BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68; WAGNER: Symphonic Synthesis from Tristan und Isolde (arr. Stokowski) – Philadelphia Orch./ Leopold Stokowski – Guild

by | Aug 5, 2013 | Classical Reissue Reviews

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68; WAGNER: Symphonic Synthesis from Tristan und Isolde (arr. Stokowski) – Philadelphia Orch./ Leopold Stokowski – Guild CGHCD 2402, 69:07 [Distr. by Albany] *****:

Guild resurrects a major portion of the concert given at the Academy of Music (23 February 1960), Philadelphia, where Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) made an “historic return” for a series of appearances with the orchestra he guided and molded 1912-1941. Among Stokowski’s most noteworthy accomplishments had been his being the first to record all four of the Brahms symphonies, of which the 1876 C Minor received any number of performances. Typical of the Stokowski approach – which began as early as 1912, as part of his very first concert with the London Symphony in that May – he layers the sound in the manner of an organ’s diapason, distributing weights and textures to the various orchestral choirs in an antiphonal arrangement. The Philadelphia Orchestra, from the very first dramatic chords, plays with an impeccable luster, refined and immensely sonorous.  The string sound – or better, “the Stokowski Sound” – sings and hums with a slick but visceral patina that adds to the Brahms austerity of emotion a distinctly erotic undercurrent.

Stokowski takes a broad tempo for the ensuing E Major Andante sostenuto, emphasizing the music’s capacity to sing an anguished orison over a thudding bass line. The individual woodwind solos, along with the violin cantilena sung by the concertmaster Anshel Brusilow, provides an intimate dimension to an otherwise lofty series of interjections from the intense and richly textured “string serenade.”  The facility of the ensuing A-flat Major Allegretto testifies to a thoroughly refined sound in this music, honed by long experience. The Philadelphia woodwind and brass work proves exemplary, once more invoking the organ’s sense of mass over a potent series of fundamental tones. The swirls of color as the main theme returns, mostly in inversion, remind us of the masterly way of Stokowski in distributing textural weights. The downward arpeggio at the coda sets our jaws in anticipation for the mighty Adagio – Allegro non troppo, ma con brio of the finale, too well known for its hymn after Beethoven’s Ninth to warrant further commentary. Suffice it to say that Stokowski establishes overpowering pedal points in the course of his reading, brilliantly wrought by winds, brass, and tympani. The last movement possesses a mass and velocity that perhaps rivals Wagner, or at least Beethoven. The depth of the Philadelphia cello sound alone warrants the price of admission. There seems little “harmonic” or “vertical” motivation in Stokowski’s thoroughly muscular reading; but if we hear a “singing surface,” it remains an astonishing phenomenon on its own terms. Not since the Eugen Jochum reading with the Berlin Philharmonic on DGG have I heard such an electric current in the rising string scales of the long coda. 

The Stokowski Tristan synthesis unabashedly presents a twenty-five minute orchestral love-song that splices the instrumental tissue from the Act II Liebesnacht to the Act III Liebestod, freely inserting the former act’s tissue into an unbroken chain of melody, the Stokowski free-bowing technique in full throttle. So, ostensibly, Stokowski on this fateful evening has “reconciled” the two great and “opposing” schools of late Nineteenth Century musical thought, the Classical Brahms with the “musical futurist” Wagner. As a purely sonorous experience, the effect proves alternately transparent and thickly and erotically luxurious. Again, the music-drama drops out from the aesthetic so as to yield to the emotional ethos, which basks in the pure sound of individual instruments and inflated choirs, supported by the inimitable Philadelphia strings and harp.

The remastering – in stereo sound – by Peter Reynolds makes this an audiophile’s and a Stokowski-phile’s dream disc. Even the audience applause sends earthquakes forward.

—Gary Lemco

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