GHCD 2402 – Stokowski – Brahms, Wagner 1960
Philadelphia Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski (conductor)
American Record Guide – May/June 2014
The Paita is woefully undocumented. We have no recording date, so no indication of whether this is a reissue. And what is the National Philharmonic? The liner notes say nothing, but it’s not the group near DC. It was a recording orchestra in London (now disbanded). A little information of this type wouldn’t hurt. It wouldn’t hurt particularly since the performance is really fine and exciting, particularly in the outer movements. Paita brings lots of emotional involvement to the piece and plays it to the hilt with loud timpani and brass and a spirit of urgency everywhere. I was a little disappointed in the slow movement, which lacks repose, but in general this is a terrific performance —not the only way to do the piece, but consistent and a good antidote to too-careful playing. It’s a little ragged rhythmically (particularly in the finale), but here’s a performance where the players are really excited about the music, and you will be, too!
The Stokowski performances come from a Feb. 23, 1960 concert in Philadelphia’s Academy of Music. It is a fine program, combining a symphony that Stoky did often in his long career with his 25-minute arrangement of music from Tristan. And I should mention up front that the sound is excellent. Balances, though, are not ideal. The oboe sounds too far away, and the solo violin (end of Brahms slow movement) is too close and loud. Also, there’s a bad splice in the Brahms finale (a beat missing in the main theme!).
The performances, though, are great. In the symphony I found Stokowski similar to Paita, in that both have a go-git-em approach to the piece. That said, Stokowski is more rhetorical—little pauses or ritards used to highlight structural points—and his slow movement has more emotional variety. And they sometimes take opposite solutions as in the brass chorale near the very end: Paita charges through for maximum excitement, Stoky broadens for greater magnificence. In short this is a great performance from a great conductor of yesteryear. We, rightfully, see Stokowski as a showman, but he also had the goods.
The Tristan arrangement is not the Prelude and ‘Liebestod’, but rather love music from the second act duet and then after Isolde’s death, leading into the ‘Liebestod’. The last several minutes are wonderful, but I found the first two-thirds too much like a harmony assignment. There isn’t much thematic material to hang onto, so it feels somewhat like an unfinished sketch.
Both can be recommended. Paita would be ideal for a newcomer to Brahms or the piece; it’s exciting and thrilling. Stokowski’s Brahms is more nuanced—he sees more sides to Brahms—and the Wagner is a bonus.
Classical.net – April 2014
Last month, Mr. Robert Stumpf II reviewed Guild GHCD2403, which documented Leopold Stokowski’s first return to Philadelphia since 1941. While that release arguably has more appeal based on the Russian showpieces it contains, these two sections on the present disc also were cornerstones of the enigmatic maestro’s long and illustrious career. Thus this issue can be seen as another important historical document, and essential for fans of this orchestra and conductor.
The Brahms is not a piece – or even composer – that casual fans might associate with Stokowski’s artistic temperament, but in fact he programmed this work fairly often. It seems like this, and not Tchaikovsky or Scriabin, was his preferred work for special occasions. In addition to this return engagement, he also programmed it his first appearance with the London Symphony in 1912, and again exactly 60 years later for his 90th birthday in 1972. He also recorded the work with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1927. It is clear that not only was the score important, but that he was also a tremendous Brahms conductor. Although the sound is less than perfect, you can easily discern that within a few short rehearsals, the old man was able to bring his signature sound back to this great ensemble. And what sounds they make! The work crackles with the sense of occasion, and you can also hear what Eugene Ormandy was proudly able to continue since Stokowski’s departure.
The results speak for themselves. Those world-famous strings are in simply glorious form, and the Andante is chilling in its sheer beauty. I don’t know if this orchestra can still make this sound, so thank God we’ve got this to enjoy forever, The allegretto is swift and flows like water. Again, it’s the strings that beguile, but those wind solos are nothing to sneeze at either. Stokowski is in a freewheeling kind of mood here, but never does anything feel mannered or so personalized that it disrespects the composer. The brass sound a touch coarse, but the sound is again not top notch, even for 1960, and those soaring climaxes sound a touch flat in nature (though not in pitch, thankfully). No matter. Combined with a pair of tense and urgently paced outer movements, this is electric. In the fourth movement, Stokowski doesn’t lean on and milk the main tune as you might expect, and neither does it sound quite as polished as you might expect. But the performance overall is masterly, a great “welcome home” if there ever was one.
The otherwise excellent notes with this disc go on and on about Stokowski’s Wagner transcriptions offending the opera-lover’s sense of authenticity. Surely, we are past this point? If we aren’t, shame on all of us. I was just as unhappy with the notes on ICA Classics that exalted Hans Rosbaud for conducting Debussy in Nazi Germany. Certainly, it’s time to move on from all of this extra-musical nonsense. Complaints aside, Stokowski’s “controversial” reworking of Tristan is just as valid today as ever, and as music alone, it is almost unfairly beautiful. And really, is there any orchestra in the world better built for this kind of music? Berlin, maybe? I do know that in 1960, the Berlin Philharmonic was not consistently playing with this kind of tonal sheen. For purely glorious noise, this takes the cake, despite a couple unexpected flubs here and there. Even so, the brass chorale was so purely blended that I mistook it for an actual chorus at lower volume, and the strings make some sounds that an orchestra should not be legally allowed to make. This is the real deal, a reminder of how great a man this was, and how wonderfully he and his successor built orchestras. Outstanding.
Audiophile Audition – August 2013
Stokowski’s “historic return” to Philadelphia offers two lushly mounted scores from the “opposed” leaders of the Nineteenth Century German tradition, each presented in the inimitable Stokowski Sound.
Guild resurrects a major portion of the concert given at the Academy of Music (23 February 1960), Philadelphia, where Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) made an “historic return” for a series of appearances with the orchestra he guided and molded 1912-1941. Among Stokowski’s most noteworthy accomplishments had been his being the first to record all four of the Brahms symphonies, of which the 1876 C Minor received any number of performances. Typical of the Stokowski approach – which began as early as 1912, as part of his very first concert with the London Symphony in that May – he layers the sound in the manner of an organ’s diapason, distributing weights and textures to the various orchestral choirs in an antiphonal arrangement. The Philadelphia Orchestra, from the very first dramatic chords, plays with an impeccable luster, refined and immensely sonorous. The string sound – or better, “the Stokowski Sound” – sings and hums with a slick but visceral patina that adds to the Brahms austerity of emotion a distinctly erotic undercurrent.
Stokowski takes a broad tempo for the ensuing E Major Andante sostenuto, emphasizing the music’s capacity to sing an anguished orison over a thudding bass line. The individual woodwind solos, along with the violin cantilena sung by the concertmaster Anshel Brusilow, provides an intimate dimension to an otherwise lofty series of interjections from the intense and richly textured “string serenade.” The facility of the ensuing A-flat Major Allegretto testifies to a thoroughly refined sound in this music, honed by long experience. The Philadelphia woodwind and brass work proves exemplary, once more invoking the organ’s sense of mass over a potent series of fundamental tones. The swirls of color as the main theme returns, mostly in inversion, remind us of the masterly way of Stokowski in distributing textural weights. The downward arpeggio at the coda sets our jaws in anticipation for the mighty Adagio – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio of the finale, too well known for its hymn after Beethoven’s Ninth to warrant further commentary. Suffice it to say that Stokowski establishes overpowering pedal points in the course of his reading, brilliantly wrought by winds, brass, and tympani. The last movement possesses a mass and velocity that perhaps rivals Wagner, or at least Beethoven. The depth of the Philadelphia cello sound alone warrants the price of admission. There seems little “harmonic” or “vertical” motivation in Stokowski’s thoroughly muscular reading; but if we hear a “singing surface,” it remains an astonishing phenomenon on its own terms. Not since the Eugen Jochum reading with the Berlin Philharmonic on DGG have I heard such an electric current in the rising string scales of the long coda.
The Stokowski Tristan synthesis unabashedly presents a twenty-five minute orchestral love-song that splices the instrumental tissue from the Act II Liebesnacht to the Act III Liebestod, freely inserting the former act’s tissue into an unbroken chain of melody, the Stokowski free-bowing technique in full throttle. So, ostensibly, Stokowski on this fateful evening has “reconciled” the two great and “opposing” schools of late Nineteenth Century musical thought, the Classical Brahms with the “musical futurist” Wagner. As a purely sonorous experience, the effect proves alternately transparent and thickly and erotically luxurious. Again, the music-drama drops out from the aesthetic so as to yield to the emotional ethos, which basks in the pure sound of individual instruments and inflated choirs, supported by the inimitable Philadelphia strings and harp.
The remastering – in stereo sound – by Peter Reynolds makes this an audiophile’s and a Stokowski-phile’s dream disc. Even the audience applause sends earthquakes forward.