Artur Rodzinski, piano (in Franck) Music & Arts CD-1173 (4 mono CDs) 58:42; 75:54; 73:27; 74:52 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
The association of Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) with the Philadelphia Orchestra produced the 20th Century’s first substantial repertory committed to sound recordings. Between 1917 and 1940 Stokowski experimented with acoustic, electrical, and even early longplay and stereo forms of shellacs, the brunt of which has appeared in the CD format through official sources. Music & Arts, with the able assistance of editor Mark-Obert Thorn, now provides a lion’s share of missing materials, recorded 1927-1940, which should supplement any collector’s desire to hear Stokowski’s impassioned and relatively unaffected style with an ensemble he honed to perfection. Even among familiar works, collectors should note that alternative takes occupy these discs – like the 1934 excerpt from Bach’s St.. John Passion, which Stokowski recorded again in 1940.
Given that the so-called “authenticity” revival was sixty years into the future, Stokowski’s presentations of Baroque and late Renaissance music remain lush, even sumptuous examples of orchestral vehicles for a virtuoso body of musicians. The Bach arrangements, which often place Marcel Tabuteau’s oboe or William Kincaid’s flute in high relief, project the “Stokowski Sound,” often achieved by permitting free-bowing in the Philadelphia strings to maintain a seamless stream of sound, without a tactus from the shifts in uniform arm position. The great Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (1929) rises incandescently; and whatever one feels about Stokowski’s revamping organ works for the diapason of his orchestra, the nobility of the musical line reigns supreme. Buoyancy and transparent charm mark the 1929 Boccherini and Hoffstetter (aka Haydn) pieces. The Beethoven 5th from July 1931 is from RCA Victor’s unsuccessful foray into long-play. [Not the pioneer effort; Edison was first with 40-minute discs in the mid-1920s…Ed.] The extended marcato e pesant of the opening theme finds compensation in the faster tempos later in the score.
Stokowski calls Franck a “cloistered mystic,” and his 1927 D Minor performance luxuriates in a post-Tristanesque, portamento-laden ecstasy. The Philadelphia string line is a silver serpent of sound, the arches expanding and contracting with stop-on-a-dime precision. The Allegretto movement waxes redolent with incense, close to the erotic architecture we have in Mengelberg and Furtwaengler. Stokowski had recorded this movement with his orchestra in 1922, but it was not issued, nor was the project carried through for the centennial of the composer’s birth. Despite some hiss, the last movement brings us into the sunlight, although echoes of the church and beyond collide in voluptuous panoply. The two Debussy Nocturnes (1927-1929) open with a Nuages detached from the earth; recall the opening of the film Portrait of Jennie. The haze pulsates with erotic possibility as the bass element increases its presence. Fetes crackles with excitement, the string articulation in both arco and pizzicato passagework against the harp the envy of American orchestra ensembles. If William Kincaid’s flute flurries brilliantly in Fetes, it seduces every woman in hearing range of the 1940 Faun. The 1937 Clair de Lune is old-world sentimentality, a vestige of the Gilded Age.
Disc One restores the pre-Baroque and Baroque inscriptions Stokowski made 1930-1937. Vivaldi’s D Minor Concerto (1934) from L’Estro armonico is an over-ripe fruit, with a lovely duet for flute and oboe forming the Intermezzo. The layering of the string parts relates to Stokowski’s penchant for organ-style diapason effects which permeate his Bach transcriptions. Stokowski re-arranges Felix Mottl’s Lully Suite(1930), dropping one section and re-scoring the string parts for lush, layered and sliding effects. The transfers by Obert-Thorn are the soul of quiet. Palestrina’s Adoramis te (1934), Byrd’s Pavane (1937), and Frescobaldi’s Gagliarda (1934) make us wonder why Stokowski never recorded the Adagietto from Mahler’s Fifth Symphony. Most unusual is Stokowski’s arrangement of Handel’s sonata for his second Chandos Anthem as an Overture in D Minor (1935), permitting us to savor the Philadelphia string trill and the Kincaid-Tabuteau combination. The Pastoral Symphony from Messiah (1930) allows us a moment of exquisite repose. Stokowski uses Hamilton Harty’s familiar arrangement of the six-movement Water Music Suite (1934). Detailed, loving phrasing and unstylistic slides characterize an intimate version of otherwise pompous regality.
Disc Four extends our Stokowski legacy with recordings made 1929-1939. The Weber Invitation to the Dance (via Berlioz, 1937) enjoys rich acoustics and reverberation. William Kincaid sails over some pungent high and deeply sonorous low strings. Even the pizzicati have girth, and Tabuteau’s oboe sings like a voice in the forest. Great brass work to complement the Handel items. The Brahms Fourth (1931; 1933) is a composite performance from 1933 (opening three and one half minutes) and 1931, originally issued on LP by Nieman-Marcus. Elegiac and even bucolic, the E Minor Symphony unfolds dramatically, but the lines are neither hysterical nor urgently taut. The Phrygian Andante moderato is a model of orchestral discipline and homogeneous tone, the equivalent for what Mengelberg had achieved in Amsterdam. A relatively smooth Allegro giocoso, no rough edges and solid tympani work. Stokowski molds the passacaglia theme from Bach’s Cantata 150 with loving, even fastidious care. Portamenti and luftpausen litter the streets, but the musical flow proceeds inexorably to a preconceived end. This is old-world Brahms, and William Kincaid might be a troubadour from the Black Forest. After a solemn appearance by Stokowski‚s Band of Gold brass, the tempo accelerates and does not relent, the strings bouncing as they will for Dukas’ Sorcerer’s Apprentice.
The 1934 Hungarian Dance in G Minor explodes in frothy hipped cream, more akin to Xavier Cugat than to traditional Brahms, even via Remenyi. The two 1939 diced and spliced Strauss waltzes are liquid enough to let you forget more notes were sacrificed to shellac limitations than we hear on the records. The 1929 Dance of the Seven Veils is another matter entirely: no concessions to the hoi polloi, this inscription seethes visceral menace and artful lust, the musical equivalent of Gustav Moreau’s Eve. Finally, Stokowski’s homage to Americana: two Sousa marches from 1929, just another excuse to relish Mr. Kincaid’s wicked flute virtuosity. Crisp, animated, and eminently patriotic, we have to remember that the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski was a home-grown band which could hold its own with the great ensembles of the musical world.
— Gary Lemco