Although the record box states that these recordings were made from 1954 to 1975, the great majority of them were made from 1973 to 1975, when Stokowski was in his early nineties. That being said, Stokowski was not an ordinary conductor (or an ordinary physical specimen), judging from what is on these recordings. Although physically frail from old age, he was alert and able to make music at the highest level until his death in 1977 at the age of 95.
In evaluating Stokowski as an interpreter of especially the Romantic era repertoire, some background needs to be provided. Stokowski was born in 1882, when Brahms, Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Tchaikovsky were still alive, and he started conducting at age thirty in 1912, a year after Mahler died. Stokowski cut his teeth in the conducting tradition of Liszt and Wagner as exemplified by such conductors as von Bulow, Richter, Nikisch, Mahler, Furtwangler, and Mengelberg. These conductors considered it their mission to freely interpret what was on the written page. They assumed a great deal of liberty in determining tempo and phrasing, and would shift tempi many times within a movement of a symphony. Conductors of this school utilized a great deal of rubato, gear-shifting, and point making in their interpretations. Many, like Stokowski, also retouched orchestrations, and even recomposed whole sections of music. Stokowski always held to that style of conducting. For that reason, he can be thought of as the last Romantic conductor.
I will briefly survey each of the CD's in this this 14-disc anthology:
CD 1 couples the Beethoven "Eroica" Symphony with his Coriolanus Overture and the Brahms Academic Festival Overture. The "Eroica" is to my taste a bit old-fashioned, and the Funeral March could be more hushed and solemn. Overall, however, it is a nice performance. The overtures are beautifully played, and the sound on this 1974 disc is excellent.
CD 2 features the Shostakovich Symphony #6, the Khachaturian Symphony #3, and a suite from the Shostakovich ballet The Golden Age. Stokowski almost convinces me that the Shostakovich 6th makes logical musical sense, what with its severe first two movements coupled with a rollicking finale. For me, the Khachaturian is more bombast than music, and I did not care for it at all. The Golden age suite was excellently done. The Chicago Symphony plays beautifully in this 1968 recording, and the sound is first-rate.
CD 3 consists of the 1944 Sebastian Ballet suite of Gian Carlo Menotti and selections from Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet. Menotti was somewhat of a classical celebrity in 1954, when this recording was made. He had enjoyed great success from the premiere of his opera "Amahl and the Night Visiors" on national television in 1951. The music from Sebastian is beautifully crafted, and well worth a listen. To my ears, the music from Romeo and Juliet is more controversal. Stokowski cobbled together the lyrical episodes from the ballet, and gave then the full-string Stokowski treatment, while softening some of the more acerbic parts of the score. It is all very beautiful, but I like my Prokofiev with more bite. The sound on this 1954 stereo recording is astonishingly vivid. In fact, the sound rivals that of the recordings in this set made twenty years later!
CD 4 & CD 5 feature selections from the operas of Richard Wagner. Stokowski was very much in his element in this music. The recorded sound from 1961 and from 1973-74 is very good to excellent, with the sound being superior on the newer recordings.
CD 6 features the Norman Luboff choir with large orchestral accompaniment. I know this sort of music making was very popular in the 50's and 60's, but it is not really my cup of tea, although the choir sings magnificently and the recorded soumd is gorgeous. Handel's suites from the Water Music and, on CD 11, the Music for the Royal Fireworks, are presumably in Stokowski's own large orchestra arrangements. The performances are anachronistic as all get out, but they are fun to listen to. The 1961 sound is good, but a little dry.
CD 7 features soprano Anna Moffo in Canteloube's Chants d'Auvergne, Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras #5, and the Rachmaninov Vocalise. Ms. Moffo is a delight as usual, but she is no match for Netnia Davrath in the Canteloube songs on Vanguard. This is a very satisfying disc, well recorded.
CD 8 consists of the Dvorak Symphony #9 "From the New World" with shorter works by Smetana, and CD 9 consists of the Tchaikovsky Symphony #6 "Pathetique" with shorter works by Liszt and Enescu.
The shorter works, the Smetana Moldau and Bartered Bride Overture, the Liszt Hungarian Rhapsody #2, and the Enescu Roumanian Rhapsody #1 have been recently available on an RCA Living Stereo SACD called "Rhapsody". The performances are typical of the conductor: Lush strings, strong bass lines, and some sometimes quirky phrasing. They are also very exciting, and the sound is good 1960 vintage.
Stokowsky's interpretation of the Largo of the "New World" Symphony and the last movement of the "Pathetique" are the most straightfoward and, in my opinion, the most successful movements of these symphonies. To me, Stokowski engages in needless and unconvincing point making in the last movement of the Dvorak and the first movement of the Tchaikovsky.There are more mannerisms elsewhere (such as the needless trill at the end of the first movement of the Dvorak), but these are minor blemishes, and they don't disrupt the flow of the music. These two symphonies sound as if a time capsule from the 1920's had been opened. But in Stokowski's defense, he lived when these works were new, and that is how they were performed. As far as he was concerned, and maybe rightly so, his interpretations should be how these symphonies should be played now. We talk about wanting to hear historically informed performance practices of Baroque, Classical, and early Romantic music, for which there aren't any recordings by musicians who lived in that era. Yet, we dismiss and/or disparage the liberties that a Stokowski, Furtwangler, or Mengelberf might take in their interpretations of Romantic music. Like or not, these conductors may have given us historically informed performances.
CD 10 couples Stokowski's sixth recording of Rimsky-Korsakov's Scheherazade with his Russian Easter Overture. Stokowski's previous recording of Scheherazade was in 1964 on a London Phase 4 recording. The performance grabbed you by the throat from the opering bars and took you on a magic carpet ride, until it let you down at the close of the piece. The recording was close-up, bright, brash, with a great deal of artificial spotlighting. In the newer recording, Stokowski starts more slowly and methodically and voluptuously bulilds up to the climatic last movement. It is an interesting conception, and it is pulled off brillantly. The recording sound is consistent with the interpretation, and is much better balanced than his earlier recording. I liked this performance and also the accompanying Russian Easter Overture.
CD 11 is devoted to Stokowski's orchestral transcriptions of the music of J.S. Bach. The sound is bold, lush, with a strong bottom end. The disc makes a good hi-fi demonstration disc, but just a few of these transcriptions go a long way.
The Brahms Symphony #4 (CD 12) is a young man's Brahms. The performance is fast, cool, and very exciting. I liked it a great deal. The Mahler Symphony #2 "Resurrection" (CD 12 & 13) is, for Stokowski, very straighfoward. After a somewhat measured first movement, the middle three movements are played very conventionally. The lead-in in to the last movement is very impressive, and the whole movement goes quite nicely. If I had a quibble about the recording, it is, that in the Urlight movement, Brigitte Fassbender is recorded too loudly, and the recording does not allow her voice to die out before beginning the last movement. The sound on both the Brahms and the Mahler is exemplary.
To sum up, the RCA Stokowski box features thirteen CD's (the fourteenth CD is mostly rehearsals) of captivating, and sometimes maddening performances of some of the standard classical repertoire. The sound on all the CD's ranges from good to excellent, and is more determined by the recording venue than anything else. The 1970 recordings were made at Walthamstow Town Hall in London, a venue that was famous for its great acoustics and ideal reveberation. The 1960 recordings were made, for the most part, at the Manhattan Center in New York, where most of Leonard Bernstein's New York Philharmonic recordings were made. Like on those recordings, the sound of these older recordings is clear, but a bit dry and lacking in bloom. This box is a very special tribute to a truly great and iconic musician.