Recorded in four-channel sound in November 1974, when conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was a mere 92-years-old, these two Tchaikovsky works were dear to the Maestro’s heart, though the Serenade was new to his discography. The convulsive fires of hellish torment Stokowski and the LSO conjure up for Francesca and her lover Paolo more than fulfill Dante’s evocation of the storm-tossed lovers and their fatal passion. The LSO winds, the piccolos, flutes, and oboes, are in high fettle before a fiery cymbal crash takes us to the double basses. Aside from the sheer velocity of execution, the phrasing and balletic gestures of the realization remain thoroughly within the parameters of acceptable tradition.
Certainly, Stokowski lingers over the love theme and its tympanic pedal, achieving a fine tracery in the string line that will transfer as well to the Serenade. Some of the woodwind filigree could easily have been lifted from Swan Lake. Orchestra personnel are not listed, but I would bet the superb horn playing belongs to Barry Tuckwell. The return of the infernal elements unleashes a stretto of superlative power, regardless of any conductor’s age. Period videos of Stokowski attest to his incredible ability to shed the years the more his arms moved at the podium. Try listening to the coda seated. Meanwhile, Tchaikovsky’s concept for the tone poem is so thoroughly Lisztian, with a harp part akin to that found in Orpheus, it surprises any connoisseur of Stokowski’s recorded legacy that he inscribed so little Liszt himself: only a Les Preludes and an E-flat Concerto (with Charles Rosen) exist.
The Serenade for Strings, despite its innate musical charm, does suffer Romantic (or merely willful) distortion under Stokowski’s direction. Decrescendos appear ad libitum, and the caesuras harken back to Mengelberg, the pizzicati ardent as those we hear from Toscanini. The Waltz movement early succumbs to stretching and contraction of the more blatant excess in Stokowski’s late style. In this movement, I had thought Furtwaengler had pushed it in his EMI inscription as far as the envelope would bear. After the sudden diminuendo by Stokowski, the last cadence of the waltz tune turns to licorice, and the agogics become wayward. The repeat of the waltz tune then plays straightforwardly, except for an antiphonal downshift to make Tchaikovsky sound like Gabrieli. (All Tchaikovsky wanted was to sound like Mozart.) I must concede the Elegie to be quite moving, paced by Stokowski with a lachrymose beauty, perhaps in homage to Mozart‚s Ave Verum Corpus. The two-part finale, with its spirited Russian folksongs, bristles with Stokowski’s patented, unique excitement. The surround sound resonates the double basses and cellos with an especial ardor. So, too, Francesca will have your walls reverberating with Old World passion from the master of symphonic eroticism.
— Gary Lemco