Stokowski Chicago Debut Concerts = BACH: Four Chorale-Preludes (orch. Stokowski); SZABELSKI: Toccata; SHOSTAKOVICH: Prelude in E-flat Minor, Op. 34, No. 14 (arr. Stokowski); PROKOFIEV: Three Scenes from Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64; TCHAIKOVSKY: Swan Lake Suite; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; GLIERE: Symphony No. 3 in B Minor, Op. 42 “Ilya Mourometz” – Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski

Pristine Audio PASC 242 (2-CDs) TT: 2 hrs. 38 min. [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

These discs recapture the first appearances of Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra–2 January 1958 and 9 January 1958–only after some forty-six years since he led the Cincinnati Symphony and had established himself among the world’s great orchestral conductors. The source of these performances lies in a series of New York rebroadcasts of the original concerts–minus various Wagner selections–with dubbed-over narration. Typically, Stokowski manages to adjust the cool linear sound of the Fritz Reiner Chicago Symphony to suit his own acoustical requirements, and we can hear the lushly romantic results in the chorale, “Mein Jesu was vor Seelenweh,” BWV 478, a string dirge of somber power and lachrymose color. Woodwind colors in fugal style announce “Wir glauben all’an einen Gott,” BWV 437, whose bass tones provide a mighty upon which the assertion of universal belief proceeds in layered, jubilant affirmation. The two prior chorale-preludes, “Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland,” and “Komm susser Tod,” luxuriant in that same Stokowski mist and irradiated glow that characterize all his orchestrations of Bach.

Notable for the Stokowski catalogue comes the 1938 Toccata by Boleslaw Szabelski (1896-1979), a purveyor of an atonal style that influenced the “New Polish School” of the 1950s. The Toccata proves a colorfully kaleidoscopic affair, busy in its many choirs, especially in the bass and percussion, though exerting an air of light playfulness to suit itself. In the militant gestures, the music acquires a feverish determination, reminiscent of Shostakovich or inflamed Prokofiev, with piano percussion, snare, trumpet, and agitated strings. The resounding thump of the last chord instigates vigorous audience applause for this Chicago premier. The fatal Prelude in E-flat Minor by Shostakovich reverberates with the gloom of Mussorgsky, especially from his Khovantschina, urgent pageantry in tragically grueling gestures.

Stokowski offers three moments from Prokofiev’s tender score to Romeo and Juliet, the longest being the first: Romeo and Juliet’s Balcony Scene, a night of magical love and ardent tenderness. The chamber-music intimacy that the Chicago strings invoke quite haunts our collective imagination. The oboe of Ray Still makes its fine points of color and pathos. The Dance of the Girls with the Lilies proceeds rather quickly, a diaphanous dance for various instruments, including the CSO saxophone and the concertmaster. Stokowski concludes with Romeo at the Grave of Juliet, a chromatic study in emotional anguish and epic tragedy. The pungency of the CSO brass quite electrifies our senses, the strings rising in throes that remind us that there never was a tale of more woe.

Stokowski chooses eight excerpts from Tchaikovsky’s ballet Swan Lake, Op. 20, making  an excellent live supplement for his extended recording (LM 1894) for RCA Victor. The Pas de deux (Act I, 5) starts explosively and then melts into a solo violin meditation with assorted accompaniment in winds (Donald Peck, flute) and harp. The famed Scene (Act II, 10) achieves a vibrant intensity, lush and haunting at once. The most extended scene, the harp-laden Danse des Cygnes (Act II, 13) plays like an extended fantasia for violin and various combinations and the cello. The two ethnic dances, the Danse Russe and the Danse Espagnole, throb with natural flair and vivid jarring abandon. Delicate mysteries pervade the Danse des petits cygnes (Act IV, 27), sporting Stokowski’s canny use of diminuendi and ritards. Stokowski takes the woodwind-string entry to the finale, with its diminished version of the Scene music, the whole rising up as an apotheosis reminiscent of the conclusion of the composer’s Polish Symphony.

From the opening French horns of the Brahms D Major Symphony, we know Stokowski intends both a luxuriant and effulgent reading, the CSO particularly responsive in providing a warm aura over the expansive proceedings. That we have no parallel document from the period with Fritz Reiner makes the intensely lyrical performance so much more valuable as an indication of the gorgeously homogeneous tone the Chicago Symphony could achieve under a plastic, holistic vision. The second movement alone resounds with monumental passion and bucolic nostalgia in shifting metrics, a fine testament to orchestral discipline and balmy sonority. The proximity in spirit to a Mozart cassation at the movement’s conclusion proves quite remarkable.

More bucolic reverie from the Allegretto grazioso, interrupted momentarily by a burst of hustling energy. Stokowski’s final movement remains expansive, this despite the startling tumult that he invokes from the outset, a real showpiece for the CSO and any devotee of this most happy of the Brahms symphonies. Many would argue that Stokowski’s scrupulous cuts revived the otherwise massive Gliere Third Symphony from near oblivion. Collectors, however, know that the Scherchen performance of the uncut version still ranks among the great records. Stokowski has extant versions of the Gliere with the Boston Symphony, Houston Symphony, and the Cleveland Orchestra. The first movement looms with power and ominous designs, in the manner of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred, plus mysterious forest sounds. The second movement, Solvei the Brigand, takes its vibrantly pantheistic cues from Wagner’s Forest Murmurs without embarrassment, as Rimsky-Korsakov had for his Tsar Saltan. With Vladimir Fair Sun, the brilliantly kaleidoscopic scherzo, receives more excerpting per pound than any other part of this otherwise massive symphony. The last movement, Feats of Valor and Petrifaction of Ilya Mourometz, abounds with liturgical counterpoint and the cyclic recollection of earlier themes, again ploys Tchaikovsky utilized in his Manfred Symphony. Armed the CSO brass and battery, Stokowski can elicit granite colossi at every turn. An appreciative audience rallies to the cause.  [There’s also a pretty good Telarc SACD – the London Symphony/Leon Botstein – of this work, which cries out for hi-res surround sound reproduction…Ed.]
–Gary Lemco