Leopold Stokowski = BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A Major; BACH: Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor; MENDELSSOHN: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; GLUCK: Sicilienne from Armide; BEN HAIM: From Israel – various orchestras/Stokowski – Cala

by | Oct 23, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Leopold Stokowski = BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 93; BACH: Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582 (orch. by Stokowski); MENDELSSOHN: Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream; GLUCK: Sicilienne from Armide (arr. Stokowski); BEN HAIM: From Israel–Suite for Orchestra – Symphony of the Air (Beethoven, Ben Haim)/ International Festival Youth Orchestra (Bach)/ All-American Youth Orchestra (Mendelssohn)/Symphony Orchestra (Gluck)/ Leopold Stokowski

Cala CACD0551, 77:16 [www.calarecords.com] ***** [Distr. by Forte]:

With the release of Leopold Stokowski’s stereophonic inscriptions on CD, the Leopold Stokowski Society bids adieu to its sustained, 35-CD remastering project of the colorful maestro’s recorded legacy. The Beethoven and Ben-Haim reissues, made for the United Artists label 1958-1959, prove particularly pointed, the stereophonic process dear to Stokowski’s own aural perspective, and the responsive Symphony of the Air simply the sobriquet of the former NBC Symphony created for Arturo Toscanini.

The Beethoven Seventh Symphony (17 December 1958, from Carnegie Hall) enjoys a viscerally sober approach, the flute and the tympani quite resonant in the first movement, the ur-rhythm maintained with pungent deliberation throughout. The final pages project a thrilling resonance, the fury and freedom of the dance at once. The A Minor Allegretto, once described by Virgil Thomson as “the most tragic music Beethoven ever wrote,” flows nobly, a lithely melancholy procession whose sonic separation of the string choirs adds a haunted poignancy to the occasion. The fugal section allows a diaphanous breadth into the texture, no less valedictory but urging the spirit upwards, a somberly haloed effect, as from El Greco.  The muscular Presto in F follows, winged in spirit, boldly colorful. The dance transcends itself, the beats coming at a furious pace. The trio, loosely based on an Austrian pilgrims’ hymn, has Stokowski basking in the woodwind effects while strings hold long notes from a distilled ether. The last movement, Allegro con brio, plunges ahead with a fearless exuberance, its Bacchic insistence never settling for anything like metric complacency. Stokowski connects with its limitless wellspring of energy, its sizzling fusion of Coleridge’s momentous fountain and icy caves.

Stokowski assembled an international group of young musicians in St. Moritz (31 August 1969) to perform his 1922 transcription of Bach’s great Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor. The Gothic arches of the music rise up in strings and woodwinds and soon embrace the entire orchestral complement, easily suggestive of the organ’s diapason or ‘positiv.’ The grand fluidity of line, undergirded by the massive bass ostinato, achieves the remarkable illusion of “freedom in necessity” that marks this magnificent musical architecture. To hear these youthful musicians trill–whether in strings or brass–alone warrants anyone’s possession of this amazing record!

Between 1940-1941, Stokowski created the All-American Youth Orchestra, and with them he inscribed a number of discs for CBS. That two turntables had been utilized to capture the sessions became evident in 2004, when something like “binaural” synchronizations were produced by archivist Anthony Fountain and engineer Matt Cavaluzzo. The result is a Scherzo from A Midsummer Night’s Dream (10 July 1941) of astonishing presence and acerbic power, the flute and the strings singing, rollicking in witty splendor. Stokowski’s arco (rather than pizzicato) string arrangement of Gluck’s Sicilienne from Armide (15 August 1957) derives from a Capitol LP made in Hollywood with musicians gleaned from the LA Philharmonic.

Stokowski made the first recording of Paul Ben-Haim’s 1951 five-movement From Israel Suite (20 February 1959) for United Artists. The exotic scoring appeals to Stokowski exactly as Cowell’s Persian Set compelled the Stokowski inscription for CRI. Brassy and dance-like, the Prologue carries a heraldic, strutting tune through desert sands. Song of Songs takes its cue from the Bible’s Song of Solomon, an allegorical representation of God’s sweet promise to Israel or the spirit to the human soul. A psaltery with concertante violin and harp, the lyric movement has a transparent allure. Yemenite Melody exploits Arabic folksong in a more rhythmic manner, colossal and vigorous suggestive of passionate belly-dance. Siesta casts a flute solo against harp and pedal-tome strings, a silken veil of repose. An affecting song rises, a nocturne-serenade which dissolves back into the pearly sky. Celebration extends the Yemenite tune, perhaps a brilliant, distant cousin of Ippolitov-Ivanov’s “In the Village” from Caucasian Sketches.

How do we thank the Leopold Stokowski (founded 1978) and its happy collaboration with Cala Records? Edward Johnson and Anthony Teal, Christine Ducrotoy and Cala Artistic Director Geoffrey Simon, engineers Paschal Byrne and Mark Obert-Thorn, along with a host of devoted sponsors, produced a set of 35 CDs testifying to the perennial value of Stokowski’s recorded legacy and of his catholic musical taste.  The baton now passes to Pristine Audio and other enterprising devotees of great conducting. For me, too, a privileged visitor the Leopold Stokowski Society years ago–I well recall my meeting with John Holmes–it’s been an audiophile audition nothing short of spectacular.

— Gary Lemco

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