Mark Obert-Thorn restores one of the great wonders of Stokowski’s art, his brilliant and convincing versions of Rimsky-Korsakov’s scores.
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Scheherazade, Op. 35; Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36; The Maid of Pskov (Ivan the Terrible): Prelude to Act 3; Scheherazade: The Sea and Sinbad’s Ship: take recorded 3 May 1927; Appendix: The Tale of the Kalender Prince: alternative take of Side 4 – Philadelphia Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 529. 71:55 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
If any American orchestral ensemble in the so-called “Golden Age” of recording could compete with—and even surpass—European counterparts, the Philadelphia Orchestra under Leopold Stokowski holds special distinction. Producer and Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn resuscitates the series of Rimsky-Korsakov performances that Stokowski committed to shellacs 1927-1939. The lithe, sensuous gloss of the orchestra combines with Rimsky-Korsakov’s natural elasticity of melodic line to produce some of the most refreshed Russian music we are likely to experience in 2018. Stokowski had the distinct advantage of first-rate men at the principal desks of his Philadelphia Orchestra, including Mischa Mischakoff, concertmaster—who went on to Toscanini’s NBC Symphony—Daniel Bonade, clarinet, and Marcel Tabuteau, oboe.
The disc opens with a rousing performance of the 1888 Russian Easter Overture, a work I myself “learned” via Stokowski’s later 1953 RCA LP (LM 1816) that featured bass-baritone Nicola Moscona in the liturgical middle section that usually finds intonation via the trombone from the composer’s original scoring. The festive brilliance of the piece, originally entitled “Glowing Holiday,” music as pantheistic as it is devotional to Russian orthodoxy, proves luscious in its exuberant rhythms and color vitality. The music moves from the dark solemnity (Andante lugubre) of the Passion Saturday to a kind of ‘pagan’ rapture of the Obikhod tune, “Christ is Risen,” celebrated with brass, triangle, bells, and tympani, all dancing in swirling ecstasy. The restored sound completely belies the age of the recording, the ascending string work virtually blistering paint off my computer screen!
The rendition of the 1894 The Maid of Pskov – Prelude to Act III (9 April 1939) captures the militant spirit of the piece by means of virtuoso work in the Philadelphia woodwinds and brass. Once more, a flexible, fluid, and sensuous string line carries, or rather propels, us forward. The music soon depicts a storm-scene, highly influenced by Wagner’s The Flying Dutchman and cross-fertilized by effects we know from Beethoven. Some of the features, which culminate in liturgical sonorities, seem formulaic to Rimsky-Korsakov, since we hear them in the Op. 36 and in moments of the Tsar Saltan, Op. 57.
Mark Obert-Thorn includes the unpublished first movement of the Symphonic Suite Scheherazade (3 May 1927), set on three lacquer sides and utilizing a broad, expansive tempo, combines sensuousness and urgency at once, the strings and winds indulging in erotic colloquy. The tenor of the performance, aggressive, masculine, virile, lacks something of the suave diligence of the later Beecham recording, which to my mind proves the most “feminine” of all, preserving the point of view of our eponymous narrator and her life-extending tales. Let my remarks, however, not detract from immediate allure of this classic rendition, especially this first movement, which deserves an airing for its own merits.
The “official” recording of 8-11 October 1927 begins with a first movement with a more compressed sense of phrase and faster tempo than that set in May. The effect, nonetheless, proves gripping in its muscular authority and piercing articulation by the various color instruments, such as the horn, flute, and viola. Mischakoff’s contribution, fast and wiry, still intimates the delicacy of a narrator beguiled by the might of the sea and the intricacies of fate. Typical of the Romantic style of conducting, Stokowski indulges in slides and rhythmic licenses that expand the sense of exoticism in the score. The marvelous woodwind colors—and later muted horns and strings—for The Tale of the Kalender Prince weave a spell utterly unique in music: the Kalenders were a species of fakirs, wandering monks who specialized in magic tricks. This particular monk turns out to be an aristocrat in disguise. The Philadelphians exercise several virtuoso episodes, not the least of which involves militant tunes and the high piccolo and triangle. The fairy-tale quality of the music becomes sumptuous (with portamento) in the Adagio, the love-scene of Prince Kamar al-Zanna and the Princess Budur. Besides the seductive strings, the Philadelphia percussion practices its own guile, adding to the excitement and mystery of “the damsel like a pearl of great price.” The last movement, The Festival at Bagdad, employs many of the colors Rimsky-Korsakov had edited in the opera Prince Igor of his colleague Borodin, especially in the Polovtsian Dances. Stokowski’s approach remains swift and sure, moving with a sultry passion and implacable sense of decision. With the blazing action and wonder of the destruction of Sinbad’s ship, the ominous threat of King Shahryar’s oath to destroy all of his wives becomes subdued, his fatal skepticism of women placated by his marvelous mistress of 1001 Tales of the Arabian Nights. My own plan for a radio airing would be to splice the May 3 take to the remainder of the performance from October.
Obert-Thorn proves an appendix in terms of an alternative in the second movement from 13 October 1927. The totality of these incursions into the wonder of Rimsky-Korsakov’s orchestral genius has been mesmerizing; and they beg an inevitable question: why did this brilliant composer never pen a full-fledged violin concerto?