L. Neil Smith's
Number 255, January 18, 2004

"Life Goes On ...."

The Wizardry Lives On
by Ken Holder

Exclusive to TLE

Symphony conductor Leopold Stokowski died in 1977 at age 95, but his wizardry with an orchestra lives on in recordings.

I've just been listening to two CD compilations of some of his recordings from "The Golden Age" of recording, a time span usually given as from about 1954 (when RCA and other record companies first began to record in stereo) to about 1963 (when RCA Victor abandoned high-fidelity with the introduction of their awful-sounding Dynagrove process).

The first CD has the contents of two albums released on the Capitol label, recorded in the ballroom of the Great Northern Hotel in New York City in January and February of 1957. The 78-minute, 13-second CD contains all of these two albums (as best I can remember) except for the Johann Strauss "Blue Danube" waltz. This CD starts off with a blare, so please turn your volume control down at first to make sure you don't bust something. The The Orchestra album is first, and consists of 8 tracks, each chosen to illustrate a section of the orchestra. We start off with the brass (the "Fanfare" from Dukas' La Peri), then the strings (Barber's "Adagio for Strings"), then the wind sections ("Gavotte" from Richard Strauss' Suite for Wind Instruments), the percussion section (Farberman's "Evolution, part 1"), winds again ("Scherzo" from Symphony No. 8 by Vaughan Williams (the hyphenated last name without a hyphen), and so on, ending up with the two final "pictures" from Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition. The CD says "orchestrated by Ravel", but I was sure I remembered the LP saying "orchestrated by Stokowski". I no longer have access to the LP, so who knows.

Then with bands 9 through 13 we have all of the Landmarks of a Distinguished Career album except for that waltz I mentioned. These are longer works, including Stokowski's orchestration of "Clair de Lune", and his orchestration of Bach's "Toccata and Figue in D-minor, Sibelius' "The Swan of Tuonela", Debussy's "Prelude a l'Apres-midi d'un Faune" and ends in a blaze of powerful brassy glory with Sibelius' "Finlandia" (used over the final credits in Die Hard 2 for some reason). I do miss the Strauss waltz, but that's all the room the CD had. Maybe it was put on some other EMI re-issue of the Capital "Full Dimensional Sound" albums.

The sound is lean, brash and up-front in a spectacular manner, with just a bit of hardness in the highs, which I easily tamed by turning down the tweeter level one click. This leaves a lean and vigorous sound, with a wide and deep soundstage. Every work on this CD is, of course, played to the hilt, with enough excitement in The Orchestra to make you feel like taking a rest when it's done. The Landmarks music has less slam-bang show-off material, although the Bach work contains some breath-taking displays of virtuosity by the strings near the end (not quite as breath-taking as Stokowsky's 1927 78-rpm version with the Philadelphia Orchestra, though!). The "Swan of Tuonela" milks the quiet melancholy of the work for all it's worth, and I've already mentioned the blaze of glory in "Finlandia", Sibelius' 1899 call for throwing off the Russian Colonial Yoke and a free Finland (later we got a free Linux from Finland).

After catching my breath, I loaded the next CD under review here, Rhapsodies: Liszt, Enesco, Smetana, Wagner, on RCA Victor Living Stereo. The Capital album is played by "His Symphony Orchestra", which was probably a moonlighting New York Philharmonic, since it was recorded in New York. The RCA album is played by "RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra" (probably NYPO again), and the "Symphony of the Air", which was what Toscanini's NBC Symphony renamed itself after being laid off by NBC. This album was recorded in February 1960, December 1960, and April 1961.

The engineers were Robert Simpson, and the famous Lewis Layton. This must explain the difference in sound. While the Capital's sound is like a hot bracing cup of black coffee, the RCA sound is like a big bowl of chocolate pudding, over which has been poured a gallon or so of hot fudge, topped with a couple pounds of whipped cream—the sound is so warm and rich that at first I couldn't believe my system could make such a sound! Just amazing.

The album starts off with Liszt's "Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2", 8-minutes, 40-seconds of lush gypsy bounciness, followed by Enesco's "Roumanian Rhapsody No. 2", more fun tunefulness, and then to one of the best recorded performances ever done of Smetana's "The Moldau" (also called "Vltava"), a musical depiction of the great river that runs through Czechoslovakia, or Bohemia, or wherever Smetana was from. Next we get Smetana's "Overture" to his opera The Bartered Bride, a delightful work filled with lots of contrapuntal interplay among the different sections of the orchestra (just listen to how each section is clearly placed in it's own part of the lovely reverbrant space of the Manhattan Center studio, 1st violins located up front from the center over to left of the left speaker, 2nd violins located in a similar-sized chunk of space distinctly behind them). Next we have "Overture and Venusberg Music" from Wagner's Tannhauser—this being one of my favorite bits of "thrill me to the bone" music, although I've never figured out where the "Overture" ends and the "Venusberg Music" starts. (For some idiotic reason I never built up a library of scores.) A minute or so after the music starts it begins to throb ... and with Stokowski conducting, the music throbs like I've never heard it throb before. It makes the whole world throb along with it, gladly trobbing! The album closes with a stunning performance of the "Prelude to Act III" of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, in which a somber and hauntingly beautiful English horn solo lets us know that things aren't going to turn out well for our young lovers. But we knew that, this being part of an opera and all.

I can't emphasize enough how thrillingly rich the sound of this dang CD is, even if you don't like the music (but what's there to hate?), this thing is just an extended wallow in gorgeous orchestral sonority. Unlike some RCA Victor recordings from the Golden Age, this one wasn't pushed to the limit on the original tape, and renders clean throughout except for a slight amount of muddiness in full climaxes in "The Moldau"—and shouldn't a river have a bit of mud? (Or was it my cheap Japanese mass-market amplifier and it's pathetic excuse for a power supply being stressed to the voltage-droop point? Or was it my semi-cheap Sony CD player—we got a DVD player for Christmas this year, and it turns out that CDs that have a touch of harshness on the CD player have none or almost none when played on the 10-years newer DVD player ... interesting, eh?) Anyway, this clean and smooth sound is a welcome relief from some RCAs such as the Reiner/Chicago Symphony Orchestra Beethoven 5th, which suffers from so much overloading that it's not all that pleasant to listen to (one of the great tragedies of recording history since it's perhaps the finest performance ever captured).

So, in short, if you are a music lover, you need these two CDs for the intense concentration of musical pleasure they contain. If you are an audiophile, you'll love the great Golden Age sound. And if you're neither, here's the perfect chance for you to expand your horizons by picking up these two recordings. The music is what music people call "accessible" (meaning it's not hard to listen to or to get into), and the recorded sound is a treat all in itself. Run right out!

Get your own copy:

Rhapsodies: Liszt, Enesco, Smetana, Wagner
Leopold Stokowski, conductor
RCA Victor Living Stereo 09026-61503-2
Find at your local record store or from Amazon.com via this link: LINK

Landmarks of a Distinguished Career and The Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski, conductor
EMI Classics CDM 7243 65614 2 7
Find at your local record store or from Amazon.com via this link: LINK

Ken Holder intended to spend his retirement listening to records but instead he's spending it scrambling to earn enough money to stay alive and (in the winter) un-frozen. He edits TLE in his spare time ... come to think of it ALL of his time is spare time. "Buddy, can you spare a time?"


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