Reviews

GHCD 2392 – Stokowski: The Blue Danube Waltz & Music for Strings

Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra (conductor)

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Music Web International.com – January/February 2013

Lighter fare excellently restored and brimming with energy.
Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra—to capitalise the ‘h’ risks turning the Marylebone born conductor into a Divine status which not even he, one supposes, would have dared countenance—recorded a lot of lighter fare during 1957 and 1958. But during his vast and vastly productive life Stokowski, with various orchestras, was in no way averse to music such as this. He made no fewer than seven different recordings of the ‘Blue Danube’ and this was the last, containing all repeats. It’s heard here in what is probably its first CD incarnation and sounds captivating, though not wholly Viennese. It was another keyboard playing conductor, Malcolm Sargent, who made the arrangement of Borodin’s Nocturne and in a nice touch Guild includes a well-known photograph of both conductors shaking hands in 1951. The famous Stokowski string tone was a portable miracle, grafted as if by a musical Prospero onto every orchestra he visited. This recording is no different, from the deeply etched organ pedal basses to the higher strings. The much less often recorded Tcherepnin arrangement may be more colouristic, but this one is the more resonant.
It’s as much a question of arranger as work in this disc. Angelo Lavagnino did the honours for Paganini’s Moto Perpetuo and it’s appropriately full of verve. Arcady Dubensky, whose music Stokowski had promoted and recorded back in Philadelphia days, contributes an arrangement of his own, Rachmaninov’s Vocalise, which proves to be most attractive, not least for such an eminent Rachmaninovian as Stokowski. Dubensky allows the music to taper to a brief solo violin moment at one point—most effective. There’s a sliver of Handel arranged by William Gillies Whittaker and the Tamburino from Alcina, courtesy of Julian Herbage, who was probably best known as a BBC presenter.
Stokowski’s arrangements follow. There are four brief pieces from Gluck’s operas: Orfeo, Iphigenie and two from Armide, all deftly turned and played. The Sicilienne from Armide is especially lovely. It’s not a suite as such, but four stand-alone concert pieces. Boccherini’s Minuet was fashionable at the time particularly because it was used in the film The Ladykillers, which had been released a couple of years before the recording was made. Finally there’s a piece in its own right, unmediated by any arranging hand, Theodor Berger’s zesty, slightly neo-classical 1933 Rondino Giocoso. It had been premiered by Furtwängler in 1939 and makes for a spirited, slightly anomalous – it has to be said – final piece.
It’s good to have this lighter fare restored in this way, excellently restored and brimming with energy.
Jonathan Woolf

American Record Guide – January/February 2013

In his decades in Philadelphia Leopold Stokowski developed a sound completely his own founded on irregular bowing. In his later years in the wilderness the conductor demonstrated that he could duplicate the Stokowski sound with lesser ensembles, or something very like it. It would not, in any event, be like the Maestro to repeat himself.
In the 1950s he recorded several LPs for strings with studio orchestras. This is a sampling. Compensation for the smaller orchestra was made by studio effects; and the interpretations, often Stokowski arrangements, are at once warm, highly mannered, and very attractive. To be sure, Philadelphia recordings are generally preferable but these 1957-58 incarnations are in glorious sound—something not to be gainsaid. The little Rondino Giocoso by Theodor Berger that concludes the program is a seldom-heard gem, and the British production is first-rate.
RADCLIFFE

Classical CD Review – August 2012

Leopold Stokowski made a series of recordings for Capitol with a hand-picked studio orchestra 1957-1958 and many of these, mostly for string orchestra, are on Guild’s new CD, all well-balanced stereo recordings. It begins with a rather brisk account of The Blue Danube Waltz, the seventh and last recording of the work by Stokowski, who first made a truncated version in 1919 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This is followed by a series of music arranged for strings by others including several pieces made by the conductor. The only non-arrangerment is Theodore Berger’s sprightly but forgettable Rondino Giocoso written in 1933 and, surprising to me, performed in Dresden in 1939 with Willem Mengelberg on the podium. Guild’s transfers are excellent, and this CD belongs in every Stokowski collection.
R.E.B.

Gramophone – September 2012

A perplexing omission when EMI was reissiung Leopold Stokowski’s legacy for the Capitol label was a bracing and beautifully played account of The Blue Danube from a famous album called ‘Landmarks of a Distinguished Career’. Now Guild has obliged with a good transfer of The Blue Danube, the lead number on a CD that is otherwise devoted to music for strings, most memorably a tenderly played Nocturen from Borodin’s Second String Quartet (arranged by Sir Malcolm Sargent) and Rachmaninov’s Vocalise (arranged by Arcady Dubensky). Stokowski conducts his own hand-picked Symphony Orchestra.
From ‘Replay’ by Rob Cowan

MusicWeb International – September 2012

It would be very easy to underestimate this disc. After all, a quick glance at its tracks suggests that they could justifiably be categorised as musical “lollipops”: charming, easy on the ear and, to be honest, not too taxing for the brain.
In fact, this is a rather more significant disc than that, as you will discover if you listen to it with the degree of respect and care that the conductor himself has clearly given the scores.
The opening Blue Danube waltz – a Stokowski favourite in the recording studio – receives a most enjoyable and characterful performance. It’s full of vim and driven along rather more vigorously than usual: a powerful, substantial account that would surely have left all but the most energetic Viennese dancers quite puffed. Booklet notes writer Robert Matthew-Walker’s claim that the conductor’s strict observance of all the repeats “raises it to the level of a short tone-poem, removed from the ballroom into the concert hall” may, though, strike some as a little fanciful.
The string orchestra performances that complete the disc are, in the main, pretty familiar fare. Only the piece by Berger is likely to draw a blank with many potential buyers, though it will prove perfectly enjoyable – if, in all probability, quickly forgotten – by anyone who enjoys Prokofiev. Familiar though most of this music may be, however, Stokowski is determined to make us hear the scores afresh.
If you give the matter even the most cursory thought, you will easily perceive that the absence of woodwinds and brass poses a potential problem for any conductor putting together a concert (or disc) programme. To maintain a non-specialist audience’s interest and attention, he or she will be conscious of the advantage of injecting some colour and variety into the relatively homogenous string sound. That is where Stokowski – who, as an expert organist in his early life would surely have faced similar problems – shows off his consummate skill in two separate ways.
Firstly, as arranger of no fewer than six of the twelve strings-only tracks here, he exhibits the finest degree of discernment in creating an attractive working balance between violins, violas, cellos and double-basses that gives air and clarity to the scores. Secondly, as conductor he displays the greatest skill in the judicious application of rubato and, even more, in carefully controlling the dynamics within each individual piece so as to bestow a distinctive personality to each.
Stokowski was an inveterate showman. He revelled in celebrity, enjoyed a career as an occasional, if lesser, star in the Hollywood firmament and featured regularly in media ranging from feature films and newsreels to gossip columns – an on-off romance with Greta Garbo certainly helped. As such, his distinctive – and distinctively marketed – style of conducting was probably more widely seen by the general public than that of any other conductor of the Golden Age. Thanks to occasional TV re-runs, his podium style is still familiar. Thus, it is easy, while listening to these tracks, to imagine him using those supremely expressive baton-less hands – see here for a particularly enjoyable example – to coax such thoughtful, finely drawn and highly effective performances from the orchestra.
The content of this disc may not have, in itself, a great deal of musical significance. Many of you reading this review may well think that you’ve moved on past Boccherini’s once ubiquitous Minuet in your musical development. But, as vehicles to demonstrate the qualities of a master of expressive conducting bringing new perspectives to scores which we thought we already knew inside out, it and its companion tracks prove true and compelling revelations.
Rob Maynard

Audiophile Audition – June 25, 2012

The “Stokowski String Sound” has another notch on its belt, a collection of popular favorites played with that especial lush intensity this Maestro brings to music.
Inscriptions made 1957-58 by Leopold Stokowski here conform to that “Restful Music” or “Music for Strings” category he often contributed to the EMI catalogue, a lush testament to “the Stokowski Sound.” The ‘claim to fame’ on this disc rests with Stokowski’s stereo Blue Danube Waltz, Op. 314 issued for the first time on CD, a performance complete with repeats and without cuts. The unusual entry becomes the Rondino Giocoso (1933) of Theodor Berger, a sinewy angular work that had its world premier in 1939 under Furtwaengler.
Arcady Dubensky supplies the transcription for the arch-romantic 1912 Vocalise of Serge Rachmaninov, a supple demonstration of Stokowski’s use of free-bowing among his strings to achieve a seamless cathedral of string sound without any intrusive pulsation.
In discussion with singer Gerard Souzay, who sang an Orfeo ed Eurydice with Stokowski, it was most enlightening for me to hear of Stokowski’s economy and chastity of means in that score, especially given this conductor so often accused of vulgarity or superfluous effects in music. The Handel, Purcell, Boccherini, and Gluck pieces each communicates its share of delicacy as well as a hint of the tragic muse. Malcolm Sargent’s familiar transcription of the Borodin Nocturne stands in grand contrast to the colorful transcription for strings and winds by Nikolai Tcherepnin that Anatole Fistoulari inscribed for a recording I just recently reviewed from this same Guild label. For the virtually stereotypical Stokowski string sound, merely indulge yourself in Tchaikovsky’s Andante Cantabile from the String Quartet No. 1 in D, the transcription by Stokowski himself. The famous story of this music’s having brought tears to the eyes of Leo Tolstoy rather obviously colors the rendition we hear, played for its heart-on-the-sleeve emotionalism. Had Barber’s Adagio for Strings likewise graced this collection, the sentimental appeal might have indeed been too overt.
Gary Lemco