Here it is: The long awaited re-release of Stokowski's valedictory performance of Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony. However, unlike its previous incarnation, on the obscure Desmar Records, this sterling digital remastering of the 1975 sessions is available on major label EMI Classics.
Leopold Stokowski was a lifelong champion of Rachmaninoff's works, and proclaimed about the Russian master's compositions: "I have the impression of the greatest sincerity always in Rachmaninoff's works, and although they are often complex, it is an organised complexity, and it is this which produces the effect of simplicity." From 1920 until he handed over the reins of the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936 to his apt successor Eugene Ormandy, the Polish-born, flamboyant Stokowski premiered all of Rachmaninoff's major orchestral works (Rachmaninoff wrote only one more after Stokowski's tenure, "Symphonic Dances," which he had dedicated to Ormandy and the Philadelphians).
The most exciting of these premieres was the "Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini," which Stokowski and pianist/composer Rachmaninoff first performed in Baltimore in 1934. When I listen to their famous RCA recording of the Rhapsody with the Philadelphia Orchestra, I visualise in my mind's eye the tall, gaunt Rachmaninoff craning over the keys of his Steinway, attacking the piece with power, poetry and precision, while I imagine Stokowski as the very essence of luminous intensity, the spotlight trained on his white-gloved hands and platinum mane of hair.
That sense of drama and awe come to me all over again, listening to this beautiful and haunting re-release. In 1936, Stokowski premiered the Third with the Philadelphia Orchestra, but critics either panned the new symphony, or ignored it completely. Stokowski never performed the symphony again until 1975, when he looked at the Symphony anew and, at the age of 93, decided to record it with the expert British ensemble, the National Philharmonic. It shows to go you that it's never too late.
Stokowski was never known for being a stickler for remaining true to the letter of a score. In a Columbia recording of Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet that he made with the New York Philharmonic, he changed the ending from a blaring fanfare for brass and percussion to a soft, muted elegy for strings and flutes; all legato and diminuendo. However, Stokowski was most certainly a partisan to the spirit of the music, and that's what we get on this disc: We hear "Rachmaninoff According to Stokowski." And, it's in full-frequency stereo.
In the first movement, Lento, Stokowski builds up the symphony slowly. This movement opens up much like a sunrise and though the streets are quickly full of activity and bustle, there is a tinge of sleep in the Allegro moderato which follows. Stokowski takes an easy tempo, letting the orchestra meander comfortably through the themes which comprise the symphony's opening. This is a most experimental work for Rachmaninoff: In structure, it is more in concerto form than symphony (three movements, rather than the conventional four), and almost Sibelian in its thematic structure, in which thematic strands endlessly start and stop, weaving and overlapping one another. Yet, the content of the themes are distinctly Rachmaninovian. Unlike Ormandy's or Ashkenazy's rendering, Stokowski slowly brings in the uneasy five-note repeating figure of the movement's middle section, placing a seemingly inordinate emphasis on the low winds and brass which permeate the ostinato on the strings. Yet, this decompression gives a more menacing effect, allowing Stokowski's building crescendi and sforzandi later on to have much more powerful, sweeping impact.
The middle movement, Adagio ma non troppo - Allegro vivace, opens with a bittersweet solo on the violin, which is repeated gingerly on flutes, harp and bass clarinet, as they all explore the movement's opening theme in a demure rondo. Stokowski expertly balances the all the instrumentalists whilst giving the orchestra as a whole a roomy delineation. As the movement forges on, gathering up speed, Stokowski sharpens the delineation razor-sharp as the brass and timpani impede on the musical tableaux. Yet, as the low strings and flutes resume the movement, and Rachmaninoff's wistful opening theme is re-introduced, Stokowski subtly and imperceptibly gives the orchestra back its room in which to move around. This deft use of tension and release is typical Stokowski, and it works beautifully.
The finale, Allegro - Allegro vivace, opens triumphantly, and Stokowski gives a very focused, impassioned reading. He mirrors Rachmaninoff's own doctrine in performing a piece of music: Find its apex, build up to it, then descend in triumph. Nowhere is this more evident than here. Everything has been leading up to the very last bars, seconds before the conclusion. He uses percussion (snare, timpani - hard mallets, packing a dynamite punch - and triangle) to buttress the movement, as earlier thematic strands are re-introduced. Under it all, the percussion and lower strings forge ahead, almost military-like, toward their objective: The movement's final notes. Stokowski builds up a massive barrage or sound, repeating the themes with vigour and gusto, then letting the orchestra down one last time to explore the serene theme of longing, repeated from the first movement. This theme abruptly builds to the final passage, which Stokowski finishes off with unrestrained fury, in a staccatoed fusillade of brass and timpani that ends abruptly, thematically irresolute. Yet, listening to the power and passion of Stokowski's most visceral rendering, one knows that Stokowski's feelings toward this once-neglected symphony are most resolute; he has finally done right by it, most convincingly. This recording is more his redemption than his musical benediction.
This disc also features Vocalise, long a staple of Stokowski's repertoire. What can I say? Vocalise is Vocalise: It is one of those pieces which requires the conductor to merely play the notes, simply and honestly, to impart the piece's noble beauty and simplicity. For one of the few times in his career, Stokowski does just this, exhibiting the deep respect he felt for the composer to whom he looked up as a friend and mentor.