My, God. Where to start? Well, there is the finest Brahms Fourth I've ever heard. There's Bach/Stokowski and Wagner (Stokowski standard repertoire). There's another Stokowski forte, the Tchaikovsky Pathétique in an excellent recording. There's….well, I could end up just repeating everything you've read above.
An interesting thought crossed my mind while reading the contents. This set would make an excellent introductory gift to someone who wanted to explore the world of classical music. The cost for the 14 discs is at $125.97 (plus shipping) direct from RCA. That's about 9 bucks a disc. What you get is a vast scope of time, excellent performances, excellent recordings. What else could a tyro ask for?
I realize that many of the readers are familiar with "The Stokowski Sound". Many of you were, like I was, introduced to the world of classical music with Fantasia (Stokowski, in his Esperanto accent, pronounced it: Fan-ta-sia). On the other hand, there may be some people out there who are complete neophytes to the sound world Stokowski was famous for. In a few words, let me say that Stokowski's original instrument was the organ. In fact, he was a damn good organist. When he turned to conducting that other instrument, the orchestra, he brought that organist sound to the orchestra. He underlined the bass line clearly, often adding more bass to the orchestra. He developed a seamless sound in the string sections using 'free bowing'. The resulting sound is one which is rich, deep and sensuous. In fact, sensuous is probably the best word to describe The Stokowski Sound.
Before getting into specific discs, I want to make a couple observations about this set. First, the presentation is handsome. This case comes with remarkable pictures, often differing from disc to disc. It just plain looks nice. More important, each disc has its own insert commentary written by Ed Johnson. Now, I will clearly state that Ed is the best Stokowski scholar alive today. His comments are fascinating, educating, entertaining….everything you could ask for. They are about Stokowski, about the recordings, and about the music itself. Ed's notes constitute a paradigm case of what insert notes should be.
What we have here are all of the stereo recordings that Stokowski made for RCA between 1954 and 1995. Many of them are new to CD. In fact, my personal collection of Stokowski CDs from RCA numbered 9 to this 14, and some of mine were scarcely available. So, it offers a lot that is new. I'll start with that.
First there's the CD containing Menotti's Sebastian Suite coupled with Prokofieff's Roméo and Juliet (Selections). These are the earliest stereo recordings for RCA, dating from 1954. The orchestra was the NBC Symphony, which was under a death sentence from the broadcasting company. The sound is interesting. With headphones on it is a surround sound in a weird way. It is as if you have the conductor's vantage point in the orchestra hall. The sound seems to swirl around you, with individual details clearly located. Through the speakers this effect is somewhat minimized, but still has a sound that seems to surround the ears like some fallen halo.
Now, many of you may be unfamiliar with Menotti. The Sebastian Suite is from the composer's ballet. It has elements in it that remind me of Bartók's Mandarin, and the two stories are both grotesque. The music is neo-classical, but more like the disc-mate Prokofieff than Stravinsky. I should mention that Ed Johnson's excellent notes provide a wonderful road map to this disc.
The Prokofieff is equally involving. Stokowski selected movements that would emphasize the sadness and sweetness of the love of the two. You will not hear the March of the Montagues and Capalets or other martial music. As Ed Johnson put it, Stokowski was seeking to attain a kind-of Tristan und Isolde Prélude and Liebestod in the selections. The Maestro succeeded wonderfully.
Okay, now let me go to the Brahms Symphony #4 (coupled with Mahler's 2nd "Resurrection" with the New Philharmonia Orchestra. This is the first CD release of the studio recording, but there is a BBC Radio Classics CD of the live performance preceding this release. That performance is fine, but the sound is somewhat veiled. There is no such problem with this release.
This is, beyond a doubt, my favorite recording of the Brahms 4th. Lately I have reviewed two cycles of Brahms Symphonies, Jochum and Barbirolli. It is interesting to compare those with this Stokowski recording. Jochum seems to favor an 'intellectual' approach to the 4th symphony, Barbirolli is more 'emotional'. This Stokowski recording gets a fine balance of both. Timing may have something to do with it, Stokowski's is the fastest of the three by a wide margin. He is about 3 minutes faster than Jochum and over 8 minutes faster than Barbirolli. While taut, however, the Stokowski use of free bowing, accentuation on the bass line, and other touches here-and-there, produces an interpretation that is more 'Austrian' than either of the other conductors. The night I put this disc on the player I had intended to sample it and move on to dip into other goodies in this package. I soon forgot about that and just enjoyed this recording. Sound is excellent with none of the oddities found in listening to the Menotti/Prokofieff disc.
Coupled with the Brahms is Mahler's Symphony #2 (Resurrection) First Movement. (This case contains two discs). For some reason, Jack Pfeiffer was keen on getting this recording out. In conversations we had he said, "Well, we've got to get out the Mahler 2." In fact, the digital masters for this were ready years ago, as I knew from our conversations. I thought it odd that Jack had decided to couple it with the Brahms 4th and suggested instead Tchaikovsky's Pathétique. Well, this is what Jack wanted. In fact, he and I talked often about issuing a Stokowski Stereo Edition, but he had to convince "them" that it would sell. Anyway, here it is.
There is a lengthy story behind this recording. It is a wonder that it got finished at all. Stokowski was ill during the recording process and had to cancel several sessions. What we hear in this recording was the result of patching together various takes. It is amazing that the thing sounds as a whole, and God does it!!
My first experience with this piece was this recording. You will not hear Bernstein's Freudian/Jewish anguish in Stokowski's interpretation. Much as I like Bernstein's way with Mahler, Mahler's sound world is not confined to one way. In Stokowski's hands you can hear a symphony embracing the world, with all the tragedy and absurdity that is in it. The close of the second movement is ethereal. The third has all the absurdity you could want. The sound on this transfer may be the best of the lot (having only sampled the rest so far). The strings have a feathery quality when needed, the detail is amazing (the surround/quad aspect??) and yet it is all very warm. You know, I just glanced at my notes and there's so much here in this music and this recording and this interpretation that just astounds me. I can hear why Gilbert Kaplan was reduced to tears when hearing this symphony for the first time (with Stokowski conducting). Now I know why Jack was so keen on getting this out.
A few final comments reporting on this experience. Listening tonight (the 14th of March, 1997) it is like a first time. I have been close to tears many times. You really ought to hear this. I am now listening to this symphony for the second time tonight. If these discs ever become available separately you better make sure you add this set to your collection. If not, I'll have to send a big gorilla to your home and have it rip out your phone and beat your stereo equipment with it.
The next disc I'll cover is also of material new to CD (well, you could nit pick and point out that Stokowski's 1940 recording of Shostakovich's 6th was issued on CD a few years ago, but that's not this recording). The CD also contains Shostakovich's "Age of Gold" Suite and Khachaturian's Symphony #3. All three are from recordings Stokowski made with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra in 1968. (There is also a fascinating live Shostakovich 10th from these guest visits. It was available on a 12 disc Chicago Symphony issue.)
If you are a 'newbie' to classical music and interested in exploring this symphony, no doubt you have already been introduced to Shostakovich's sound world from his 5th. This is cut from the same cloth. Ed Johnson provides an excellent analytical map of the work. I have no comparison to make reference to because I've never seen a reason to replace my LP of this recording. I added the 1940 recording on CD when it became available. Still, Stokowski's recordings were so good I didn't feel any reason to try anyone else. If you are considering adding this to other recordings you already have, well this review may be of help to you if you know the Stokowski sound and like it. The sound is excellent, another fantastic remastering. (I should ask Ed if he had anything to say about the sound on the releases…he did write some fantastic notes, so maybe he was consulted.)
I'll glide by the "Age of Gold" Suite and go right to the Khachaturian. This piece is much less known and the listener may only be familiar with the composer's music from the 'Sabre Dance' from his ballet. I'll be kind here, if you like brass, especially trumpet, and the organ you will probably love this piece. It has its moments, but for the most part I feel the work lacks coherence. Ed provides an excellent commentary about the piece and it is well recorded. I feel safe in saying that nobody does it better than Stokowski.
The final disc containing all new material to CD includes the last Bach/Stokowski: Toccata and Fugue by Stokowski. It resulted from various rehearsals and takes made in 1974 when he was also recording the Mahler 2nd. This version times out at 10:08 to the Czech recording, on London Phase 4, at 10:17, but the London Symphony recording sounds much faster. I know that this is true, in part at least, to a sharper attack by the orchestra and slightly dryer recording.
I always find listening to rehearsals fascinating to listen to. It's kind-of-like peeking into the dressing room of fashion models. Stokowski, in contrast to other conductor's rehearsals I've listened to, lets the orchestra play for long periods before stopping them. When he does, it is for very explicit directions or requests. He will refer to specific places in the score, or make specific comments, "So-Mi-Fah….you're late on the So." You will hear Stokowski "shshh!" them as they play. It is all very exciting to me anyway. This disc contains much more than the Bach: Wagner's "Rienzi" Overture rehearsal and alternative ending; an early stereo experiment playing Beethoven's 6th (not the same as on the Jack Pfeiffer Tribute). Then there are rehearsals of the Mahler 2nd Symphony "Is my beat clear?…Can it be softer, the second thump?". The Stokowski style of rehearsal might also be of interest to budding conductors.
Now we start to listen to CDs that contain material new to CD but also stuff previously available. First is Inspiration, a collection of pieces "setting sacred texts to well-known classical melodies" (to quote Ed from the back cover of the CD). It is done by the Norman Luboff Choir and the New Symphony Orchestra of London. The music may appeal to you, and if it does this is an excellent remastering. originally produced by Charles Gerhardt. See above for the contents.
also on this disc is Handel's Water Music. This was previously released on a RCA 'Silver Seal' CD (9026-61207) coupled with Music for the Royal Fireworks. I noted when reviewing that disc that the sound was warmer than the previous incarnation, similarly coupled. This time the sound is even better, in fact it's amazing how much better it sounds. There is even broader warmth, the perspective is natural with a more balanced relief of the orchestral parts. In the 1992 release when the harpsichord enters it completely dominates the picture. Five years later, you can now hear the other accompanying instruments. I recall a conversation with Bob Bloom, the oboist for the sessions for this and the Fireworks recording (see below). He told me that when he got there Stokowski said, "Mr. Bloom, I have found the most wonderful oboe solo here." Bob didn't know of any oboe solo in the piece, but, sure enough, when Stokowski showed him the score he was using, there it was! There are Stokowski-isms, a snare drum and timpani and others, but this is just plain fun. Ed's notes for this discs are, again, impressive.
If it seems I have expressed some reservations about the last couple of discs, such tendencies will now disappear. The next disc contains Stokowski's studio recording of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Symphony (London Symphony Orchestra from 1973) which is new to CD. (A live recording, preceding the studio one, is available on Music and Arts 944. I strongly recommended that set when it was released and every Stokowski fan should have both.) It is coupled with Enescu's Roumanian Rhapsody #1 and Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody #2. Those were previously on RCA's 'Living Stereo' series coupled with music by Smetana and Wagner (9026 61503).
Stokowski recorded the Pathétique three times in his life. His 1945 Hollywood Bowl recording has had the distinction of recently being released on both Cala and Pearl, in different remasterings. I review those elsewhere. A more detailed critique of the Stokowski performance, especially in contrast to Furtwängler, is in my review of those CDs. The 1940 All-American Youth Orchestra recording begs for release some day.
You would hardly guess that this RCA recording was made by a 90 year old. Stokowski handles the opening in a fitting dark atmosphere, full of the pathos you would want, but not getting pathetic. The bass line is firm. Nobody plays the second movement better than Stokowski. The ballet element is there, but it has a melancholy ambiance to it that I don't hear in many other performances (although Rostropovich's on EMI has it). There is excitement in the march, taken fast but not too much so. It is in the final movement that the superiority of his live performance, on Music and Arts, comes through. Like most live performances, that one has more excitement and power than on this studio recording. The tam-tam, near the end, in the studio performance can be heard, unlike some recordings, but in the Music and Arts issue it is terrifying whereas in this commercial release it is less so. On the other hand, the over-all sound on this CD is richer and fuller than the Music and Arts. The bottom line is that this is one of the finest performances of this piece that I have ever heard and RCA has, once again, produced an excellent recording.
The Enescu and Liszt were recorded 13 years earlier, but the sound is just fine, thank you. I remember when they were being considered for release on the 'Living Stereo' line, Jack and I were talking about it. He wanted to release them, coupled with the Smetana, but was afraid that would be short order and he couldn't think of any other 'Living Stereo' material Stokowski did for them. I suggested that Wagner music Stokowski recorded for them around that time might be from that series and Jack said he'd check that out. Well, Jack followed my idea and the disc got released. These pieces are just plain fun, exciting and full of the kind of color that only Stokowski could get from an orchestra. This one, the RCA Victor Orchestra, was an ad hoc group that Stokowski put together, sometimes with little notice to the participants. I remember a conversation with Bob Bloom, oboist in many of these sessions, when he told me that sometimes they showed up, not certain what they were going to play! As was often the case with these recordings, the orchestra was a small one, numbering usually no more than 60 players. With Stokowski's care in placing microphones and other Stokowski-isms, however, you'd swear it was a full, augmented orchestra.
How does the sound on this differ from the Living Stereo issue? Well, there is a marginal difference between the two and I'm not sure which I prefer. The earlier issue has a more pronounced bass line. Their snarl at about :50 into the piece is absolutely riveting. On this issue it is not as sinister, perhaps the disc was cut at a slightly lower level. On the other hand, the Living Stereo issue tends to wear on my ears, however this remastering is a pleasure to listen to. Bob Bloom's oboe is a delight.
The next couple of CDs have an interesting history. In both cases they have been previously released on CD, but under unusual circumstances. A detailed discussion of their history can be read on the L.S.S.A. CDiscography.
First we come to the Beethoven Eroica symphony. This was previously available on 9026 61340. That disc was available from a small chain of video/audio stores in the midwest until I called Jack Pfeiffer about it. After some extensive discussions, wherein at first I was told that RCA had not issued these; then that RCA had worked an agreement with some recording company to have them make some test pressings made but they were never approved for release; then that some kind of licensing had been made; then the store where I bought it was sold and all CDs were removed by Block Buster Video.
Anyway, Stokowski once again confounds the listener. At first I was disappointed, I had expected a bass heavy, romantic interpretation. It is lyrical, as you might expect in a Stokowski recording, in the mold of Bruno Walter. On the other hand, Walter provides a hefty bass line and deep, romantic interpretation on matters. Then it occurred to me that Stokowski's is essentially a 'classical' kind of interpretation. The sound is slightly dryer, odd for the London Symphony venue, and the textures lighter throughout. The funeral march is an excellent example of this. The lovely woodwind passage around 4:00 into it is as lyrical and pastoral as you could want. Then there's the glorious horns around 7:40. Those are romantic, but the whole texture is leaner, there's a classical restraint here. I like it. The surround sound effect is significantly better than that mysterious previous release. It is as if someone had married the best of LP to the best of CD. If my praise seems reserved, remember that it is my theory that I am merely reporting.
Then we come to the Coriolan Overture. This is immediately more compelling, romantic and involving. The sound here is also slightly fuller. The Brahms Academic Overture is new to CD. It was originally paired with the Brahms 4th Symphony on LP. Here is another winner!! It is everything you listen for in a Stokowski recording. It grabs you immediately and insists that you pay attention. I love it. The CD is filled out with a 1:13 talk to the London Symphony at the recording sessions for the Coriolan Overture. Some of it is hard to hear, and I don't want to quote the whole thing, but I'll provide an essence of it. Quoting the Maestro, "Thank you for wooonerful music making…you did it, you made it sound profound…Thank you." Applause from the orchestra. These comments are typical of Leopold Stokowski and reflect his love for the music and the music makers.
The next CD features the music of Rimsky-Korsakov. This is another CD release with an odd history. It was issued several years ago in a remastering where the first 2 minutes or so were in mono and then it suddenly shifts to stereo. Later I came across another CD incarnation, but this time I was confounded because Jack hadn't told me anything about it. Full details elsewhere, but to recap: Discussions with Jack, and research on his part, led to the conclusion that these were the real thing. Somehow RCA had given some recording company permission to make experimental recordings for CD. Jack had no idea how these CDs got onto the market. The next thing I knew, I was told I could no longer order copies of this disc from the video/audio store I found it in at the beginning. Then the store was bought out by Block Buster and all audio recordings were yanked from it.
On to the music, etc. Stokowski must have loved Schéhérazade, he recorded it five times between 1927 and this one in 1973. All but the 1951 Philharmonia have been issued on CD (the 1934, my personal favorite, is soon to come out on Cala). Stokowski made an earlier stereo recording of this piece on London's Phase 4 series. That recording is a stunning, exciting performance I also treasure. Some people may find the spot lighting of instruments irritating, however, and the CD (nla) was really harsh on the ear. The RCA version is faster in almost every movement and the soloist, the same for both recordings (Erich Gruenberg) is as sensual and erotic here as earlier. The whole orchestral fabric is well balanced adding to the effect. This RCA recording is more natural, warmer than the London one. Frankly it is a treat to the ear. Yet, the warmth and surround sound reverberation still allows delicious detail to be heard. Stokowski insisted that the piece should be played without pause between movements 1 and 2 and 3 and 4. This CD release realizes the Maestro's wishes. The essence of the sea is captured in a fully romantic interpretation. I can imagine myself being tossed about by the waves, it is a sensuous experience. This recording is fast becoming my personal favorite Stokowski Schéhérazade. I think you might share this experience and recommend it as part of this wonderful set. The Russian Easter Overture was recorded earlier, at the same time as the Shostakovich, etc. in Chicago. The sound is dryer, but there (it is not 'surround sounded' like the Schéhérazade) it is still fully Stokowskian. Frankly, nobody I know of plays Rimsky-Korsakov better than Leopold Stokowski. Another jewel in the collection.
An aside (skip this paragraph if you don't like philosophic musings on music) I have a theory that extra musical considerations often influence the way a conductor will have an orchestra render a passage. For example, in Schéhérazade the orchestral rendering of sailing on the ocean could be so affected. A conductor, like Stokowski, who had traveled the Atlantic on an ocean liner would have a certain 'feel' for the kind of 'sound' he or she wanted the orchestra to elicit. A conductor whose experience was limited to sailing over the ocean would have a different 'feel' for the 'sound'. I know from listening to his rehearsals that sometimes Stokowski would refer to such a kind of extra-musical ideas in getting the orchestra to deliver the sound he wanted.
The Dvořák From the New World Symphony also has an interesting personal and CD history. On a personal note, in 1976, while working on my Master's in Philosophy, I started listening to classical music. I decided I wanted to add the Dvořák 9th to my small collection of LPs. I went to a local store and browsed through a long bin of LPs. Not knowing which one was any better than any other, I selected a 2-LP set that contained a 1927 and 1973 recording of this symphony, both with the same conductor. That conductor was Leopold Stokowski and this was the stereo recording. This was not issued in this country on CD, but I got a copy from Japan, several years ago, on a Shinseido label. The insert noted it was an AAD recording, with a 1991 BMG marking on the CD. The disc was filled out with four tracks of commentary about the symphony (in Japanese) with excerpts from the music. I called Jack Pfeiffer and asked if we might expect this in this country. He expressed surprise and seemed angry that it was an AAD release. The next thing I knew, my source in Japan stopped writing me, answering my letters, etc. Whatever.
This recording is also in Surround Sound and better than this odd disc in my collection. (I wonder if I should keep these odd discs? Maybe some day they might be worth some money? Dream on, I'll give them to my dad.) The sound here is warm, detailed, everything you could want. I've said it so often in this review that I sound like a broken record, but you can't complain about this sound at all.
The performance? Irving Kolodin, in his book The Musical Life wrote of a conversation with Stokowski about his 1947 recording of Dvořák's 9th.
At a climax came the deep ringing "bong" of a tam-tam. I looked at him questioningly…"There's no tam-tam in the score is there?" I inquired, "why do you put it in?" He answered, "I feel the need for a new color, a new climax…I want to reach out with my records to the lonely sheep-rancher in Nevada or the farmer in Kansas and bring him a glimpse of the ideal world of beauty and inspiration." The only answer to this was to adjourn to a bar at the corner…and agree that the bock beer was excellent…
So, here it is, in stereo.
Ed's commentary quotes Edward Greenfield's review saying that Stokowski's Dvořák 9th will, "…caress and excite the ear of any listener who has warmed to the magic of Stokowski." I'd take that a step further and say that description fits this performance for anyone. Stokowski recorded this piece 6 times in his life, this is the only stereo one. I spent a bit of time comparing it with Kubelík's recording with the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra for DG. That recording is slightly more riveting and visceral, but Stokowski's is one to love. I'm glad I have both.
This disc is filled out with music by Smetana. The Moldau and Bartered Bride Overture were previously released on RCA's "Living Stereo" CD, coupled with the List reviewed above. My observations on the sound difference here is the same as that above. The Moldau is as compelling and sweeping a recording as I have ever heard. Interestingly, I read in an article by Martin Bookspan that the recording session from which these emerged was originally to be of a concerto. The soloist fell ill at the last moment, RCA already had the orchestra and venue scheduled. So, it was another of those situations where the players showed up and were told what was to be recorded. The result sounds as spontaneous as the real situation. The Bartered Bride Overture is particularly arresting. I can't imagine a more exciting, taut performance. The trumpet's triple tonguing (is that what I hear?) is riveting. The whole thing sounds as idiomatic as if it was a Czech orchestra. It doesn't get any better than this.
Now we turn to the Bach/Stokowski disc. The material on this CD was previously released on CD. It happens that I got to this CD at the same time that EMI sent me their FDS Stokowski/Bach CD. I will go into more detailed comparison in a review of that disc in another review. In this case, I'll start by recommending both discs and then going into a few comparative analyses.
Leopold Stokowski recorded more "Bach" material than of any other composer. Stokowski started his career as an organist and was noted for his Bach material, some of it transcribed for the organ. When he turned to his other instrument, the orchestra, he brought the organ's reverberation with him. I know how it feels in the legs and arms. From an historical point, we need to be reminded, lest we repeat history, that when Stokowski revealed these pieces to his orchestra's audiences, most of it was new to them. Even in these 1960s and 70s recordings, the music was not as "accessible" as it is perhaps so now. How many of us were introduced to classical music, and Bach, from the Disney/Stokowski film Fantasia?
This RCA release includes an item not in the other two stereo CDs of Stokowski/Bach material (or is it the other way around?). It so happens that it is my favorite Bach/Stokowski transcription: Chaconne (from Partita #2). At 17:55 it may seem impossibly long. It is over 2 minutes longer than the solo performances in my collection: Perlman and Ughi. On the other hand, it is important to report that I turned to those later recordings because I'd heard the Stokowski transcription. You'd almost believe that this was originally written for full orchestra. I think that there may be many people who were influenced to explore more classical music because of early exposure to it from people like Leopold Stokowski. I'd recommend this disc just for this piece.
On the other hand, is this just more-of-the-same Bach/Stokowski stuff? Well, #If you listen to just the three stereo CDs currently available of this material you will hear differences. In the case of the London/Czech CD, there are no duplications. The sound is also much different. The Phase 4 recordings are much brighter, but there is the Stokowski Sound still inherent in the Phase 4. Since there's no duplication here, get both.
This incarnation is better than the earlier "Surround Sound" issue. That one used this method in the whole CD. In this case, for some reason, only two of the pieces are so treated. I can say that this is to good effect. There is a 'feathery' quality to the strings in this CD. On the earlier release the sound was more homogenized and the extra dimension heard here is more interesting to listen to.
You know, it occurs to me that we often read reviews comparing the "sound" of a CD with that of an "LP". When only the latter were available there was discussion of the different 'sound' different LPs had. The root of that discussion is embedded in similar discussions here. When I talk of the 'LP Sound' of an RCA release, it is usually different from the 'LP Sound' of a London release. So, when reading reviews that mention this factor, keep these differences in philosophy of sound reproduction within the producers of the original LPs.
On a brief personal note: The EMI and RCA CDs happened to come together at a particularly stressful time in my life. No details, but it was one of those times when you begin to wonder when it will let up. Listening to the EMI and RCA discs, each in a slightly different way, helped ease the stress.
This RCA disc is filled with Handel's Music For the Royal Fireworks, with the RCA Victor Symphony. Here, again, is the ad hoc orchestra including such greats as Bob Bloom on the oboe, Mitch Miller on the horn, etc. This was originally issue on CD coupled with the same band's Water Music Suite (see above). What I treasure most about this newest issue is the reinstalling of the sound effects of a picnic with fireworks in the background!! This was on my old 'Gold Seal' LP and I remember the first time I heard it. I was not prepared, and it was the 2nd of July in Toledo, Ohio. I was working on a paper for graduate school, when suddenly these sounds drifted across the room. I got up and looked out the window, wondering if someone was celebrating early. When I realized the source, I just smiled. I'd just found another reason to like Stokowski. The previous CD incarnation lacked this 30 second ending and I missed it. It's good to have it back. Good, clean fun, as I said above.
The next CD contains vocal music, sung by Anna Moffo, by Canteloube, Villa-Lôbos, and Rachmaninoff. This is one of those all-too-rare occasions where Stokowski worked with a soloist. I will be the first person to admit that vocal music is not my favorite classical music. On the other hand, I really enjoyed this disc. Anna Moffo does an excellent job with these miniatures, her voice is not too operatic and in the Canteloube she really brings out an era and area which are exotic. To hear her hit the flamboyant notes in L'aio de rotso is delightful. The Rachmaninoff was a piece Stokowski recorded several times in his life, but this is the only one using a vocalist. It works amazingly well. This music will soothe and the sound is just great.
Now we come to the final two CDs, featuring some of the most stunning Wagner you'll ever hear. I have said before that it's a shame Stokowski didn't get the chance to record a Wagner opera. Stokowski's sound world and Wagner's fit like hand-in-glove. For what it's worth, the first commercially issued CD was a Wagner disc from RCA (7863 55995) at full price.
Volume One contains recordings made with the Symphony of the Air (NBC Symphony Orchestra). It opens with Die Walküre, including the singing of the Valkuries. I'd swear this is the exact recording used in the movie. When I first heard it I thought it was a bit too much, but the more I listen the more it seems just right. You have to hear the double basses in the opening of Tristan und Isolde to believe it. The solo oboe work in the piece is absolutely poignant. The harp work in the Tannhäuser excerpts, also including vocals, is beautiful. This disc is filled out with a Rienzi Overture and Magic Fire Music from Die Walküre These pieces are "Surround Sound". The opening of the Rienzi, after the third trumpet call, the double bass have an ominous sounding growl to them. Throughout the piece Stokowski masterfully sustains tension to let it loose in an exciting, almost erotic catharsis. The Magic Fire Music is beautiful, just beautiful.
Volume Two is all "Surround Sound". It opens with music from Die Meistersinger, but I chose to start my listening with Tristan und Isolde: Prélude and Liebestod. The orchestra is, again, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the interpretation here is sad, poignant, erotic. I have to confess that this is my favorite Wagner opera. I will admit I am not an opera buff, but I have heard this (with Karl Böhm; and I confess that on first hearing Bohm I was a bit disappointed because he is not as 'romantic' as Stokowski) and a couple other Wagner operas. An interesting story is that Leonard Bernstein contacted me, through Sylvan Levin, and requested copies of Stokowski's Philadelphia recordings of this prior to making his own. If I could have one wish fulfilled it would be to hear Stokowski do the whole thing. The closing is the most loving thing I've ever heard. Stokowski caresses the last notes, drawing them out to a powerfully tender (I know that may sound like an oxymoron, but it fits) moment. As for the Götterdämmerung excerpts, you will never hear a performance of Siegfried's Funeral Music as powerful, dramatic as this. Brünnhilde's Immolation will probably upset purists, who know the opera, but that tells more about them than about Stokowski's music making. Something like not being able to see the forest for the trees. The Miestersinger excerpts sing. What else could you ask for?
It occurs to me that I have not listened to "bleeding chunks" of Wagner in some time. On checking, I also notice that I don't have any such selections by any other conductor. Frankly, I don't need any more. This is just an aural seduction. The transfers, I know I'm starting to sound redundant, are just stunning.
As I come to a close here, I am thankful that I've had the opportunity to listen to these discs. If ever there was a fitting tribute to Leopold Stokowski, RCA have provided one. Stokowski's first recordings, made in 1917, were with RCA and his last ones for them in 1973. It is also a tribute to Jack Pfeiffer, who worked hard to realize this project and died too soon to hear it.
I have checked on prices for this set. The best source is to get them directly from RCA through the Internet. Their price is $127.95. Other sources I have checked, Tower Records among them, are asking around $140.00 for the set. I give this production my highest recommendation.
Copyright © 1997, Robert Stumpf II