AVSHALOMOV: The Taking of T’ung Kuan; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64; SMETANA: Tabor from Ma Vlast – Detroit Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski/ Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Rafael Kubelik (Smetana) – Music & Arts

by | Nov 12, 2006 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

AVSHALOMOV: The Taking of T’ung Kuan; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64; SMETANA: Tabor from Ma Vlast – Detroit Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski/ Chicago Symphony Orchestra/ Rafael Kubelik (Smetana)

Music & Arts CD-1190, 65:16 (Distrib. Albany) ****:

We have here two early stereo recordings with Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) and the Detroit Symphony from 20 November1952, a phenomenon rare at the time although not so unique in conductor Stokowski’s experience. As early as 1931, Stokowski had worked with Bell Lab technicians on binaural recording, and the effort of producing the 1939 film Fantasia, utilizing over thirty microphones, contributed to Stokowski’s appreciation of multidimensional sound reproduction. Stokowski’s meeting with engineer Bert Whyte in Illinois during a taped performance of the Monteverdi Vespers inspired the conductor to invite Whyte to record Stokowski’s appearance in Detroit, which included the 1943 Avshalomov tone-poem celebrating the battle of 755 A.D. which was part of the so-called Lushan Rebellion. Despite some sonic shatter and slur on certain notes, the rather cacophonous piece makes for riveting listening, rife as it is with modal scales and whanging percussion. Avshalomov always maintained that Stokowski’s tempo for the opening section was too slow, but the cumulative effect still rattles our conservative cages.

The Tchaikovsky Fifth, a Stokowski staple, made up the major part of what one critic felt was “a saccharine program,” but the approach is strictly 19th Century, with all sorts of lamenting slides and metric license. Despite some thin sound that even the wily Mark Obert-Thorn has been unable to vivify, the emotional tug of war makes a terrific impact in the first movement Allegro con anima, with its waltz and grumbling bass line. Whatever stylistic contortions Stokowski elicits, the audience is moved enough to applaud after the first movement ends. French horn and bassoon make the second movement Andante cantabile memorable, as does Stokowski’s adherence to the con alcuna licenza indication in the score. Sudden dynamics shifts, the swelling of mid-phrases, the huge luftpausen, play as if the Detroit Symphony were another of Willem Mengelberg’s ensembles. The transition from trumpet triplets to pizzicati strings proves quite effective, as does the oboe theme that traces a path through the string scales. Some thundering playing from the tympani, and the Detroit brass light up the frenzy in their own right. The Valse moves briskly even as the audience coughs miss the beat. The bassoon part inserts its own ritards, but the strings and flute compensate by leaping over bar lines. The coda is pure ballet, especially Sleeping Beauty. The Finale: Andante maestoso; Allegro vivace is both willful and wayward, often scaling Koussevitzky’s magisterial heights and Mravinsky’s manic energy. But however idiosyncratic the interpretation, the ability of Stokowski to hone a new ensemble to his own will remains indubitable.

Rafael Kubelik (1914-1996) led the Chicago Symphony from 1950-1953, and his Living Presence recordings for the Mercury label set a new standard for audio fidelity. Bert Whyte was present for the Mercury Ma Vlast sessions and set up his own experimental microphone placements for binaural sound. The rich, militant tapestry of Tabor literally looms with fervent nationalistic pride. Woodwind, brass, tympani and string sound reverberates with staggering realism, a thrilling paean to Czech cultural identity.

[I believe these original tapes, part of a large collection which the late Whyte had taped (including some Stan Kenton recordings as well), were recorded not only binaurally (with a dummy head) but also on a tape deck with staggered heads rather than than the standard inline heads. The difficulty of finding a proper staggered head machine held up reissuing these recordings.  Perhaps Mark Obert-Thorn used a digital delay to sync the two tracks? The binaural pickup would not sound that different thru speakers than a single-point stereo mike pickup, though lack of bass end could be a problem…Ed.]

— Gary Lemco

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