TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite; Capriccio Italien; Polonaise & Waltz from “Eugene Onegin,” ‒ London Philharmonic Orch./ Leopold Stokowski ‒ PentaTone

TCHAIKOVSKY: Nutcracker Suite, Op. 71a; Capriccio Italien, Op. 45; Polonaise and Waltz from “Eugene Onegin,” Op. 24 ‒ London Philharmonic Orch./ Leopold Stokowski ‒ PentaTone Classics multichannel SACD PTC 5186 299, 47:18 (3/11/16) ***:

Mostly for Stokie fans, but the Capriccio Italien is impressive, and so is the recycled four-channel sound.

I’ve never been a huge fan of Stokowski, though I confess he could often bring wholly new insights to a familiar piece of music—even when he wasn’t tinkering with the scoring and positioning of the musicians. I recall a performance of a Mahler symphony (the Second, I think) that I heard with the ninety-some-year-old maestro at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra: it was a remarkably fresh interpretation that any young firebrand conductor could have learned from. And while my shelves were never replete with Stokowski recordings, I fondly recall the Beethoven Ninth he set down for Decca’s Phase 4 series. Like the multi-mike Phase 4 recording technique itself, the interpretation was quite a bit bigger than life, plus Stokie couldn’t resist upgrading Ludwig’s creation, interpolating some extra swoops from the horn section into the ascending sextuplet figures that conclude the work.

So it is with Tchaikovsky’s beloved Nutcracker Suite. Not content to leave well-enough alone, Stokowski “improves” on the original with a few arabesques that lazy old Piotr Illych never got around to incorporating in his “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy.” Not to mention the generous application of rubato and a tempo so slow that we seem to be hearing the Dirge of the Sugar Plum Fairy instead. Perhaps this is meant to offset the lightning-quick preceding “March,” wherein Stokowski seems to have forgotten Tchaikovsky’s work was originally written for the theater. The children who are supposed to march around the stage in the scene associated with the music would have to engage in a pretty healthy jogtrot to keep up with Stokie’s beat.

The remainder of the work provides no further hijinks and instead offers Stokowski’s typical showcasing of orchestral color. Philips’ original four-channel recording, as remastered by PentaTone, aids and abets the conductor. Without spotlighting, the lively sound captures the piquant accents of winds, brass, and percussion. In the “Waltz of the Flowers,” the harp seems to hang in midair, in some indeterminate space on the left side of the listening space—a little bit of quadraphonic magic that we can enjoy today thanks to SACD technology.

The sound is just as impressive in Tchaikovsky’s colorful Capriccio Italien, souvenir of a trip to Italy that Tchaikovsky enjoyed in company of his brother Modest. The piece begins with bugle calls inspired by those the composer heard from his hotel, which was situated next door to the barracks of the Royal Italian Cuirasseurs. The rest of the piece explores a series Italian folk tunes, finally breaking out in a noisy tarantella. This music, with its large battery of percussion including tambourine, triangle, glockenspiel, cymbals, and bass drum is tailor made for a colorist like Leopold Stokowski, and he wrings every hue and shade from his big orchestral forces.

I have no gripes as well with Stokowski’s reading of famous snippets from the opera Eugene Onegin, which the conductor treats like the lilting and lively dance music it is.  Stokie’s fans should be pleased with this release. For other listeners, the patented perversities of the Nutcracker Suite and the very short playing time may be reasons to hesitate.

—Lee Passarella

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