Wagner: Orchestral Music (CD review)

Leopold Stokowski, Symphony of the Air and Chorus. HDTT HDCD127.

Stokowski was Stokowski. There's nothing we can do about that. The man certainly had his fair share of detractors, who claimed he pulled and tugged, twisted, distorted, and exaggerated the music he conducted so far out of shape it was hardly recognizable anymore. Fortunately, he had a lot more fans than critics, and he became one of the most well-loved conductors of the twentieth century. And he probably did more to popularize classical music than any single conductor of the century, too.

On this HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastering of some of Stokowski's Wagner orchestral music with the Symphony of the Air and Chorus, we hear mostly the best of what the man could do when he tried.

First, a word about the orchestra. The Symphony of the Air was a follow-up to the NBC Symphony Orchestra, a house orchestra for the NBC radio network led primarily by Arturo Toscanini. When it disbanded in 1954, a new orchestra, the Symphony of the Air, no longer affiliated with the network, formed using many of the NBC Symphony's players and led primarily by Leopold Stokowski. The Symphony of the Air performed from 1954 to 1963, and on this 1961 recording we hear both Stokowski and the orchestra (plus chorus) at their best.

Opening the program is the longest track, the Overture and Venusberg music from the opera Tannhauser. The overture is, in fact, the perfect introduction to the Stokowski style. It is opulent as only the old Maestro could make it. OK, it might not be everything the Wagner fan could want; it's probably not introspective enough or dramatic enough; but it's so smooth, so free and flowing, it makes a lot of other Wagner performances sound crude by it side. This is Wagner for the true Romantic, never quite sentimentalized but positively glowing in its overall rich, luscious, sensuous effect. When the chorus enters briefly at the end, it sounds vividly clean yet still lustrous and otherworldly; maybe not quite as soulfully uplifting as it could be but wonderfully exciting.

Leopold Stokowski
Next, we hear the Prelude to Act III of Tristan und Isolde. If anything, under Stokowski's direction the prelude appears grander and more imposing than the opening track, even though it might be just as familiar music. Stokowski shapes and molds the music into a huge tapestry of immense power. The effect appears sometimes startlingly imposing, the orchestra sounding like one immense organ playing.

Finally, Stokowski closes the show with The Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla from Das Rheingold. Stokowski's handling of this last number is as grand as they come. The conductor paints as intense and memorable a picture of the proceedings as I've heard from anybody.

If there is any minor misgiving I have about the album, it's that I seem to remember the LP edition I used to have including The Ride of the Valkyries. Here, we get only three selections, and they are relatively brief, with a total disc playing time of only forty-three minutes. This is, apparently, the entirety of the tape from which HDTT transferred the music.

Producer Richard Mohr and engineer Robert Layton recorded the music for RCA in 1961. HDTT remastered it in 2013, transferring it from an RCA 4-track tape. The resultant sound is big and full, with an excellent frequency balance. There's a pleasantly realistic upper bass warmth that helps the music come alive. The orchestral depth is quite good, and the stereo spread is fairly wide. The dynamic range accounts for another factor in the music's lifelike quality, along with good impact and a sparkling high end. What's more, the chorus sounds natural, not bright or shrill, the voices clear but sweetly rounded as in real life. This is, in brief, the perfect way to listen to Wagner: plush, lush, opulent, part and parcel of the silky-smooth sound Stokowski always tried to achieve.

If you have any of Stokowski's RCA Wagner recordings, you might want to hear the same music remastered on this HDTT disc; it might impress you as much as it did me. Even the imported German RCA CD I used for comparison purposes, transferred using 24-bit/96kHz technology, didn't have the clarity of the HDTT disc.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.


To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first 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 use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

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.

Contact Information

Readers with polite, courteous, helpful letters may send them to pucciojj@gmail.com.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa