Leopod Stokowski: The Stereo Collection 1954 - 1975 Box set
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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.
Of course, the guys like me who had missed the original box and painstakingly stalked the individual issues at reasonable prices may feel some frustration - but I'll be Christian here and think not of myself, but of the future generations of Stokowskites who won't have most of this already and who are offered a fabulous bargain.
Many of these recordings are among Stokowski's last. His very last recordings were made in 1977 with the National Philharmonic Orchestra for Columbia (Brahms' 2nd Symphony and Tragic Overture in April and Bizet's Symphony and Mendelsssohn's Italian Symphony in June). Many here are from 1973 to 1975. Some of those late ones are even recording firsts for Stokie - and last, of course (Coriolan Overture, Brahms Academic Overture, Khachaturian's Third Symphony, Shostakovich's 6th and Age of Gold...)
Here are the contents, and the links to the original CDs (since I'm allowed only ten product links in the review I'll send the rest to the comments section). I'm indebted to Enno Rikiena's stupendous Stokowski discography (available online) for the additional discographic information, orchestras and recording dates.
Beethoven Eroica and Coriolan Overture (London Symphony Orchestra, March 1974 and Stokowski's only recording of the Overture, and quasi-only one of the Eroica: the other one is a live Philadelphia recording from 1963, once available on some obscure LP).
Brahms Academic Overture (New Philharmonia 21 June 74 only recording.)
Beethoven: Symphony No.3 'Eroica'/Brahms: [Import] (the individual CD sells for more expensive today than this RCA/Sony box). The two Beethoven but not the Brahms are also available on a previous reissue, selling cheap, Beethoven Symphony No. 3 ("Eroica") Coriolan Overture
Shostakovich Symph. No. 6, Age of Gold-Suite op. 22a
Khachaturian Symph 3 (all Chicago SO, Febr 68, only rec.)
Stokowski Stereo Collection: Shostakovich: Symphony No. 6 / The Age of Gold, Ballet Suite / Khachaturian: Symphony No. 3 (Chicago/Stokowski, 1968)
Prokofiev Romeo & Juliet (Stokowski's own selection from the various suites)
(both NBC SO September & October 1954, and gorgeous stereo)
Prokofiev: Selections from Romeo and Juliet; Menotti Sebastian (Suite) - Stokowski see my review
Wagner excerpts from Walküre, Tristan, Rheingold, Tannhäuser, Rienzi
Tannhäuser Overture & Bacchanale is with Symphony of the Air & Chorus from 28 December 1960
Rheingold's Enty of the Gods with Martina Arroyo and Carlotta Ordassy, Walküre Ride of the Valkyries with Martina Arroyo, Shirley Verrett and various, and Tristan Prelude A. III are with Symphony of the Air, April 1961
Rienzi Overture & Walküre Magic Fire Music are with Royal Philharmonic October 1973
Stokowski Stereo Collection: Wagner Volume 1: Das Rheingold; Die Walkure; Tristan und Isolde; Tannhauser; Rienzi
best offer 60!
Wagner excerpts from Meisetersinger, Tristan, Gotterdämmerung
Wagner: Tristan Und Isolde, Die Meistersinger Von Nürnberg, Gotterdammerung (Stokowski Stereo Collection, Vol. 2)
Royal Philharmonic October 1973 & London SO November 1974 and Stokowski's ultimate Wagner recordings - see my review
Stokowski Stereo Collection: Inspiration / Handel: Water Music Suite. The Water Music Suite was recorded in April 1961 with the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra, the rest is a collection of miscellanea, recorded in July 1961 with an orchestra dubbed "The New Symphony Orchestra of London", which was I think the Royal Philharmonic, composers being the famous "Anonymous" (Deep River, the Old 104th), Bach, Beethoven, Gluck, Haendel, Humperdinck, Rachmaninoff, Tchaikovsky, Wagner, see entry for details.
Canteloube: Songs of the Auvergne; Villa-Lobos: Bachianas Brasileiras No. 5; Rachmaninoff: Vocalise - Stokowski, Moffo
American Symphony Orchestra 10-14 April 1964
Dvorak: New World Symphony, New Philharmonia Orchestra 2 & 4 July 1973 and Stokowski's last recording of seven (including an abridged version recorded in 1919)
Smetana Moldau, Bartered Bride Overture, RCA SO, 18 February 1960
Tchaikovsky: Symphony Pathétique: London Symphony Orchestra 5,7,10 September 1973
Enesco: Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1; Liszt: Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2: RCA Symphony Orchestra 7 February 1960
Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra February-March 1975, Stokowski's last recording of six
Russian Easter Overture: Chicago Symphony Orchestra 20,21 Feburary 1968
Bach transcriptions (LSO April 1974)
Handel Royal Fireworks (RCA Victor SO 24 March 1961)
CD 12 & 13
Brahms Symphony No. 4
New Philharmonia Orchestra 17,20 June 1974 and Stokowski's last of four recordings
Mahler Symphony No. 2
Margaret Price / Brigitte Fassbaender / London Symphony Chorus / London Symphony Orchestra July-August 1974
Bach Toccata & Fugue BWV 565(LSO 27,29 July 1974, Stokowski's last of 13 recordings!), Rehearsals Toccata & Fugue, Wagner Rienzi, Beethoven Pastorale (NBC Symphony Orchestra March 1954), Mahler Symph. 2 (LSO 19 july 1974).
The newcomer to Stokowski might wonder if it is best to invest in EMI's 10-CD box Stokowski: The Maverick Conductor or in this one. My answer: invest in both. Except for the Bach transcriptions the repertoires don't overlap, the choice is slightly more catholic here (with Beethoven, Brahms, Rimsky, Tchaikovsky, Wagner) but the EMI box is great if you are in for early 20th century music and, really, the repertoires are complementary (and nowhere more than with the two Khachaturian symphonies, the 2nd on EMI and the 3rd on RCA/Sony). One factor might be that, the RCA/Sony compilation features later recordings (the EMI ones are all from the late 1950s). And look at the prices!
- There is a complete abscence of documentation. In the first set, each CD had its own text leaflet containing 8 pages (including 4-5 pages with text).
- More than half of the recordings in the original set were available in Dolby Surround (fully compatible with CD), so it was possible to have surround sound with an external 5.1 receiver.
These differences may be of less importance to some buyers. On the other hand it MAY be that the newer release is redigitalized. A 24-bit icon on the back of the box suggests that it is so, but you can't take anything for granted with the music industry of today!
I'll leave it to the others to describe what's in the box, or was in the original RCA collection this is about the Sony set.
A standard Sony "Red Seal" reissue from the RCA catalog that appears to be the 1997 remastering, though the "four channel dolby" mixes from the original RCA collection are not included, this edition only contains the stereo mixes.
There is no booklet, just a fold open box with 14 CDs, 128 tracks with 890 minutes of music, in cardboard sleeves. The sleeves contain the recording information with the orchestra info on the front and recording dates on the back in microprint near the copyright info.
The recordings are all 5 star, but the lack of any notes or booklet make it a 4 star collection.
There is nothing in this set that is worth more than the cost of a download version, or this discount import CD set.
If you want collectable go for the 1997 RCA box set in the used market, if you just want the music then this is a nice reissue for the budget minded.
These Sony discount box set reissues seem more about getting downloadable versions of the original single CD releases available to keep it in print and under the Sony copyright, so the CDs are purposely scant on extras to make the download version just as attractive.
There should be a downloadable version of this collection available to dampen the speculation on the CD versions.
Stokowski was accused of wrapping Back in the "purple robes of Wagner" and the same might be said of his approach to Handel -- but the sounds are gorgeous. My principal Water Music is that of MacKerras and the Orchestra of St. Lukes, but Stokowski's is an alternative because it sounds so remarkably different.
I do like Stokowski/Wagner as well because he does the lush sound of Wagner soooo well. He did not conduct Wagner in the opera house, but the Pearl releases of his Wagner during the Philadelphia period show us that he was introducing "bleeding chunks" of Wagner to a broad audience in America (through radio and recordings) that brought WWII era Americans to Wagner. I swear that I had pre-natal knowledge of Tristan because my father played Stokowski's recordings during my gestation. Stokowski's ca. 1960 recording of Wagner (included in this set) was a New York Times "10 best of the year" I believe. One reason for this is because of the wonderful "sound" of the recording.
Stokowski was always interested in the technical side of recording. His friendship with Dr. Harvey Fletcher at Bell Labs pioneered stereo recording and led not only to Disney's Fantasia but the entire validation of stereophonic recording which found its way into Cinemascope movies (beginning 1953) and eventually to consumer stereo in 1958. Dolby Surround of today is the successor to these early stereo experiments -- the one could not even exist without the invention of the other. Stokowski is one of the reasons we have all that, now.
So Stokowski recordings are almost always a treat because he "interfered" in the control room. He had not only the sound the live orchestra in his ear but also the sound of the final recording. What his musical scholarship may have lacked (in the baroque) was certainly made up for in his knowledge of the science of recording which he understood better than almost any other conductor. He also had an ear tuned to the audience itself. His arrangement of the orchestral-seating was a direct result of his discussions with Fletcher about human hearing. He realized that what may sound good on the podium does not sound as well balanced from the audience perspective. This was based on sound scientific research of Dr. Fletcher. Stokowski incorporated those acoustic discoveries musically. It was not about musical scholarship -- it was about what sounded best and most musically balanced from the audience perspective. That has all been lost, now, because conductors really never understood why it was done in the first place. Stokowski understood.
All of that interest in the final sound ends up in his recordings. Of those recordings, these RCA stereo recordings are wonderful examples. They show an integration of the recording art with music that is really rarely accomplished or understood.
These are better "recordings" than either the EMI or the Columbia set. They bring back wonderful memories of some vinyl I owned back in the day and introduce me to some things I have never owned. Stokowski was a matchless re-creative and technically aware conductor -- almost one of a kind in the whole history of conducting.