Stokowski Conducts Schoenberg, Hindemith – Philadelphia Orchestra – Pristine Audio

by | Nov 12, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

SCHOENBERG: Gurrelieder; DUBENSKY: The Raven; HINDEMITH: Kammermusik No. 2, Op. 36, No. 1; Stokowski discusses Gurrelieder – Paul Althouse, tenor/ Jeanette Vreeland, soprano/ Rose Bamton, contralto/ Abrasha Robofsky, bass/ Robert Betts, tenor/ Benjamin de Loache, speaker/ Eunice Norton, piano (in Hindemith)/ Sylvan Levin, piano (for Stokowski discussion)/ Princeton Glee Club/ Fortnightly Club/ Mendelssohn Club/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 612 (2 CDs) 67:25; 79:51 [] *****:  

Restoration editor and producer Mark Obert-Thorn has resurrected several Leopold Stokowski historical rarities of distinct musical and even archaeological significance: live concert performances of the American premiere set down by RCA Victor in 1932 of distinctly unusual, even monolithic, repertory.  The major work, the Gurrelieder (1901-1911) based on the 1868 poems of Danish writer Jens Peter Jacobsen, began for Schoenberg as a song-writing submission in 1899; it was Alexander von Zemlinsky who suggested the expansion of the work into a three-part, song-cycle or oratorio in the manner of Wagner and Mahler. Given the slow progress of the project, Schoenberg’s evolution into atonality comes in dire contrast to the earlier, sumptuous, hyper-Romanticism of Gurrelieder, which takes chromatic harmony and the intense emotionalism of Wagner’s Tristan and Schoenberg’s own Verklaerte Nacht to greater extremes. 

Jacobsen’s text combines the passionate story of 14th Century Danish King Waldemar and his love Tove Lille, their romantic trysts at Gurre Castle, and the maliciously jealous Queen Helwig, who has Tove suffocated at a spa. When the Wood Dove tells Waldemar of Tove’s death, he curses God and suffers immediate condemnation to haunt the night sky with henchmen on a “Wild Hunt.” Tove, meanwhile, has been transformed into the wonders of Nature, and while Waldemar’s minions sleep by day, he will search the natural world for signs of his beloved.  

Though Schoenberg had completed most of his massive score by 1901, various employments and obligations prevented his completing the orchestration – he stopped in the middle of The Song of the Peasant of Part III in 1903 – for almost ten years, and the second half of the score reveals a compression and transparency of polyphonic texture in dire contrast to the thicknesses of the first part. Despite the monstrosity of musical means, Schoenberg proves economical in his distribution of choirs and orchestral effects, like the use of ten unison horns to summon Waldemar’s demon horde of hunters, but muted strings and winds to invoke the Summer Wind melodrama that makes up the last portion, wherein a chorus substitutes for the lone speaker in the original text. The intricate system of 35 leitmotifs for the “tapestry” – purely Wagnerian in character and gesture – has been augmented by Schoenberg by his use of Sprechtstimme, rhythmic speech pattern set as music.  A descending motif depicts the opening sunset, and an ascending motif depicts the sunrise in the concluding chorus, two framing devices for the whole work, a conceit Schoenberg himself expressed In 1937, reflecting upon his early effort: “[I hope that to my music] there might be a sunrise such as is depicted in the final chorus of my Gurrelieder. There might come the promise of a new day of sunlight in music such as I would like to offer to the world.”

The Stokowski performance (rec. 11 April 1932) retains a fine resonance, the huge, seven-minute orchestral introduction and nine songs of Waldemar and Tove supported by a responsive Philadelphia Orchestra in its primal glory. Paul Althouse intones a sincere and heart-broken Waldemar: his rendition of “So tanzen die Engel vor Gottes Thron nicht” has a throbbing tenderness.  Jeanette Vreeland realizes his ardent Tove. Her passionate song in Part I, “Now I say to thee for the first time,” infiltrates the remainder of the score. Her last song, “Du sendest mir einen Liebesblick,” convinces us that Waldemar’s inamorata dies too soon. Waldemar himself anticipates the presence of death in his association with midnight bells, “Tis the hour of midnight” of the seventh song. Schoenberg inserts a massive orchestral bridge – with its own compendium of seven, distinct leitmotifs – directly after the lusty Waldemar’s last song in Part I: the forest flight of the Wood Dove as she carries the tragic news of Tove’s funeral cortege proves an independent, surging, symphonic poem on its own.  Rose Bampton sings the fatal announcement that destroys Waldemar’s faith in spiritual consolation.

Part II has the dark color of Wagner’s Tristan, Act III, but already rife with the supernatural effects of The Wild Ride.  The Philadelphia brass section attacks the score with requisite gusto. With the addition of the characters Bauer (Abrasha Robofsky) and Klaus-Narr, the court-jester (Robert Betts), Schoenberg introduces both a humorous and eerily grotesque element into the weave that resembles Richard Strauss and later Mahler, supported by an inflamed male chorus, subterranean strings and pert interjections from the woodwinds, like Marcel Tabuteau’s oboe and William Kincaid’s flute.  The aria “Mit Toves Stimme fluestert der Wald” alerts us to Waldemar’s pantheistic realization of Tove’s resurrected soul in Nature.  The macabre nature of the score Stokowski does not play down: his dramatic pacing, his starts and pregnant pauses in the chorus of Waldemar’s Huntsmen makes our skin crawl: even Klaus-Narr admits the grave attracts him more than having to night-ride, using a detached narrator (Benjamin de Loache), who considers the action from afar. An orchestral prelude of no small chromatic color introduces first the speaker – in the aforementioned sprechtgesang style – and then the final chorus. Speaker Benjamin de Roache had been a singing student at the Curtis Institute when Stokowski first recruited him for Boris Gudonov and Berg’s Wozzeck.  De Loache later assumed the post of Associate Professor of Singing at the Yale School of Music. The final chorus {“Behold the Sun!”) intimates that Waldemar and Tove reunite in pantheistic rapture. The urgently embittered sense of loss, perhaps in anticipation of the tragedies that lay ahead for the 20th Century, has found a temporary respite in the restorative forces of Nature.  Stokowski would once more mount this huge cantata-oratorio in Scotland, 20 August 1961 at the Edinburgh Festival, a performance preserved on the defunct Guild label (GHCD 2388). 

Russian composer Arcady Dubensky emigrated to America in 1921, and he merited attention from his Russian Bells that he led in 1927.  Stokowski decided to record Dubensky’s setting of the 1845 poetic classic by Edgar Allan Poe, “The Raven” at the Philadelphia Academy of Music on 9 and 10 December 1932. RCA took a fascinating step by recording the work on 35mm optical film. This performance has had prior issue through the Leopold Stokowski Society in 1993, on “Philadelphia Rarities” (LSCD20). 

Obert-Thorn’s last project of unique restoration takes the form of the Hindemith piano concerto, the 1924 Kammermusik No. 2, with Tobias Matthay pupil Eunice Norton, a performance never issued on 78 rpm.   The four-movement concerto has the piano accompanied by a modest ensemble, and the music vacillates between a quasi-lyrical affect and jazzy, sometimes frantic, riffs. Some attribute to the extensive second movement a “foghorn” effect.  The brief third movement features trumpet, flute, and brass while Norton plays throughout.  The trumpet announces the lively last movement, Schnelle Viertel, and this tune repeats as a sort rondo-motif. Obert-Thorn notes that this 1932 performance only survived by virtue of “a worn acetate dubbing of five original 12-inch shellac sides whose whereabout are unknown.” Hindemith enthusiasts may well thank Obert-Thorn for a sense of posterity.

–Gary Lemco


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