Leopold Stokowski = BLACHER: Variations on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 26; PROKOFIEV: 3 Excerpts from Romeo and Juliet, Suite No. 3, Op. 101; MILHAUD: Concerto for Percussion and Small Orchestra; EGK: French Suite after Rameau for Large Orchestra; WAGNER: Prelude and Love-Death from Tristan und Isolde; MUSSORGSKY: Intermezzo from Khovantschina; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 – Werner Grabinger, percussion/Radio Symphony Orchestra, Baden-Baden/Stuttgart Radio-Symphony Orchestra (Wagner, Tchaikovsky)/Leopold Stokowski
Hanssler Historic CD 94.204, (2 CDs) 56:52, 70:52 [Distr. by Allegro] ****:
The legendary Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) first appeared in Baden-Baden (Hans Rosbaud’s progressive musical center) in 1954, he quickly appreciated the spirit of musical experimentation the city and the musicians had imbibed, and he programmed several works he was destined never to commit to commercial inscriptions. Even the Prokofiev excerpts from the May 1955 session gained a heated intensity that made his RCA disc rather pale by comparison. Juliet’s Tomb and Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb resound with dire palpitating tragedy, infiltrated by allusions to the happier moments of their Balcony Scene, where love and death had already mated. The gnashing, grinding sense of doom projected by horns, strings, and battery assumes epic proportions, a true tale of immemorial woe.
Stokowski opens with the audacious Paganini Variations of Boris Blacher, which had its world premier in 1947 and had been extended into the repertories of Rosbaud and Fricsay. Rosbaud had himself led this richly textured canvas, but his realization was all hard, clean lines and thin-lipped geometry. Stokowski imbues each of the variants with an emotional ferocity, a warm glow lit by the conductor’s innate eroticism and capacity for romantic poetry. A wild clarinet rumba suddenly breaks out into the coda, an onrush of sound to make the Stravinsky of Le Sacre du Printemps downright jealous.
Darius Milhaud’s Concerto makes of the percussion a concertante instrument, although it consists of kettle and snare drums, tambourine, cymbals, triangle, wood and metal blocks, all employed with dexterous ferocity by Werner Grabinger. The entire piece barely lasts eight and a half minutes, but Stokowski manages to balance the often extreme dynamic range of the work with his usual suave finesse. The Egk French Suite after Rameau had been championed by Fricsay, and its five movements arranged from clavecin pieces of jaunty rhythm and delicate texture prove irresistible to the Stokowski penchant for colored, skewed spectra. Egk likely composed this Rameau homage as a complement to the Couperin homage by Richard Strauss. The second movement Gigue takes a moment from the French Enlightenment and hands it to Kurt Weill. The third movement haunts us with an atmospheric nocturne, Les tendres Plaintes. A manic toccata-like country dance defines La Venetienne; the last movement Les Tourbillons exudes a Parisian fluency and nonchalance, buoyant and upbeat.
Once we enter 20 May 1955 Stuttgart, we find ourselves in Stokowski’s perennial land of Wagner and the Russians. The familiar Prelude and Love-Death from Tristan exudes enough mystery and fatal ecstasy to assure that no dry seat can be found in the concert hall. The woodwinds, strings, and harp resonate with agonizing grace and speed, the climax soaring into a tremolando stratosphere where even the gods must look up in wonder. Even more grueling is the Intermezzo from Khovantschina, describing Prince Golitsyn’s tragic procession into an abyssmal exile, rife with piercing bells and vomiting chords from deep winds and bass fiddles. Perhaps Arnold Boecklin could have painted this picture, but Mussorgsky invokes a Dantesque pageant unique in its own terrible sound world.
Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony – the Stokowski staple – once again ascends in beauty like the night. Despite a few cuts and color addenda, Stokowski fuses the known and the unknown, accelerating or decelerating, dynamically graduating according to his poetic whim. The alternate marches and waltzes each carry the imprimatur of Stokowski’s version of the “Fate” motif, enriched by the confident swagger of an inspired personality. The composer himself would have to approve, if only for the force and glorious conviction of the entire enterprise. This is a Herculean world one accepts or rejects outright, without half measures.