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Sensuality and Freedom

Stokowski conducts
Schubert and Dvorák -
heard by

'... one is never left in any doubt as to the force of the conductor ...'

Stokowski - Dvorák: New World Symphony; Schubert: Rosamunde; Tyrolean Dances. © 2009 Cala Records Ltd

In some ways, Stokowski is to conducting as Horowitz is to the piano -- a master of tonal colouring, lyrical phrasing and high voltage excitement, occasionally treated with suspicion due to his fondness for producing transcriptions, as well as his negligence towards the great Germanic masterpieces. His control over the orchestra enabled him to achieve almost the same degree of flexibility in tempo as his pianistic counterpart -- only Willem Mengelberg was as successful in using quite as much rubato with a full symphony orchestra. With all this, Stokowski could be coined the 'Last Romantic' of conductors, as his pianistic counterpart was also often labelled. In recent years, his reputation has been on the rise again with several reissues being critically well received and listeners rediscovering the inspiration offered by a great romantic musician.

The present disc demonstrates the quintessential characteristics of Stokowski's style in somewhat less typical repertoire: Dvorák's last Symphony, together with some lighter Schubert items, including one of Stokowski's trademark orchestrations. Stokowski did not conduct much Schubert, which on present evidence is a shame, as he gives the three numbers from Rosamunde wonderful charm and lightness of touch. The Overture is given a fast tempo, the strings skipping through their passages with delicacy, the lyrical secondary subject wonderfully expressive and the climaxes generating an almost Furtwänglerian surge of excitement.

Listen -- Schubert: Rosamunde Overture
(track 1, 5:12-5:49) © 2009 Cala Records Ltd

Stokowski was fond of meddling with the music, adapting it, making cuts, extending it, or amending the orchestration. A small cut of a few bars at the end of the Rosamunde Overture could almost be missed, but in the B Flat Entr'acte he adds a whole section, the minor variation from the Impromptu in B Flat for piano, in his own orchestration, as a third episode to the Entr'acte. The tempo of the whole piece is slow, as is this added section also, giving the work a much more meditative character than usually expected. The melodies are beautifully shaped, and the flexibility of tempo is so successfully controlled one might think one were listening to a soloist. It certainly doesn't sound historically informed, but it does sound languorous, moving and absorbing, full of conviction, and very compelling. The G major Ballet is once again charming and light. The Schubert selection is rounded off with Stokowski's transcription of a selection from the German Dances for piano D 783. The arrangement uses the full gamut of orchestral instruments and ends with a small added coda -- close in spirit to Webern's transcription of Schubert Dances, and also to the more rustic moments in Mahler.

Listen -- Schubert: Entr'acte No 3 in B flat (Rosamunde)
(track 2, 6:50-8:00) © 2009 Cala Records Ltd

The Ninth Symphony of Dvorák is the main item of this CD, and is one of several recordings Stokowski made of this work. It dates from 1947, and, like the Schubert works on the CD, features Stokowski's bespoke orchestra, drawn from members of the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This is another characteristic performance, full of sensuality and freedom. The first movement is almost ferocious at times, with occasional raw sounds from the strings and brass, but nothing that does not add to the general excitement. The Largo is finely crafted, perhaps a little slow for some tastes, but with highly expressive solos from all woodwind instruments. The final two movements retain some of the ferocity of the first, with touches of Schubertian charm in the trio of the Scherzo.

Listen -- Dvorák: Allegro Molto (Symphony No 9)
(track 5, 3:43-4:08) © 2009 Cala Records Ltd

Listen -- Dvorák: Largo (Symphony No 9)
(track 6, 0:37-2:30) © 2009 Cala Records Ltd

As with many other Stokowski recordings, one is never left in any doubt as to the force of the conductor -- his vision permeates all the works on this disc. Lovers of more unobtrusive, modest music-making will be disturbed by these recordings, as every detail in the music is shaped to construct performances of great intensity and scope.

A hallmark of many of Stokowski's recordings is the space he gives orchestral soloists to shape their phrases, and these recordings are no exception. The Largo of the Dvorák features the Cor Anglais solo of Mitch Miller, a popular all round musician and record producer. Other soloists include the flautist John Wummer and the oboist Robert Bloom, both of whom contribute beautiful passages to the recordings. The sound quality of the CD is good, with occasional unevenness of sound, particularly in the Dvorák -- not a CD for audiophiles, but definitely acceptable to the average listener.

Copyright © 28 May 2009 Béla Hartmann,
Surrey UK











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