Leopold Stokowski – All-American Youth Orchestra and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Their Rarest 78 rpm Recordings, 1940-1946 – Music & Arts (3 CDs)

by | Apr 13, 2015 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Leopold Stokowski – All-American Youth Orchestra and the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, Their Rarest 78 rpm Recordings, 1940-1946 = TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 ‘Pathetique”; Solitude, Op. 73, No. 6; Humoresque, Op. 10, No. 3; NOVACEK: Perpetuum Mobile; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Flight of the Bumble; STRAVINSKY: Firebird Suite; MUSSORGSKY: Boris Gudunov – Symphonic Synthesis; Pictures at an Exhibition; WAGNER: Love Music from Tristan und Isolde; WEBER: Invitation to the Dance, Op. 65; SCHUMANN: Traumerei; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2; FALLA: Ritual Fire Dance; BERLIN: God Bless America; CRESTON: Scherzo from Symphony No. 1; GOULD: Guarache; STILL: Scherzo from Afro-American Symphony; COWELL: Tales of Our Countryside; SMITH: The Star-Spangled Banner; DOLAN: Glamour Waltz; CLARKE: Prince of Denmark March; HAYDN: Andante cantabile; SCHUBERT: Moment musicale No. 3; BRAHMS: Hungarian Dance No. 1; TCHAIKOVSKY: Solitude; Humoresque; OFFENBACH: Barcarolle; J. STRAUSS II: Die Fledermaus – Waltzes – Henry Cowell, piano/ Goddard Lieberson, speaker (Pledge to the Flag)/ Leopold Stokowski – Music & Arts CD-1287 (3 CDs), 77:06, 74:34, 77:07 (4/14/15)  [Distr. by Naxos] ****:  

Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) consistently touted youthful American instrumentalists and ensembles as competitive and creative as any “youth” in the world, and his attitude in creating the All-American Youth Symphony 1940 was certainly meant to oppose any National Socialist aims in promoting cultural hegemony. Stokowski meant to tour South America in the summer of 1940 with his selected ensemble, including principal players taken from the Philadelphia Orchestra, which Stokowski had led since 1912. In order for Columbia Records to sponsor the costs of touring, Stokowski and CBS made stipulations for recordings, which included sessions at New York City’s Liederkranz Hall and during the tour itself, including the venue, the Gran Rex Theater in Buenos Aires. In 1941, the recording sessions moved to the Columbia studios in Hollywood, California. As the 1940s waxed forward beyond the war years, Stokowski then formed the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra, over which he presided for the summers of 1945-1946.

Recording engineer and producer Mark Obert-Thorn has assembled those rare shellacs that have previously eluded transfer to the CD format.  The main entry, the Tchaikovsky Pathetique Symphony (23 August 1940 and 22 September 1940), emerged from two distinct sessions in Buenos Aires and New York, respectively, and it serves as the conductor’s first full length inscription of the piece. Stokowski’s innate affection for the work bears the typical trademarks of an innately Romantic style – not so far removed from the Willem Mengelberg manipulations – unapologetic in its portamentos and occasional slurring of the metric pulse. The explosive Allegro non troppo section of the first movement testifies to the virtuosity of the players and their responsive discipline to Stokowski’s individual demands on colors and tempo.  The bravura trumpet work certainly warrants our admiration.

The interior pushes and pulls of the melodic line, Allegro con grazia, in the second movement, may well certify the kind of excesses detractors rain down on Stokowski, but the musical effect proves captivating.  The thrilling energy of the scherzo, Allegro molto vivace, bespeaks Stokowski’s unqualified enthusiasm for this movement, dating back to his Philadelphia four sessions in the recording studio in 1921. Musically, the pathos of the last movement Adagio lamentoso requires no added wringing of the heartstrings from Stokowski, who always saw in the movement the progenitor of the Mahler predilection for adagio finales.  Rather a sense of intimate, tragic urgency suffuses the playing, and even some sonic constriction in the original shellacs cannot dampen the lugubrious fervor of the occasion.

The Stokowski transcription of Tchaikovsky’s song, “Again, as before, alone,” Op. 76, No. 3 became known as Solitude in his recorded legacy, and the 5 July 1941 CBS recording has the requisite “wintry wind” pathos. The piano piece Humoresque, Op. 10, No. 2 (10 July 1941) has endured in the Stokowski transcription and in Stravinsky’s use for it in his The Fairy’s Kiss. The bravura Novacek Perpetuum Mobile appears in Stokowski’s later work with the National Philharmonic some thirty years after this inscription of 11 July 1941. The music buzzes with a rhythmic, layered sonority that hearkens to the Bach E Major Partita Prelude.  The Stravinsky Firebird Suite – in its 1919 edition (21 August 1940, from Buenos Aires) – gives us Stokowski’s fourth inscription, again truncating the last scene Finale. From the opening bars in the double basses and low strings we feel enmeshed in a powerfully inspired performance that plays with Stravinsky’s amazing panoply of color effects.

Annotator Richard Feed establishes the fact that among major conductors – excepting Koussevitzky, Dobrowen, and Rodzinski – Stokowski immersed himself in the music of Modest Mussorgsky, especially looking beyond the “domesticated” versions of his scores from Rimsky-Korsakov into the original sources.  The 4 July 1941 Boris Gudonov orchestral suite becomes, via Charles O’Connell’s baptism, a “Symphonic Synthesis.” The highly dramatic sequence of scenes derives from the composer’s earlier, and starkly expressive, of two versions, including the later version’s “Polish Act,” whose polonaise and passionate duet between Princess Marina and the False Dmitri Stokowski found attractive. The highly doxological sequence of heavy chords, the “Coronation Scene,” and the rustically primitive Varlaam’s “The Siege of Kazan” each brings a monumental earthiness of Russian soil – through the potent contrabassoon –  that proves the very heart of the operatic concept.

Stokowski always held the French episodes from Pictures at an Exhibition suspect, so his 1 July 1941 recording from CBS Studios, Hollywood, omits the Tuileries and Market at Limoges sections. The orchestration of the Mussorgsky piano score comes by way of Stokowski himself – although even Richard Freed does not mention the strong influence of Lucien Cailliet (1891-1985) as a likely source for the (1937 transcription) color decisions.  The effect of the “new” orchestration proves engaging, with many points in common with the more familiar coloring by Maurice Ravel. Typically, the string sonority, often ghostly, acquires the “Stokowski sound” complex. “Bydlo” assumes no less than Wagnerian color while the “Catacombs” light up Respighi-style.  “Baba-Yaga” attains the same demonic energy we associate with A Night on Bare Mountain.

Those familiar with Stokowski’s “historic return” to Philadelphia in 1960 know full well the resonant, erotic power of the Tristan Synthesis. When Stokowski and the AAYO returned from South America, they inscribed (17 September 1940, in Liederkranz Hall) what they simply labeled “Love Music” from Tristan, consisting of the end of Act and the Liebesnacht of Act II inflected by Brangane’s Warning.  The voluptuous textures eventually culminate in the Liebestod which fulfills the tragic destiny of the principals.

Except for the Weber Invitation to the Dance (30 August 1940) from Buenos Aires and the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (8 July 1941, from Hollywood), most of the AAYO recordings on Disc 3 stand as fascinating and oft-familiar miniatures.  His only recording of Schumann’s Traumerei  (1 July 1941) is an exception.  But the rarer recordings also embrace some “jingoistic” impulses to celebrate Americanism: the Pledge to the Flag, The Star-Spangled Banner, and God Bless America (24 July 1940) and William Grant Still’s jauntily militant Scherzo (21 August 1940, from Buenos Aires) attest to an overt pride of cultural diversity. The Berlin, Creston, Gould, Still, and Cowell works represent their only commercially recorded performance by Stokowski.  Of these, the Henry Cowell Tales of Our Countryside (rec. 5 July 1941), arranged from four piano pieces, were the result of a direct request from Stokowski for some touring work. The piano obbligato the composer himself supplies. The clarion sonorities of the third movement, “The Harp of Life,” resonate with the power of one of Chopin’s dark Nocturnes or Third Scherzo.

Obert-Thorn concludes this historic reissue with nine cuts from Stokowski’s tenure with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony at Republic Studios, Hollywood, in which the two Tchaikovsky transcriptions appear once more (rec. 25 July and 1 August 1945). The sequence opens with “Message for Liza” (23 August 1946) by Robert E. Dolan for the movie Lady in the Dark with Ginger Rogers.  Like the Offenbach Barcarolle (29 August 1945) and the set of Fledermaus Waltzes (23 August 1946), these are Stokowski’s only “official” recordings. The Clarke Trumpet Voluntary (23 August 1946) proves quite spirited, as does the lightly beguiling Haydn Andante cantabile (30 August 1946), which if memory serves me, Ernie Kovacs employed with witty audacity for his Dutch Masters cigar TV commercials.  Some heavy schmaltz opens the Brahms Hungarian Dance in G Minor (30 August 1946), replete with cimbalom effects.  The Johann Strauss assemblage (23 August 1946) makes us think that Stokowski should have led the sound production (starring Horst Buchholtz) for The Great Waltz. The quality of sound for the Hollywood Bowl sequence remains immediately gratifying.

—Gary Lemco

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