Stokowski Conducts

Author: 
Ivan March

Stokowski Conducts

  • (A) Night on the Bare Mountain
  • Variations on an Original Theme, 'Enigma', Nimrod
  • Prince Igor, Polovtsian Dances
  • Suite, Rondo Prince of Denmark's March (Trumpet Voluntary
  • Toccata and Fugue
  • (6) Moments musicaux, No. 3 in F minor
  • (12) Morceaux, No. 7, Au village (A minor)
  • (16) Slavonic Dances, No. 2 in E minor
  • Marche slave, 'Slavonic March'
  • (Der) Ring des Nibelungen: Part 2, '(Die) Walküre', Ride of the Valkyries (concert version)
  • Leonore, Leonore Overture No. 3
  • Don Giovanni, Overture
  • Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern, Die Zauberharfe, D644 Overture
  • (6) Songs, No. 6, Again, as before, alone
  • (The) Stars and Stripes Forever
  • España
  • Danse macabre
  • (Le) carnaval romain
  • Caucasian Sketches, Suite 1, Procession of the Sardar
  • Guillaume Tell, Overture

Easily the finest of these Stokowski reissues is the EMI Phoenixa ''Showcase'' collection. The recordings were made at the unlikely venue of West Ham Central Mission, in November 1975 and March 1976 when the great conductor was 93, yet they display enormous energy and charisma. Indeed he is on his finest form and he conjures consistently electrifying playing from Sidney Sax's ad hoc National Symphony Orchestra, a group of London's finest freelance players, with Sax himself playing the violin solo with great elan in Saint-Saens's Danse macabre (a riveting performance). Stokowski had his own ideas about many of these pieces. He thought Mozart's Don Giovanni Overture should quote from the finale of the opera and whether or not this is permissible, his addition makes a highly dramatic coda. His own scoring of Sousa's Stars and Stripes even includes a xylophone, and the playing is irresistible in its racy pep. He was a very good Beethoven conductor indeed, and this Leonora No. 3, with its trumpet entry dramatically distanced, is quite as exciting as the Berlioz Carnaval romain, which is saying a good deal. Rosamunde has glowing romantic warmth and a delightful rhythmic lift, and William Tell is as spectacular as you would expect, though at the end (partly because of the resonance) the violins swamp the texture and the busy internal detail that makes Reiner's famous RCA version so invigorating, is lost here. But overall the full hall reverberation suits the music-making admirably—there are few better Stokowski collections than this. The great old man is clearly enjoying himself; so is the orchestra, and so are we.
As can be seen in the title above, the Pickwick compilation has a Decca source. But whoever has organized the digital transfers has achieved less effective results than on Decca's own Headline issue. The three pieces common to both, Stokowski's own arrangement of Night on the Bare Mountain, with its Walt Disney associations and spooky whistling violin harmonics, the Polovtsian Dances, both languorous and exciting, and the Tchaikovsky march are more firmly focused on the Decca issue. This applies especially to the chorus in the Borodin and to the violins in the powerful and stirring Marche slave which are fierce and scratchy on Pickwick, and merely a bit shrill on the Headline issue, while the trombones in the Mussorgsky are made brazenly brash on Pickwick. For the most part the Headline concert sounds impressive, especially the 1812, where the conductor is endearingly eccentric, taking the big Russian string melody sumptuously and slowly, yet not letting the tension slip, then at the end suddenly producing the chorus, like a magician conjuring rabbits out of a hat. They make a strong but incredibly brief contribution and are then apparently blown away by the canon. At the end the bells carry on resounding after the music has concluded.
The Rimsky-Korsakov Capriccio espagnole (which has minor changes of the conductor's own making) brings a feast of colour but is rhythmically indulgent, with Stokowski already making a ritenuto for the clarinet solo in the ''Alborada''; yet there is plenty of punch in the closing ''Fandango''. For his powerful Mussorgsky transcription Stokowski draws on the composer's original score and thus leaves out the trumpet fanfare motive which Rimsky added; in the closing pages the string playing brings a luscious romantic ecstasy. Of the shorter pieces on the Pickwick programme, which has no shortage of personality, I especially enjoyed the Trumpet Voluntary with its outrageous syrupy violins in the contrasting middle section, but the famous Toccata and fugue transcription lacks both glamour and vitality, and again the transfer to CD is indifferently managed.'

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