Stokowski = RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Scheherazade, Op. 35; TCHAIKOVSKY: Fantasy Overture ‘Romeo and Juliet’ – Philadelphia Orch./ Leopold Stokowski – Guild GHCD 2403, 62:44 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Another recorded concert (in stereo) in the series devoted to Leopold Stokowski’s “historic return” to Philadelphia (6 February 1962), this disc captures the esteemed Maestro in two of his perennial repertory pieces, which included some twenty-two occasions of the Rimsky-Korsakov Scheherazade between 1912-1934, when Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra as its music director.
For this live session, we have the solo violin talent of concertmaster Anschel Brusilow (b. 1928) in the role of passionate princess and story-teller, who beguiles us with her wonderful tales. The “Stokowski Sound,” especially from the free-bowed Philadelphia strings, vibrates with an especial ardor, while flute, horn, and tympani contribute their exotic colors. We might speculate as to how much of Rimsky-Korsakov’s sonority turns on Wagnerian orchestration. Stokowski’s way of building up orchestral masses, much in the manner of an organ diapason, aligns this sound-concept with the crescendos near Valhalla.
The “Persian carpet” approach continues as Stokowski wends his musical line through The Kalendar Prince and its dialogue between violin, harp and oboe. Once the main melody gains full throttle, the effect proves irresistible. From the full-blooded tuttis to the most intimate of chamber music colloquys to the sudden fanfares from the Philadelphia brass, the magical tapestry unfolds seamlessly, a long intricate rope evoked from the basket of a majestic snake-charmer. The breathed eroticism of The Young Prince and the Princess should solidify the relations between Rimsky-Korsakov and Wagner’s Tristan for devotees of Stokowski’s earthy sensibilities. After a nervously marcato opening, Stokowski and Brusilow inject passionate fury into the most kaleidoscopic of the movements, the explosive Festival at Baghdad. Obviously courting the sheer bravura of a virtuoso ensemble, Stokowski has the battery of the Philadelphia Orchestra unleashed, a panoply of whirling orchestral-choir dervishes each resounding in turn. The trumpet, piccolo and snare-drum work alone should guarantee several admission tickets. The Ship Breaks against a cliff surmounted by a Bronze Horseman in full Technicolor, only to cede its monumental authority to the softer voice of our violin narrator, whose enchanted lips have beckoned a storm of applause from an enraptured audience.
The B Minor symphonic poem Romeo and Juliet provided no less a staple for Stokowski over the years, his having programmed it sixteen times in Philadelphia, and his having made the first American inscription in 1928. Claiming Modeste Tchaikovsky as his source, Stokowski typically adjusted the final pages to the quietly demure tragedy he felt best represented the composer’s original intentions. We hear all sorts of agogic adjustments and dynamic thrusts in Stokowski’s reading, evoking dramatic passion and irresistible impulse. While the breadth of the performance may not exceed Celibidache’s boa-constrictor effects, Stokowski’s intensity and expansive tempos carry their own considerable weight and color. The melt-your-heart main theme possesses all the Stokowski magic, augmented by a Philadelphia Orchestra that resonates at the peak of its expressive abilities.