Cala's reissue was published in 1999, part of their great Stokowski series in 34 installments produced in association with the Leopold Stokowski Society, which brought back many of the maestro's recordings of all vintages that couldn't be found in any other form. Many still can't, although this one has lost some of its unique value when in 2003 Decca released their Stokowski set, Leopold Stokowski: Decca Recordings, 1965-1972 (Original Masters Limited Edition), which offers all the material gathered on this Cala disc (and more, of course).
But for those who'd be attracted only by the program of "Musique française" and not the rest of the Decca offering, the Cala CD retains its interest. The transfers seem exactly the same, I can detect no sonic superiority or even difference between both reissues, and indeed Cala's publication was made under license from Decca.
It's always fun to have Stokowski's orchestral transcriptions. I find Chopin's Mazurka op. 17 No. 4 as entertaining in its new orchestral guise as some of those made for electronics by Tomita (no, this is not a double-tongued compliment). This, made with the London Symphony Orchestra on 13 June 1972, is Stokowski's third studio recording, after those with Philadelphia in 1937 (reissued by Biddulph, Dvorak - Symphony # 9) and the Houston Symphony Orchestra for Everest in 1960 (Peter & The Wolf); But Duparc's Extase, taped at the same session, is his only recording. It's no surprise that in those days of June 1972 Stokowski was playing a concert program with the LSO which included Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (also recorded by Decca). There was also Glazunov's Violin Concerto with Silvia Marcovici, now on Tchaikovsky: Symphony No. 5 / Glazunov: Violin Concerto.
Great also to have Stokowski's Ravel short Fanfare, written for the collective ballet L'Eventail de Jeanne and a rarity, both in Stokowski's and Ravel's discography. It was recorded, together with the Franck Symphony, on 24 and 25 February 1970 with the so-called Hilversum Symphony Orchestra (a contractual alias for the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra) with which Stokowski had performed a program which also included Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky (the concert was published on Ravel: Fanfare L'Éventail de Jeanne; Franck: Symphony in D minor; Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky - Franck and Prokofiev were previously made public by Music & Arts, but on separate discs with less coherent pairings). If you enjoy being seated in the middle of the orchestra (and very close to winds and brass), you'll enjoy Decca's Phase Four recording; if you prefer to sit in the audience, you'll find it extremely artificial.
Messiaen's L'Ascension is more substantial, a piece which Stokowski had premiered on disc, as early as 1949, with the New York Philharmonic, for Columbia, also reissued by Cala, Leopold Stokowski: The New York Philharmonic Columbia (US) Recordings, Volume 1. His new recording, with the London Symphony Orchestra, made on 22 and 23 June 1970, is an improvement over the previous one and not only sonically (although, in music as colorful as Messiaen's, the sonics are an essential factor), and a fine version, that doesn't lapse into the truly incredible excesses of the more recent recordings. Take the first Ascension, singing "The Majesty of Christ Asking Glory from his Father", as he is about to ascend at His side. It is truly jawdropping to look at the evolution of timings. Pierre Monteux live in San Francisco 1948 2:30; Stokowski 1949 2:42; Stokowski 1970 3:39; Marius Constant 1971 (Erato) 4:39, Karl-Anton Rickenbacker 1982 (Koch Schwann) 5:33; Myun-Whun Chung 1993 (DG) 8:11 (see comments section for the product links). Monteux and Stokowski 1 both seem to think that Jesus is really in a hurry to get up there, but Chung! He obviously thinks this is already eternal bliss! And, as a great mystic once said, it feels very long, especially towards the end. Stokowski 2 is just right, majestic but with an underlying sense of inquietude, like a beseeching plea. By comparison, all the slower versions seem impossibly solemn and sluggish, music for your transcendental meditation. There's a sense of jubilation in Stokowski's second Ascension, which entirely eludes Chung at, again, a slower tempo. In the more pastoral moments, with their sensuously intertwining woodwinds (0:34, 2:18), Stokowski doesn't make the music dreamy and almost doleful like Constant or Chung, he makes it seductive like some oriental dancer, anticipating the Indian (from India) inspirations of Turangalila Symphony. That said, the other approach is probably more in character, this Ascension is supposed to depict "Serene Alleluias Of A Soul Yearning For Heaven". In the Fourth Ascension for strings alone, I don't know if Stokowski's very swift tempo (4:34) expresses better than Constant's (9:10), Rickenbacker's (10:11) or Chung's time-at-a-standstill unfolding (12:17!), the "entrance of the Lord resurrected in the inaccessible light of the Father", but there is a truly breathtaking intensity of attacks and bowing that none of the other versions come even close to emulating. And Messiaen did say that the music could express nothing of this inexpressible subject, other than adoration. The adoration of Constant, Rickenbacker and Chung is ecstatic and very "new age transcendental meditative". Stokowski makes you see something of that blinding light.
Only his Third Ascension is somewhat out of character, his pedestrian tempo and huge sonics making it sound like some barbaric dance of the Golden Calf, but Messiaen calls for jubilation here, the people of the earth clapping their hands and shouting in joy and dancing to rejoice at Christ's ascent. Stokowski had it in 1949. Decca's sonics have much more presence than DG's for Chung or Koch Schwann's for Rickenbacker.
The disc's main dish however is Franck's Symphony, Stokowski's third studio recording, after those made with the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1927 (the first version recorded electrically, reissued by Music & Arts, Stokowski & the Philadelphia Orchestra - CD Premieres of Their Rarest 78 RPM Recordings - Recorded 1927-1940) and 1935 (Biddulph, Leopold Stokowski conducts Music from France (Vol. 1)). And I am sorry to say, but as much as I love and admire Stokowski, his last go at Franck's Symphony is, in many respects, appalling: not only a bad distortion of what Franck wrote, but managing to turn it into a boring listen. Stokowski's reading of the work always was an all-out distortion, but it's gotten worse. The liner notes of the Decca set are almost laughable in their (voluntary?) attempt to drop a red herring, when they state that "Franck's Symphony, with its constant fluctuations of tempo, is one of the most difficult of all Romantic symphonies to bring off". No! There lies precisely the problem of Stokowski's approach. Just open the score, and you'll see that Franck's Symphony is surprisingly sparse in its tempo changes. In the first movement, there is a "Lento" and an "Allegro non troppo", and three times a bar or two - no more - of "poco" or "molto rall." followed by "a tempo", plus an eight-bar transition notated "Poco più lento" then "più rall.". The second movement has basically ONE tempo ("Allegretto"), and a bar or two here and there of "poco rall." or "rall." followed by "a tempo". The Finale again has basically one tempo, "Allegro non troppo", and Franck insists at various points to keep the same tempo ("tempo stretto come davanti" = tight tempo as before, "tempo listesso" = same tempo, "tempo come avanti" = tempo as before), precisely because it is essential to his carefully conceived architecture and cyclical principle, whereby the themes of the first two movements return in the Finale. So the only big tempo fluctuation in the Finale is a fifteen-measure passage of "più lento" and a nine-measure passage of "poco a poco rallentando" where the motive of the first movement's Lento reappears. But Franck's conception implies in particular that the conductor choose a tempo in the middle movement that he can carry over seamlessly into the Finale, where the same half-note beat of "Allegro non troppo" becomes the quarter-note beat of the "Allegretto" theme when it returns.
Of course Stokowski puts paid to all that. In the first movement he is eager to add his own rallentandos when the dynamics recede, to grossly exaggerate the various "poco rall." of Franck, and observe at random the composer's instructions to get back to tempo. His second movement is no "Allegretto" but a doleful and mourning Lento, which makes it impossible for him to conciliate that tempo and the Allegro non troppo tempo of the Finale, at 3:25, 4:11 and 8:30 leading him to more arbitrary accordion-playing there.
All this might have been acceptable, and perhaps even convincing - just put away the score, forget Franck's intentions and careful construction, and listen to what Stokowski offers - but unfortunately, in the 35 years since his previous studio effort in Philadelphia, the old wizard has lost a lot some of his magic. The Lento opening of the first movement remains as urgently paced as in 1927 (it was slightly more deliberate in 1935), but it feels more breathless, because the surrounding sonics would have easily given scope for more meditative unfolding. Still, the sense of breathlessness is OK and interesting. I can also accept that Stokowski's "Allegro non troppo" in the first and last movements should be deliberate rather than driving (and more so than in 1927 and 1935), because that's what "non troppo" is about, and, to drive, Stokowski substitutes a sense of heavy power. I like some of his expressive touches also, as the way he expressively enlarges the tempo in the two bars of dynamic swells of violins in the first movement at 2:28. But I find that Stokowski's kneading of the movement's shape as if it were melted caramel unduly sentimentalizes stretches of the music, the sonic pickup is heavily slanted towards strings and the brass often lack bite and impact, which deprives the music of the dramatic underpinning which, with Stokowski's elasticity of tempo and tendency to sentimentalize, would have been even more necessary, and he tries to cover that with huge string tone, which is certainly impressive but makes its impact from being loud rather than refined or always appropriate.
In 1935, at a tempo marginally more expansive than in 1927, Stokowski pulled off the slow movement (you can't call it "the Allegretto" in Stokowski's reading) because, at his slow tempo, the plucked strings and plangent English horn gave it the air of a sad song of forlorn love. Here, at a tempo even slower than in 1935, the plucked strings are so loud and the English horn so unrefined in timbre that it really kills any poetry. But, at that very deliberate tempo, the buzzing strings that open the central section at 4:50, in what is supposed to sound "fast" (not through any acceleration of tempo, but simply playing more notes per beat), but not here, acquire an interesting character, not "Queen Mzab" or "will-o'-the wisp", more cautious and perhaps threatening.
Stokowski launches in the Finale with more cogency than in 1935 (where he changed his racing opening as soon as the sixth bar, with the cello motive), at a tempo that doesn't try to rush but is just fine and "non troppo" indeed, and it is hard to resist the lushness of the string playing. And that again Stokowski applies a huge rallentando to let the brass chorale at 1:18 soar in all its majestic and somewhat ponderous glory, only to get back to tempo after four bars, as soon as it is over, only to do it again when it returns four bars later, and again and again (it's like telling you, "hey, take a second to listen to this! Nice, isn't it? OK, let's move on now to the next view. Ah! here it is again!") can be ascribed to his acceptable creative touches, although don't go there if you are susceptible to sea-sickness. But then I really have a hard time with Stokowski's over-insistence on every moment, with the eye on the measure rather than on the larger shape of things. Very typical of this is his very held-back tempo in the reminiscence of the first movement's opening at 2:09, motivated apparently only by the desire to press the last expressive drop out of it, oblivious that it connects directly with the reminiscence of the Allegretto at 3:25, where Stokie has to jarringly speed up things to get back to tempo. In 1927 and 1935 he did it right. In 1970 any concern for architectural cogency seems to have gone with the wind of age. Again, the Decca liner notes are a real laugh: "The Hilversum Radio Orchestra are with him to a man, and play with great commitment, but the result does not solve the structural problems..." You bet it doesn't "solve" them! It CREATES them! And with all that, I must sadly confess that I found it, at times, simply boring: too sluggish, too elastic, too sentimental at the expense of momentum, too arbitrary. And that 1970 should also display the infamous Stokowski fiddling with the scores, is only menial: the trumpet theme that erupts at 8:22 in the Finale is not in my score, that theme is supposed to be played by cellos. Well, I guess Stokie considered that it would be heard better that way. Maybe, but he could have chose a less garish instrument - for a second you'd think you had been teleported in Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy. Or maybe it is something he had done way back, thinking of the recording process in 1927 or 1935 (the 78rmp sonics don't let you recognize if it is trumpets or celli playing) and simply didn't realize how vulgar it would sound once you really heard it. In fact I wonder if that's not the explanation also for his whole interpretive conception of Franck's Symphony.
Listen to this Franck for Stokowski's unique and controversial personality - don't listen for Franck.