original broadcast, I can say that Guild’s engineer, Peter Reynolds, has done a remarkable job on material that would have been difficult to release without his excellent restoration.
I have also to correct CMacD’s misapprehension regarding the Transfigured Night recording which was added as a ‘filler’ to Gurrelieder. Guild used Stokowski’s mono 1952 RCA recording but five years later he re-recorded it in stereo for Capitol. His first recording, made in New York with a mixture of NBC Symphony and New York Philharmonic players, was labelled as being by ‘Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra’. The same orchestral attribution was applied to his 1957 stereo remake, recorded in Hollywood with mainly Los Angeles Philharmonic players, and this may have caused CMacD some confusion. In any case, this second recording appeared in the ten-CD EMI ‘Stokowski Icons’ box a few years ago, along with its original LP coupling, Loeffler’s Pagan Poem.
Edward Johnson, London

Klassic.com – 16.08.2012

Trotz herrlicher vokaler Darbietungen von McCracken und Brouwenstijn ist es der oft umstrittene Dirigent Stokowski, der diesen ‘Gurreliedern’ den magischen Lebensfunken einhaucht.
Arnold Schönbergs größtes seiner vollendeten Werke dürften wohl die ‘Gurrelieder’ sein. Seit ihrer umjubelten Uraufführung 1913 in Wien gehören sie zu den populärsten Werken des Komponisten. Dass die ‘Gurrelieder’ so gar nicht in Richtung Zwölftonmusik tendieren, sondern vielmehr eine spätromantische Urgewalt mit riesigem Orchester, Chor und Gesangssolisten darstellt, ist mittlerweile hinlänglich bekannt. Beim Edinburgh International Festival 1961, also zehn Jahre nach dem Tod des Komponisten, dürfte das Publikum jedoch noch ziemlich überrascht gewesen sein, welche Art von Schönberg-Musik ihnen im Konzert begegnete. Unter der Leitung des damals schon 79 Jahre alten Dirigenten Leopold Stokowski kamen die ‘Gurrelieder’ zur Aufführung und markierten bezeichnenderweise die Eröffnung des damaligen Festivals.
Leopold Stokowski hatte zu Lebzeiten Schönbergs bereits alle Orchesterwerke des Komponisten zur Aufführung gebracht, darunter auch die Uraufführung des Violin- und Klavierkonzerts, sowie etliche amerikanische Premieren, 1932 auch die ‘Gurrelieder’ in Philadelphia. Als nun 1961 Stokowski in Edinburgh ans Pult des London Symphony Orchestra trat, hatte man folglich einen renommierten Interpreten Schönberg’scher Musik gewinnen können. Und was der Maestro aus dem gigantisch großen Klangapparat mit Solisten und Chor hervorzauberte, beeindruckt selbst noch heute als Klangkonserve. Der Mitschnitt dieses Eröffnungskonzerts ist beim Label Guild auf zwei CDs erschienen und verfügt sogar noch über einen spannenden Bonustrack, nämlich Schönbergs ‘Verklärte Nacht’ in einer Studioaufnahme unter der Leitung von Leopold Stokowski aus dem Jahr 1952.
Glamourfaktor und große Solisten
Der Zauber, den Stokowski mit den ‘Gurreliedern’ beschwört, ist schwierig zu orten. Das London Symphony Orchestra spielt farbenreich mit berückendem Streicherklang, Chor und Solisten geben hörbar ihr Bestes. Nun kann man dem Dirigenten wirklich keinen strukturellen oder entschlackten Zugang zu Schönbergs Oratorium unterstellen, und dennoch scheint das Klangbild – trotz teils schwieriger Tonqualität – erstaunlich durchsichtig zu sein, während an anderer Stelle sich üppiger Klangrausch ungebremst Bahn bricht. Stokowski hat die Fäden nicht fest in der Hand, er inspiriert seine Musiker vielmehr, das ist Teil der Magie des Moments, die auf diesem Mitschnitt fast schon mit Händen zu greifen ist.
Der noch junge James McCracken wirft sich mit Inbrunst in die Partie des Waldemar und beeindruckt mit robustem Metall in seiner Stimme und unbändiger Kraft. Die Niederländerin Gré Brouwenstijn ist eine Tove von großer Innigkeit und Wärme. Ihr Vortrag wirkt an manchen Stellen etwas manieriert, ist aber von ergreifender Schönheit und Kunstfertigkeit. Das Lied der Waldtaube gestaltet die Amerikanerin Nell Rankin mit viel Pathos und großer Stimme. Ihr fehlt es etwas an schlichter Eindringlichkeit, was die ‚Amneris vom Dienst‘ aber mit viel Persönlichkeit und vokalem Glamour ausgleicht. In den kleineren Partien bringen Forbes Robinson als Bauer und der Tenor John Lanigan als Klaus-Narr solide Leistungen, während sich Alvar Lidell als Sprecher redlich um die deutsche Sprache bemüht.
Wer den historischen Mitschnitt der ‘Gurrelieder’ von 1932 unter Leopold Stokowski kennt, wird sich freuen, nun eine klanglich bessere Variante greifbar zu haben. Denn trotz herrlicher vokaler Darbietungen von McCracken und Brouwenstijn, ist es doch der oft umstrittene Dirigent Stokowski, der diesen ‘Gurreliedern’ den magischen Lebensfunken einhaucht.
Benjamin Künzel

International Record Review – June 2012

The bulk of this two-CD set is occupied by the BBC live broadcast — preliminary announcement, National Anthem and all — of the opening concert of the 1961 Edinburgh International Festival an August 20th that year in the Usher Hall, in which Leopold Stokowski conducted the LSO and a distinguished array of soloists in what became, at least in Edinburgh, a long-remembered performance of Schoenberg’s Gurre-Lieder. Growing up in the city at the time, I vaguely remember the stir it caused, but my own concert- and Festival-going did not properly begin until the following year, so I didn’t attend the concert in person.
Stokowski had been intimately associated with Gurre-Lieder since 1932, when he conducted the huge work’s US premiere in a series of three concerts in Philadelphia, which also yielded its first-ever commercial recording, for RCA Victor, in both 78rpm and experimental LP format. (Fuller details will be found in my article on Gurre-Lieder’s recorded history in IRR in September 2002.) Seventy-nine in 1961, earlier in the year he had directed a run of four performances of the work in Philadelphia, and this Edinburgh performance was the last time he was destined to conduct it. This was not the first time it had been heard in Edinburgh (that was in 1953), but performances in the UK generally were still prodigiously rare. Throughout, there’s a palpable electricity and Sense of occasion.
Guild’s remastering has been well done, though occasional bits of noise, distortion and dropouts remain. There is a fair amount of audience noise to begin with, but the music soon exercises its spell so that this becomes unnoticeable. Recorded levels are sometimes variable — at the Start of `Ross, mein Ross!’, for example, Waldemar (James McCracken) and the orchestra seem momentarily to have retreated to a back room. McCracken enters strongly into the role; he lacks, perhaps, the vocal beauty of an ideal Waldemar in his lyric songs of Part 1, but he always sings very expressively, with excellent enunciation, and he has the necessary power and even harshness for his contributions to Parts 2 and 3. Gre Brouwenstijn strikes me as rather too matronly and constrained for Tove, though it’s a beautiful voice, if over-supplied with vibrato at crucial moments. Nell Rankin, by contrast, is a magnificent Wood Dove, plangent and authoritative, with sombre vocal colouring.
In the smaller roles Forbes Robinson, then in his prime, gives a dramatic Vignette as the Peasant; John Lanigan is a memorably bitter Klaus-Narr. Maybe the biggest surprise of all is Alvar Liddel — long thought of as `the voice of the BBC’ — as the speaker for `The Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind’. He sounds ancient (in fact he was only 52 at the time) but he throws himself into the part with such passion and intensity, and with such good German diction (his Swedish parentage may have helped), that this is among the most memorable of recorded performances in that role. The Edinburgh Royal Choral Union, obviously well schooled by Herrick Bunney, is generally excellent in the choral portions: there is some uncertainty about pitch at the beginning of `Der Hahn erhebt den Kopf’, but most of that remarkable chorus is sung with intense feeling and spectral refinement of colour. However, it is of course Stokowski’s direction of the orchestra that is the decisive element in the performance. The LSO sometimes plays as if possessed — hear the stunning bravura of the ending to the Klaus-Narr episode — and though there are inevitably spots where the recording becomes congested, Stokowski is largely scrupulous in delineating the secondary (and tertiary) voices in Schoenberg’s polyphonic web. The `Wild Hunt of the Summer Wind’ is achieved with notable transparency, and there is a sumptuousness of sound that comes through the BBC recording, for example in the orchestral interlude in Part 1 and the Song of the Wood Dove.
All in all this was a performance well worth preserving and it’s a pleasure to find it so well mastered. For a good modern Gurre-Lieder in state-of-the-art sound the versions of Abbado, Chailly and Rattle still seem to me the benchmarks: but for fans of Stokowski, or those who simply want to sample a historic occasion, this is a marvellous release.
Guild has supplied a substantial and important filler — Stokowski’s September 3rd, 1952 performance, with `his Symphony Orchestra’, of the 1943 string-orchestra version of Verklärte Nacht, played as a tribute to Schoenberg, who had died the previous year. Compared to more modern interpretations (from Karajan, say, or Mehta or Barenboim) this is fairly fast and hard-driven apart from the big nocturnal moments — muscular, even, in Stokowski’s scrupulous regard for making sure the polyphonic voices stand out. There is not much bloom on the recording, but as a performance this is charismatic, and Stokowski fans will want this also. The performance, originally issued as an RCA LP, gravitated in the 1960s to EMI Seraphim, and I’ve possessed it for many years in that pressing. The coupling on that disc is another superb Stokowski performance: Charles Martin Loeffler’s Pagan Poem, one of the major orchestral works of that fascinating and fastidious composer, and not otherwise available, as far as I’m aware. I hope Guild has it scheduled for release one of these days.
Calum MacDonald

Audiophile Audition – 31 March 2012

The Stokowski performance of 20 August 1961 at the Edinburgh Festival of Arnold Schoenberg’s epic romantic cantata Gurrelieder(1900-1903), based on poems by the Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, finds a sumptuous presentation from Guild. The lyric saga tells of King Valdemar’s love for his mistress Tove, and her subsequent murder by jealous Queen Helvig, and the Tristan-like themes of love and fatal passion engendered an appropriately post-Wagnerian treatment from the composer. Although Schoenberg had abandoned the orchestration after 1903 until c.1910, the added parts, thinner textures, and intricate polyphony in the manner of late Mahler managed to maintain the integrity of the conception as a whole.
The massive work is set in three parts. The orchestral songs in Part I set forth Waldemar’s love for Tove, ardently rendered by American tenor James McCracken (1926-1988) and soprano Gre Brownstein (1915-1999), whose sweet voice causes us to lament for strictly musical reasons Tove’s early demise. Martha Lipton (1913-2006), who sings “Tauben von Gurre!“ at the end of Part I, an announcement of Tove’s death and Waldemar‘s deep grief, recorded this same impassioned piece with Stokowski in New York in 1949. With Tove’s death, the bereft Waldemar offers the one aria that comprises Part II, his impatient “Herrgott, weisst Du, was Du tatest,” in which he, with assistance from a huge orchestral force, questions God’s providence, accusing God of unjust cruelty.
In Part III, into which Schoenberg incorporates the economy of his later style, we see Gothic elements emerge, since Waldemar raises a horde of dead vassals into his service, who engage in a restless and savage hunt that intimidates a local peasant (Forbes Robinson). The power of the men’s chorus and of Schoenberg’s natural vocal gifts assert themselves in “Gegruesst, O Koenig” (Hail, O King), in spite of some distant miking. Waldemar’s plaintive aria, “Mit Toves Stimme fluestert der Wald,“ Schoenberg proffers a vocal line that could have easily influenced Carl Orff. Klaus the Fool (James Lanigan) becomes an unwilling participant in the macabre proceedings, and his grotesque interlude invests a moment of comic relief. The rising sun drives the dead back to their graves, invoking the same moment from Mussorgsky’s A Night on Bald Mountain. The music then proceeds to a phantasm called The Summerwind’s Wild Hunt that features narration in a fluttering but exact Sprechstimme by Alvar Lidell (1908-1981) that leads to the apocalyptic final chorus, “Sehet die Sonne!”
The commercial RCA recording (LM 1739) of Verklaerte Nacht (rec. 3 September 1952) reminds us that Stokowski stood virtually alone in conducting nearly all of Schoenberg’s orchestral music whilst the composer lived. Stokowski’s “Symphony Orchestra,” mostly New York Philharmonic and NBC string players and mixed professionals, here in silken collaboration in “the Stokowski (string) Sound.” Seamless transitions carry us through Schoenberg’s response (via architecture gleaned from Schubert and Liszt) to the dark program of Richard Dehmel’s poem of perceived sin and redemption, D Minor’s intricate metamorphosis into D Major. Altogether a fabulous collation of two Romantic works by a seminal genius of 20th Century music, who had passed away 13 July 1951, ever piqued and perturbed that his later work perennially stood in the shadow of the atavistic early  masterpieces.
Gary Lemco