Original Masters: Leopold Stokowski (CD review)

The Decca Recordings 1965-1972. Leopold Stokowski, Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, Hilversum Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, London Symphony Orchestra, and the New Philharmonia Orchestra. Decca 475 145-2 (five-disc set).

My guess is that the average man-in-the-street wouldn't know too many of the twentieth century's great conductors besides two instantly recognizable names: Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski. It's an interesting observation because we know the two men often took almost diametrically opposed approaches to their music making, Toscanini sticking scrupulously to the letter of a composer's score and Stokowski altering the score to suit his needs. People over the years have praised and damned both men for their methods, but it is perhaps Stokowski who has incurred the wrath of more critics.

Stokowski spent the bulk of his early career in Philadelphia creating a world-class, world-famous orchestra, leaving after twenty-five years to pursue a variety of conducting jobs all over the world, working well into his mid nineties until his death in 1977. Among other things, he did a series of recordings for Decca between 1965-1972 (when he was still a mere slip of a lad in his eighties and early nineties), and the record company has collected some of them in this five-disc CD set. As usual with Stokowski, there is controversy, both with the performances and with the sound, but I can't imagine the man in any other way. Stokowski without controversy would be like salt without pepper; the two went hand-in-hand, but it took away not a whit less of his genius.

Anyhow, we find on disc one a few of Stokowski's famous, or infamous, orchestral transcriptions of piano and organ works, starting with his celebrated rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue for organ in D minor. I was actually in my teens before I realized Bach had originally written this work for organ. I guess I grew up on Stokowski's version for orchestra. This was one of the last times he recorded it, with the Czech Philharmonic, and it's as good as ever; as are a half dozen transcriptions of other Bach works and another half dozen of things by Byrd (Pavan and Galliard), Clarke (Trumpet voluntary), Schubert (Moment musical No. 3), Chopin (Mazurka in A minor), Tchaikovsky (Chant sans paroles), Duparc (Extase), Rachmaninov (Prelude in C sharp minor, another of Stokowski's signature pieces), and Debussy (La Cathedrale engloutie). Whether or not you agree with Stokowski's rearrangements of these pieces, there's hardly any doubt they're entertaining.

Disc two contains several of the set's most outstanding performances, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 5 with the New Philharmonia and Scriabin's Le Poeme de L'Extase. The Fifth Symphony takes a mite getting used to. Stokowski makes a few cuts to the work and then takes it so broadly in several sections you'd think he'd fallen asleep; yet everything seems to work out just fine, leading to some of the most rousing climaxes imaginable. The Poeme is luxurious, too, but not so vividly recorded with the Czech Philharmonic as the man's earlier Houston interpretation (Vanguard).

Disc three I didn't care for as much as the rest. It includes Frank's Symphony in D with the Hilversum Radio Philharmonic and Elgar's Enigma Variations with the Czech Philharmonic. I used to own the Elgar on LP and finally gave it away because the sound was so unrewarding. Here on CD, the sonics are better, improved mastering perhaps, but the reading still seems excessively romanticized. The old man's Franck never caught fire for me, either.

Ah, but disc four presents a different story. It starts with Berlioz's Symphonie fantastique with the New Philharmonia, a performance that does nothing particularly startling or innovative but turns out remarkably exciting. I could have wished for a less jaunty walk to the scaffold and a little more atmosphere in the "Witches Sabbath," but the work makes an excellent setting for Stokowski's showmanship and quite a demo piece. Following that are several works by Ravel, the Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 with the London Symphony being another of the highlights of the box for me. It's sensuous, sensual, stirring, and as well recorded as anything in the set.

Concluding the show, disc five provides a somewhat mundane reading of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, quite a lot of sound and fury, followed by what may be the very best thing in the box, Debussy's La Mer, in a performance of unqualified expressiveness. Bringing up the rear is Messiaen's L'Ascension, a relatively modern work (1935) of poetic mysticism that sometimes eludes Stokowski's grasp.

Decca recorded all of the music, as I've said, between 1965-1972, and they utilized their Phase-4 technology for it, an attempt to recreate a spectacular sonic reproduction with close multi-miking. Arthur Lilley was the recording engineer in these sessions, and no matter where he recorded in Phase-4, the results sounded uniformly the same. The sonics will please some listeners and infuriate others, depending on the listeners' ideas about natural sound. On the plus side, the clarity, dynamic range, and impact are often quite impressive. On the downside, bass can vary, sometimes sounding distant or weak; louder passages can occasionally break up and sound very slightly harsh; and imaging is often flat and compartmentalized. Whole sections of the orchestra may speak at once while other sections go practically dead, a hole-in-the-middle effect sometimes evoked. It can be highly enjoyable most of the time and maddening at other times.

To their credit, however, these new remasterings sound as good as or better than any of the LP's of the same material that I remember, smoother, less hard, and less glassy. The best of the lot are Daphnis et Chloe and La Mer, which appear more unified than the rest. Note, though, that none of the sound is up to the work EMI engineers were doing around the same time in the early Seventies with their competing Studio Two discs. I should also mention that as with many other Decca boxed sets, the discs are difficult to get out of their individual cardboard sleeves without leaving fingerprints. Nothing is easy.

Nevertheless, while Decca's Phase-4 sound may be a little hit-and-miss--spectacular to ordinary--it's never bad, and the performances are so compelling they surely make up for it in worthwhile listening.

JJP

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

I've been listening to classical music most of my life, starting with the classical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first classical recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor. Today, I'm retired from teaching and using a pair of VMPS RM40s. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (moviemet.com, formerly DVDTOWN) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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