WAGNER: A Siegfried Idyll; Tristan und Isolde: Love Music (arr. Stokowski); Lohengrin: Prelude, Act I; Die Walkuere: Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music (arr. Stokowski) – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 609, 69:07 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
The music of Richard Wagner always held a special place for conductor Leopold Stokowski, who, in the first concert he led in Cincinnati, 1909, both A Siegrfried Idyll and Ride of the Valkyries graced his program. Here, Pristine and Andrew Rose resurrect a series of selected Wagner pieces derived from NBC Symphony broadcasts, 1942-1944. Curiously, the aforementioned A Siegfried Idyll, here from 6 December 1942, represents the only sound document of Stokowski in this piece, since he made no commercial recording in his long career in the studios.
Wagner lived in exile in Lucerne, Switzerland in 1870, when on Christmas Day, he engaged a group of Zurich musicians to play on the steps of their Tribschen villa wake-up, birthday music for his wife Cosima. Originally scored for 13 instruments – later augmented to 35 at its publication in 1878 – the music utilized in intimate terms melodic tissue from the opera Siegfried, which Wagner struggled to complete as the third, “scherzo” component of his Ring tetralogy. Stokowski assumes a tempered, measured pace f or the lovely opening measures, within which slides and rhythmic license appear without any distortion of the grand romance of the context. The bucolic elements of the scoring, in flute, horn, clarinet, and oboe, emerge as natural extensions of the dramatic ethos, since the main melody will define the love duet between Bruennhilde and Siegfried in the opera proper. The NBC achieves a fine transparency of texture in the quiet episodes, while the more opulent evocations of Wordsworth’s “natural supernaturalism” surge with inflamed, even militant, power. I assume the French horn principal is Arthur Berv and the principal flute Carmine Coppola, both of whom shine in this performance.
Many of us collectors of Leopold Stokowski cherish the lush symphonic synthesis of Tristan und Isolde he leads in the Great Conductors of the 20th Century series, the performance for his “historic return” to Philadelphia. Stokowski arranged the themes of Acts II and III as his “Love Music” from the opera, which culminates in the Liebestod. This edition of Stokowski’s score comes to us in the concert of 28 February 1943. What first strikes us about the scoring lies in its close proximity to the same music in the Berlioz Romeo and Juliet Symphony, of which no Stokowski recording exists. Needless to say, in the remastering work from Andrew Rose, the resonance of the various ecstasies and despairs of love reverberates with a grand passion.
The Lohengrin Prelude to Act I (23 January 1944) bathes in Romantic largesse, especially in the creamy string slides and suspended harmonies. The richness of the Prelude (in A Major) meant to the impressionable Richard Strauss the birth of a new sense of harmony. The music’s capacity for what some term “melting lyricism” finds a natural exponent in Stokowski, whose “romantic” indulgences in meter and nuance likely place him with Mengelberg as a colorist of idiosyncratic, epic value.
Last on the program, we have Stokowski’s arrangement (from the same concert of 23 January 1944) from the second Ring opera, Die Walkuere: Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music. Stokowski’s classic record of Wotan’s Farewell in Philadelphia, 1934, cast a luminous baritone Lawrence Tibbett in the title role. Here, the NBC brass intones Lebewohl mein kindt and its ensuing, heart-rent lament. The music surges in oceanic currents, majestic and torrential, at once. The Valhalla motif ascends in truly Teutonic chords, and then evolves the heaving sigh of eternal longing as divine love yields to human finitude. The dirge proceeds, courtesy of oboe and horn, to a sense of consolation and resignation in divide strings. The Magic Fire Music arises, commanding Loge to encircle Brunnhilde with an eternal fire that none who fear Wotan’s spear may penetrate. Rimsky-Korsakov loved this music enough to plagiarize it for his Tsar Saltan Suite, Op. 57. Lush and variegated, the Stokowski performance exudes grandeur and finesse at every moment, much to the enthralled delight of the audience at Studio 8H in Radio City.
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