BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in c minor, Op. 68; WEBER: Invitaton to the Dance, Op. 65 (arr. Berlioz/Stokowski); J. STRAUSS: On the Beautiful Blue Danube Waltz, Op. 314; Tales from the Vienna Woods Waltz, Op. 325; LISZT: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (orch. Mueller-Berghaus) – Philadelphia Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 500, 70:01 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
Mark Obert-Thorn initiates an integral survey of the Brahms symphonies by Stokowski, buttressed by virtuoso supporting recordings.
Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) receives from Mark Obert-Thorn tribute upon the advent of Stokowski’s 135th year of his birth (on 18 April 1882), here in the first electrical recording of any Brahms symphony (25-27 April 1927), the first installment of the complete cycle that Stokowski left for posterity 1927-1933. Stokowski would record the Brahms First Symphony five times, each a reminder of Stokowski’s penchant for imposing a distinct organ sonority on the work’s massive melodic structure. The tendency to “layer” the various orchestral voices in the manner of the organ’s diapason seems to thicken an already generous texture, especially when the Philadelphia strings engage in their monumental capacity. On 30 April 1927 Stokowski lectured from the keyboard his “Outline of Themes,” whereby he provides an enthusiastic bit of commentary, ending with his appreciation of the gramophone as an instrument that would enable listeners to audition such great music as many times as opportunity and taste demanded.
The opening movement, Un poco sostenuto – Allegro delivers both drama and colossal impetus. The performance holds up extremely well by contemporary standards, relatively free from “romantic” rhetoric and bathos. The ensemble’s intonation, especially in the low winds, brass and string line, reveal a directness and precision that few ensembles could rival then or now, and that includes the Mengelberg/Concertgebouw experience. Always, Stokowski’s breathed phrases enjoy a vocal character, balancing the various textures-in-dialogue from individual winds to strings, over a pungent, rolling tympani line.
A bit more of the concession to old-world musical values infuses the Andante sostenuto, with its slides in the string line. But here, too, we have a clarity and nobility of line that transcends the rhetorical moment. The oboe, clarinet, violin solo, and horn entries, clarion and exalted, retain a fervor and affectionate ardor that we seek in the music of Brahms. The huge pedal points, again bolstered by the organ sensibility, quite fill out a monumental sound space in the Brahms idiom. The A-flat Un poco allegretto e grazioso enjoys an almost over-ripe sonority, so its five-bar phrases assume a girth that once more points to an organ swell. Rich, even luxurious, the Philadelphia string sound nearly overwhelms the brass militancy that will later try to quell the underlying tensions (in f minor) in this grudging concession to lyrical beauty, that ends with triplets and a downward arpeggio.
Even in his piano accompaniment discussion of themes, Stokowski highlights the grandly melodic design of the last movement, whose opening Adagio proceeds over a potent tympanic pedal and roll. The pizzicati proceed towards a ferocious building up of layered sound that bursts forth in an Alpine horn call over shimmering Philadelphia strings. Everything moves in preparation for a bucolic evocation that will embrace the familiar hymn-tune that resonates with elements of Beethoven’s Ninth. The tempo of the Allegro non troppo does not drag lugubriously or ponderously, despite the conscious girth of expression. We do hear moments of archaic portamento from time to time, but the impetus of this driven rendition will bear comparison to the ‘classical’ renditions by Weingartner and Toscanini. At moments Stokowski achieves a sense of relative calm and security within the otherwise stormy development, with high arches of string sound. The sumptuous, rolling figures leading to the extended coda announce unequivocally Stokowski’s commitment to organ registrations, huge, pompous, exalted.
Obert-Thorn points out that Stokowski has recorded the Weber Invitation to the Dance in an acoustic version, cut to fit the requirements of the shellacs and Weingartner’s arrangement. Here 7 May 1927) Stokowski utilizes the colorful Berlioz edition, and augmented by Stokowski’s own touches in clarinet and flute, ushering in the cello section and having responses from the oboe. Some of the colors, as in the huge harp glissandos, verge on Hollywood kitsch, but the flair and brio of the moment salvage something like “taste” for this virtuoso performance. The two Strauss waltzes – the first records cut in the Academy of Music 10 June 1926) – suffer huge cuts to accommodate the 78 rpm medium. Connoisseurs would have to turn to Clemens Krauss and Erich Kleiber for the full scores. If the silken elegance of orchestral sheen remains your whole concern, then the drastic cuts will not deter your enjoyment.
The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 (18 November 1926 and 10 March 1927) might have been led by Willem Mengelberg, for all the willful exaggerations and rhythmic licorice-pulls and tugs the music endures. Still, the exuberantenergy and sheer virtuosic exhibition in the performance rather explodes anything like “academic” criticism. Listening to this charismatic razzle-dazzle, one can well hear (and see) the temptation to have cartoon characters hustle through manic melodramas to ingrain this music into our collective consciousness. It’s a circus-ride of epic, quite breathtaking proportions.