Guild GHCD 2341, 78:55 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
Recorded live at Helsinki University’s Festival Hall, 17 June 1953, Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) leads the same orchestra long associated with Sibelius’ first great champion, Robert Kajanus. While the sound occasionally flickers and orchestral definition suffers wow and blurred timbres, the intensity of music-making never wavers. Typical of Stokowski, even the popular and over-performed Finlandia enjoys some long-held caesuras and an elastic singing line. The opening announcement by Jim Fassett possesses a musical counterpoint of the vocal version of the piece, a male chorus intoning “Be Still My Soul” in Finnish.
The E Minor Symphony is one of four Stokowski led and inscribed with some constancy. After its long pedal and woodwind introduction, the upward rising figures and bucolic chirpings gain ascendancy over the pizzicati. A crackly haze covers some of the sonic patina, but the sensuality and underlying pulsation of the motives quite sweep one away. The musical evolution, according to truncated aspects of sonata-form, Stokowski takes to majestic heights, especially the central climax of the first movement, which sounds as if it were led by an inflamed Celibidache. The Andante bears several points of departure with the symphony in the same key by Tchaikovsky, and Stokowski warms up to the affects in equally poignant terms. A distinct winter wind blows through these northern trees and lights, the music gusting with elemental fury. Gallant thunder for the Scherzo, whose flute, trumpet, string, and tympani parts oppose each other in colorist combat. Sonic deterioration and flutter plague the glorious finale, a rather hectic tempo adapted by Stokowski, but the largamente theme rises with a glacial majesty over our horizon.
The five excerpts from Pelleas et Melisande exude that same dark-hued melancholy that Faure realizes from the same tale. Melisande, By the Sea, Pastorale, Entr’acte, and The Death of Melisande each flow with somber energies, occasionally obviated by broken sound. But the tenacity of purpose, the lyric impulse, never falters. Stokowski seems to have cherished the C Major Symphony, whose one-movement fantasia evolves out of a series of through-composed chords and modal harmonies. Distant in sound, the music still maintains a vivid, striking character as its main, melodic impulse snakes and hesitates its way into prominence. I found that raising the volume helped matters, the woodwinds and strings’ antiphons gaining in anguish and angular symmetry. Stokowski takes the middle section, storm-like, furioso, the sea perhaps a factor in the sense of storm and stress. After ten minutes, the elegant theme ascends and the energetic flurries and diaphanous string runs carry us into a northern world like few others. The final intensities bear a striking resemblance to the B Minor tone-poem Tapiola.