Leopold Stokowski = BRITTEN: Piano Concerto, Op. 13; ENESCU: Rumanian Rhapsody in A Major, Op. 11; DEBUSSY (Orch. Stokowski): The Engulfed Cathedral; BAUER: Sun Splendor; BORODIN: Dances of the Polovetzki Maidens – Jacques Abram, piano/ Philharmonic-Sym. Society of NY /Leopold Stokowski – Guild

by | Feb 25, 2015 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Leopold Stokowski = BRITTEN: Piano Concerto, Op. 13; ENESCU: Rumanian Rhapsody in A Major, Op. 11; DEBUSSY (Orch.  Stokowski): The Engulfed Cathedral; BAUER: Sun Splendor, Op. 19c; BORODIN (arr. Stokowski): Dances of the Polovetzki Maidens – Jacques Abram, piano/ Philharmonic-Sym. Society of NY /Leopold Stokowski – Guild GHCD 2419, 70:27 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

More orchestral magic from the virtually limitless musical well of Leopold Stokowski’s legacy, here presented with the (unofficially titled) New York Philharmonic from Carnegie Hall, 1947-1949, that period when he and Dimitri Mitropoulos basically shared the Music Director position.  The opening work in this assembled program, the Enescu A Major Rumanian Rhapsody (20 February 1947) originally concluded a concert program in which William Kapell performed Prokofiev’s C Major Concerto. We can glean from this thoroughly histrionic performance of Enescu that Stokowski wished to close the musical proceedings with a decisive explosion, including some thrilling trumpet work that lights the whole house on fire.

The Dances of the Polovetzki Maidens by Borodin (27 November 1949) begin with the equivalent of a muezzin call, much in mode of the Caucasian Sketches of Ippolitov-Ivanov.  Winds, harp, and strings weave an exotic tapestry rife with oriental winds and quivering desire. Then, the familiar strains enter, piping and luxurious, beckoning a stranger into Paradise. The typically ripe “Stokowski Sound” has captured us in its mesmerizing coils, and we become willing slaves. Now, the pipes enjoy the muscular company of the tympani and French horns, and the tuttis bound and flash in colors worthy of Rudolf Valentino. With even more energy and pounding tempos, the snare, pizzicato strings, and frenetic winds whirl as one exultant dervish, he too lost in Paradise.

The Stokowski orchestration of Debussy’s piano Prelude Le Cathedrale engloutie emerges (13 February 1947) like some immense Titan released from submerged bondage.  Stokowski has his interior harmonies evolve under an inverted pedal and then proceed to lionize his theme in Technicolor.  Later, the winds and brass delineate the theme over a bass pedal that moves and grumbles, as if expectant that the process shall renew itself indefinitely.

Marion Bauer (1882-1955) enjoys the world premier of her 1936 score Sun Splendor, a tone poem the composer finally orchestrated in 1946, close to its appearance at this concert (25 October 1947).  The percussive, angular syntax shares elements from Antheil and Roussel, the latter influence likely the result of Bauer’s studies with Nadia Boulanger. What appeals most to the listener lies in the crafting of competing colors in their ardent, occasionally martial rhythmic mix. That Stokowski programmed the work without the benefit of a published score says as much about the conductor’s faith and experimental attitude as it does about the New York musicians who provide us a potently committed account.

The 1938 Britten Piano Concerto (27 November 1949) has its first United States broadcast, here in its (third) revised form, Britten’s having replaced the original third movement Recitative and Aria with a movement he calls Impromptu.  Pianist Jacques Abram (1915-1998) had given the US premier with Maurice Abravanel in Salt Lake City, and he later went on to perform the work at the 1952 Henry Wood Proms, eventually recording the concerto with Herbert Menges for HMV. The opening Toccata: Allegro molto e con brio certainly convinces us that virtuosos occupy places on both sides of the score, since Britten often used the concerto as a vehicle for his own keyboard talents. Martellato octaves and driving chords mark the first movement, clearly exploiting the piano’s capacities as a percussive instrument.  The sonata-form permits a more relaxed lyrical theme; and after a grand cadenza, the piano does play the lyrical theme, tranquillo, over pizzicato strings. The music then proceeds in the manner of a divertissement, with movements marked Waltz: Allegretto; Impromptu: Andante lento; and March: Allegro moderato sempre a la marcia.

Fourths from muted horns, then a solo viola announce the ironic Waltz movement, in which the clarinet and then the keyboard elaborate before the really compulsive aspects set in. The full orchestra, staccato, blasts in, and glockenspiel and strings col legno contribute their characteristic colors. Britten adapted his music from the 1937 King Arthur incidental music for his Impromptu movement. Abram’s opening piano solo sounds more like a voluptuous cadenza than a prelude of any kind. The series of variations – some quite glittery and audacious – that follows displays some influence from the Second Viennese School, but Britten’s temper remains tonal in spite of the passing dissonances. Both Mahler and Shostakovich color the military fanfares of the propulsive last movement. Some commentators speculate that, like Shostakovich, Britten had already presaged the oncoming global conflict that lay ahead for Europe and the world. The exciting amalgam of styles and colors has proved once more to suit Stokowski’s flamboyant taste, and the results send the audience into raptures.

—Gary Lemco

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