Stokowski Conducts SIBELIUS = Finlandia, Op. 26; The Swan of Tuonela, Op. 22, No. 2; Valse Triste, Op. 44, No. 1; Berceuse from The Tempest, Op. 109, No 8; Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 105 – Jascha Heifetz, v./ Philadelphia Orch./ All-American Youth Symphony (Op. 105) – Guild GHCD  2438, 73:22 [Distr. by Albany] ****:  

The historical relationship between conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) and composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) remains well documented, and several of the assembled works on this disc, 1929-1940, have had resurrection prior.  The major addition to the active recorded repertory lies in the Violin Concerto (rec. 24 December 1934) with Jascha Heifetz, an inscription on unpublished 78 rpms the violinist suppressed, likely based on his personal idiosyncrasies. Heifetz proceeded to record the Concerto with Sir Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic in 1935.

Stokowski had not intended to record The Swan of Tuonela (2-3 May 1929); but when he made a decision to inscribe the gloomy tone-poem, he notified oboe player Marcel Tabuteau that he would assume the English horn part. The dark tarn has a pulsating intensity, upon which Tabuteau’s lyric dirge sails affectionately. The Finlandia (28 April 1930) emanates its national fervor in brisk tempos, with resonant punctuation from the Philadelphia brass section. The Valse Triste (15 January 1936) enjoys its lyric intimate suasion, though my personal preference lies with Hans Rosbaud. The Sibelius 1926 score for Shakespeare’s The Tempest has captivated a diverse series of musical personalities, from Stokowski, to Beecham, to Jochum.  The sweet Berceuse (7 November 1937) depicts Miranda’s innocent sleep.

Stokowski’s recording of the C Major Symphony (22 September 1940) became the second inscription historically, the first having been inscribed in 1933 by Koussevitzky with the BBC. In one continuous movement, the music proceeds from a hymnody into a struggle of light and dark, C Major and g minor, with occasional textural sojourns into chamber music scoring. The constant, rising curve of the composition has the trombone as its herald for the various sections of the symphony, written in an extended sonata-form. The All-American Youth Orchestra, formed in 1940, had already achieved a level of instrumental expertise to warrant a recording contract from CBS. The performance exhibits plastic rhythm, careful intonation, and aerial brio, a reading I would hear surpassed only once, in live collaboration by James De Priest and the Atlanta Symphony.

Listening to the combined forces in the Violin Concerto, we must wonder as to the nature of the Heifetz objections. This recording marked the debut of the Concerto on record, typical of the Stokowski ethos about music history and his own ego. Heifetz appears in elegant form, his long line graduated in bow pressure and technically flawless. The more virtuosic passages fly by with no sense of motor effort, and Stokowski’s part maintains the somber dignity of the occasion. After a studied, palpable dark energy in the second movement, sonoro ed espessivo, in which Sibelius pays homage to both Wagner and Beethoven, the last movement’s “dance for polar bears” enjoy high flights of fancy, technical and imaginative.  That the performance has regained active currency seems a long overdue pleasure.

—Gary Lemco