Nikolai Sokoloff and the Cleveland Orchestra: Complete Recordings, 1924-28 – The Cleveland Orchestra. Nikolai Sokoloff – Pristine Audio

by | Mar 11, 2018 | Classical Reissue Reviews

Recording and audio restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has a coup in the form of the complete recordings (for the Brunswick label) of Russian-born conductor Nikolai Sokoloff (1886-1965), the first leader of the Cleveland Orchestra. 

Nikolai Sokoloff and the Cleveland Orchestra: Complete Recordings, 1924-28 = BORODIN: Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor; BRAHMS: Hungarian Dance No. 5 in g minor; Symphony No. 2: Allegretto; DELIBES: Coppelia: Entr’acte and Valse; DVORAK: Slavonic Dance in D, Op. 46, No. 3; GRAINGER: Shepherd’s Hey;  HALVORSEN: Entry March of the Boyars; NICOLAI: The Merry Wives of Windsor – Overture; PIERNE: Cydalise et le Chevre-Pied: Entrance of the Little Fauns; RACHMANINOV: Symphony No. 2 in e minor, Op. 27; Prelude in c-sharp minor; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Song of India; SAINT-SAENS: Danse Macabre, Op. 40; SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in b minor, D. 759 “Unfinished”; SCHUMANN: Trauemerei, Op. 15, No. 7; SIBELIUS: Valse Triste, Op. 44; Finlandia, Op. 26; J. STRAUSS: On the Beautiful Blue Danube; Tales from the Vienna Woods; TCHAIKOVSKY: 1812 Overture, Op. 49; Sleeping Beauty – Waltz, Op. 66; WAGNER: Lohengrin: Prelude to Act 3; Bridal Chorus – The Cleveland Orchestra. Nikolai Sokoloff – Pristine Audio PASC 524 (3 CDs) TT: 3 hrs 20 secs [] ****:

Sokoloff would lead the Cleveland Orchestra 1918-1932, inaugurating national and international tours, initiating young people’s educational concerts, and instituting radio and broadcast performances. Among his various worksite practices, he hired women instrumentalists who received the same rate of pay as his men. He left Cleveland in 1935 to head the Federal Music Project until 1937, during which time he channeled funds into various orchestral and vocal organizations in Cleveland. He later led the orchestra in Seattle before moving on to organize an orchestra in LaJolla, California.

From what Obert-Thorn assembles for these discs, we hear highly energized set of performances, much in the Romantic tradition—Sokoloff  employs slides and portamento as freely as Stokowski and Mengelberg—and the vigor of approach more than once had my musical imagination’s comparing Sokoloff with Albert Coates, especially in the Russian repertory or any music whose pace accelerates with unabashed fury. While I rarely express much enthusiasm over acoustic recordings—and these often elicit the whine and hollow upper range that consistently drive my avoidance—the musical acuity and natural affinity of style in the work of Brahms, Dvorak, and Wagner excited my blood. The tempo of the Hungarian Dance No. 5 seems exactly that which Chaplin exploits for his shave-sequence in The Great Dictator. Truncated versions—to suit the time limits of the 78 shellacs—of Johann Strauss, Sibelius, Nicolai, Saint-Saens, and Tchaikovsky’s 1812 (Op. 49, not Op. 44) notwithstanding, the musicality remains, and the Valse from Sleeping Beauty – incorrectly assigned opus 20—enjoys a slick verve that makes us wish for more. The Allegretto movement from the Brahms D Major Symphony devolves into pure mania, though it had begun stylistically alert.

Obert-Thorn provides considerable technical detail on Brunswick’s 1926 “Light-Ray” process for electrical recordings, which presented distortion issues in the forte range and above. Some shatter readily appears in the opening brass foray of Rachmaninov’s Prelude in c-sharp minor. The string line in Nicolai, however, set along an inverted pedal, enjoys a smooth legato, even though I find the brass much too subdued.  By the time the introductory bars segue, the Overture is half over. The trumpet work proves exemplary, rivaling what Dobrowen could elicit from the Philharmonia Orchestra in the Tsar Saltan. Is it violinist Joseph Fuchs who leads us in Danse Macabre?  No repeats, but the interchange with the xylophone and fugal strings demonstrates pert resonance. The climactic polyphony on the Dies Irae, despite the cuts, really whistles up a storm. The Halvorsen Entry March of the Boyars seems to me quite, even singularly, successful, with clear clarinet, brass—including piccolo, cymbals and snare drum – and string response. The lighter textures proceed with delightful finesse.

“The Final Electrics” series of recordings had Brunswick’s adapting the more successful process of rival companies Columbia and Victor, and the resultant acoustical efficiency manifests itself in stylish readings—albeit distant in some microphone placement—of Schubert’s “Unfinished” Symphony, whose rhythmic license often nods to Willem Mengelberg as a kindred spirit. The retention of the first movement repeat adds dramatic girth to the innate lyricism of the occasion, made even more intense through the liberal use of rubato. The chorale quality of the second movement’s martial progress can be quite affecting, and Sokoloff’s maintenance of individual wind colors only needs better sound to do it justice. Though I find the Entr’acte and Valse from Coppelia insipid as music, the rendition from Sokoloff proves as stylish as any Beecham version of French music. For lightness and natural elan, Grainger’s Morris Dance, Shepherd’s Hey, relishes the composer’s rusticity as well as anyone.

The three works that constitute Disc 3—a second, abridged Valse Triste of Sibelius, the Borodin Polovtsian Dances, and the Rachmaninov Second Symphony—approach a “modern” sound.  The scintillating, alternately driven and leisurely, performance of the Borodin dances from Act II of Prince Igor exerts the same energy and buoyancy I look to from Mitropoulos in his CBS version from New York. As early as 1919 had Sokoloff approached Rachmaninov about editing his massive e minor Symphony for popular consumption. Judicious but not excessive cuts followed—including a tempo change for the second movement and several harmonization adjustments—and so the version that Sokoloff recorded retains more music than Ormandy in Philadelphia would promulgate as the “official,” cut score that endured after 1934. Those of us who relish the recorded versions by Sanderling and Rozhdestvensky in contemporary sound will discover a poignant, emotionally literate reading (7-8 May 1928) from Sokoloff, expansive as it is sincere, especially for this work’s debut on records. Savor the arch-Romantic Adagio for its expressive opulence, a poignant tribute to Sokoloff’s art.

Obert-Thorn notes that Sokoloff went on to make records on the Alco and Concert Hall labels of music by Dello Joio, Rosza, Lopatnikoff, Martinu, and Britten. We might hope that Obert-Thorn’s ambitions for restoration projects will embrace these documents.

—Gary Lemco



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