Apparently Stokowski hadn't conducted the Symphonie fantastique since 1914 (!) when he returned to it in 1968 for this concert version in London that led to a Decca Phase 4 recording. I found that recording cloyingly gorgeous, so it was intriguing to hear what the work would sound like without engineering gimmickry. The opening work, Scriabin's Poeme d'Extase, also appeared in a Phase 4 version, but with the Czech Phil., and here the absence of lurid Technicolor of the kind that Phase 4 perfected (if that's the right word) is a huge benefit. The BBC's lovely stereo rendering captures a great deal of transparent detail and nuanced playing; we aren't swamped in hyper-romantic sludge, as is so often the case with this work. I could easily live with this thrilling Stokowski reading and no other.
I'll admit to creeping ennui with the 'Symphonie fantastique,' and despite its massive discography, one reading each by Bernstein, Munch, and colin Davis would last me a lifetime. But how can anyone pass up Stokowski? the recorded sound is as transparent and appealing as in the Scriabin, and the conductor comes alive from the first measures, which so often sound tentative and mincing. The New Philharmonia, after two decades under Karajan and Klemperer (as simply the Philharmonia) were a superb orchestra, ready to respond with refined, precise, highly musical playing from all sections. It certainly shows here; you'd never guess that they were riding a war horse to the paddock. In great age it's hard to tell how much of an orchestra's response comes from the conductor and how much is the musicians doing the carrying. In this case, I suspect that the alive, joyous feeling that emanates is due to Stokowski - he had that effect on every orchestra he conducted.
I realize that I'm shortchanging on details of interpretation, but it's the buoyant spirit of this performance that is so striking. Stokowski sees the score as a romp, not a set of eerie hallucinations. His pacing is always forward-moving, with no patience for fussy nuance. In that sense, this reading is the anti-Boulez. After a vigorous, direct first movement, Un bal is unusually fast and exciting (no cornets, by the way). At 16 min. the Scene aux champs is a genuine Adagio but not dawdled over. Stokowski placed the oboe which echoes the English horn offstage, so it's quite faint as an unseen presence rather than a partner in musical ping pong. I loved the effect, but even better is the conductor's supple phrasing of the long line.
The march to the scaffold begins very fast - I think the musicians were caught off guard, to judge by the scrappy ensemble - and it continues fast. In old age Stokowski sometimes exaggerated his allegros, as if to prove that he hadn't lost his energy. As an exciting one-off it works, but this music asks for more weight, I think. For me, the witches' Sabbath finale is where I'd like to walk out earl; its marvelous orchestral effects long ago wore out. Stokowski must feel the same way, because he pushes the pacing and indulges in no exaggeration of eeriness whatever. Not everyone will want the music played this straight, and the woodwinds are placed a bit too far back for their key solos. The sudden slow down for the tuba's Dies Irae is marginally a mistake. Still, the overall effect is thrilling and direct, like the performance as a whole.
In the end, even though I had few expectations, I wound up feeling that this was one of BBC Legends' strongest Stokowski installments and by far his best recording of both works.