Stokowski conducts French Music – Pristine Audio 

by | Feb 19, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Stokowski conducts French Music = DEBUSSY: La cathedrale engloutie (arr. Stokowski); Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune; Le martyre de saint-Sebastien: 2 excerpts; La soiree dans Grenade (arr. Stokowski); MILHAUD: Symphony No. 1, Op. 210; RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2 – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 583, 79:26 [] ****:

Taken from the General Motors Symphony of the Air broadcasts of the NBC Symphony, 1943-1944, Pristine and Andrew Rose restore the persuasive means of Leopold Stokowski in the music of France.  Whatever dispute had arisen between David Sarnoff and Arturo Toscanini, for whom the NBC Orchestra had been created, the working relationship of the players and Stokowski proves eminently sonorous, given Stokowski’s often idiosyncratic seating and acoustic requirements.  The orchestral transcription of Debussy’s “The Engulfed Cathedral” (13 February 1944) shimmers with thick tremolos and slickly graduated portamentos, Old-World style. Stokowski’s signature piece by Debussy, “The Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun” (9 January 1944), he led numerous times, including the 1966 performance with the American Symphony Orchestra that I attended at Carnegie Hall. The pagan eroticism of the piece, its modulated dispersion of colors among instruments that often play beyond their normal range, both high and low, find an immediate kinship with Stokowski’s expansive conception of Arcadian beauty. The exquisite flute work – likely Carmine Coppola – finds a sensuous complement in the lush string and horn choirs.

Among the rare moments – Stokowski’s noted tendency to give premieres of works that never received from him a second performance – Debussy’s music for the 1911 The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian, the mystery play by Gabriele d’Annunzio. Stokowski (28 March 1943) performs La Cour des lys and Danse extatique et Final du 1er Acte. Somewhat static yet sonorously voluptuous, the first excerpt demonstrates Stokowski’s controlled distribution of colors. The ensuing Danse in its original conception emphasized the homo-erotic nature of the drama, glamourized at the time by the appearance of Ida Rubinstein in the title role. Under Stokowski, the earthy and the mystical elements converge in nervous tension, culminating in a vivid apotheosis.

Stokowski delivers the New York premiere of Darius Milhaud’s1939 Symphony No. 1 (21 March 1943), a work that deliberately avoid Teutonic heaviness and sings in neo-Classical style akin to aspects in Stravinsky or Poulenc. The opening Pastoral does betray a few dark presentiments of tumult that the second movement, Tres vif, delivers in bitonal and polyrhythmic colors. Whether we are to suppose a militant “program” for the “mortal storm” the composer does not indicate, per se. The slow and somber Tres modere casts an elegiac shadow, strong in the woodwind parts, especially the oboe and flutes. In its middle part, the sensuous sway may remind auditors of Ibert’s Escales. The Final: Anime returns to the rural, emotional turbulence of the second movement in a martial reel, concluding with a swagger.

Stokowski performs his own transcription of Debussy’s “A Night in Granada” from Estampes (21 February 1943), a perfect evocation of guitar and nocturnal serenade sensibilities, utilizing an Arabic or Moorish scale. The music literally pulsates with a sense of erotic tryst, haunted by Iberian languor. One senses that Stokowski might have conceived this transcription while in the presence of Greta Garbo.

Finally, the familiar Second Suite from Ravel’s ballet Daphnis et Chloe (23 February 1943),  a cumulative, incandescent performance that gathers an electrifying momentum at the Danse generale, enough to heat the Carnegie Hall cushions for a lifetime.

—Gary Lemco

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