Stokowski conducts FALLA = El Amor Brujo; Night in the Gardens of Spain – Nan Merriman, mezzo-soprano/William Kapell, piano/New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio

by | Jul 21, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Stokowski conducts FALLA = El Amor Brujo; Night in the Gardens of Spain – Nan Merriman, mezzo-soprano/William Kapell, piano/New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski

Pristine Audio PASC 174, 44:44 [www.pristineclassical,com] ****:

The music of Falla held a strong place in the heart of Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), his having given the premier of El Amor Brujo in 1915. Stokowski first inscribed the Andalusian, gypsy classic with mezzo-soprano Nan Merriman (b. 1920) for RCA with the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra (Dutton 9705).  Later, in 1962, Stokowski inscribed the work again in Philadelphia, with Shirley Verrett-Carter. Stokowski, meanwhile, performed the work in New York four times, this (21 March 1948) taken from open reel tapes assembled by Stokowski’s assistant Jack Baumgarten. Pristine’s Andrew Rose and his XR process here restore this Carnegie Hall collaboration with astonishing presence, whose very first explosive invocation invites us into a world of fuming sultry passions.

Recall that Nan Merriman had been “discovered” in a radio talent show, overheard by Arturo Toscanini. Her potent mezzo was considered too “light” for the MET, but she made a sensation in opera in Europe, demanded by Karajan and Cantelli. Nothing faint-hearted in her Song of Love’s Sorrow. The New York Philharmonic, playing in brash furious tones–listen to the triple tonguing from the trumpet–literally spouts fire in the Dance of Terror. The Magic Circle wafts as delicate as the more frenzied sections strike us with awe. At midnight, the Ritual Dance of Fire heaves and burns, a Spanish gypsy’s answer to Wagner. Despite some remaining crackle and tape hiss, the Dance exerts a virile sensuous energy, not to be denied. The Scene rises up like a snake from a fakir’s basket. Song of the Will o’ the Wisp again has Merriman condensing all of Carmen’s passions into a small fervent space. I am reminded of actress Margo’s performance in Lewton’s Curse of the Cat People. The most sonically magnificent movement is the Pantomime, in which the Stokowski string sound takes over, a Mediterranean Tristan, mesmeric alchemy. The Game of Love has Carmelo’s (Merriman’s) gypsy spirit undiminished by disappointment; even the faithless lover’s ghost cannot dispel desire, only prolong it. The Bells of Morning announce a nuptial, the birth of Venus, the Marriage of Heaven and Hell, all at once.

From 13 November 1949 Stokowski is joined by the eminent American pianist William Kapell (1922-1953) at Carnegie Hall, a collaboration previously offered by Music & Arts. Kapell delivers his crystalline steely strength to the three sections of this concerto in the form of a tonepoem. The Generalife Gardens wax aromatic, rife with erotic promises. The work unfolds as a series of nocturnes with piano obbligato, charged with intensely electric energy in all parts. Once more, Stokowski treats the rising scales in the orchestra as the Prelude to Tristan und Isolde, with waves of sound thick enough to drown Joan Crawford many times. From a mysterious garden come exotic sounds of a distant dance. The orchestral and keyboard figures whirl, as the flutes invoke rituals the Aztecs might have shipped back to Europe. Hypnotic ostinati convince us to partake in this wild coven, which explodes after a brief lull, and rushes us to the Sierra de Cordoba gardens for the Feast of Corpus Christi. Kapell combines a fluid parlando style with brilliant runs, zither-like, his landings pointed and eloquent. Another series of gypsy explosions leads to Kapell’s providing us a nocturne for consolation, the tympani and drooping strings dissipating the festivities in a manner once removed from Moussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain. Even so, Kapell’s pearls cannot be quelled, and the orchestra rises for one last erotic gasp. The symphonic impression ends in a rarified moment of a dying light. Jim Fassett does the narration honors while the audience expresses its approval.

— Gary Lemco

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