Tag Archives: Living Stereo

The Old Magician — Just A Few Random Notes

Much ink has been spilled on the pros and cons of Stokowski and his long career, so I’m just offering a few notes here as I’ve been re-listening to a few of the handful of his (mostly) later records, particularly ones that show his uncanny ability to make a less-than-masterpiece sound like it was just that. For me, that’s the magician part. He was 95A4CA2F-E16F-4670-922B-054F9C5E5ECF_1_201_aa showman, much like his friend Walt Disney, always interested in the next new3989650F-5997-4BF1-8162-CB0D92ADAB81_1_201_a technology to advance the art; this meant early stereo, of course, and the Fantasia Soundtrack is in actual 1939 stereo sound. As much as one hears those pieces, some of them have never really been matched — the menace of Night on Bald Mountain, the Disney-assisted jollity of the Dance of the Hours.

One can’t mention Fantasia, or indeed mention Stokowski at all, without mentioning the Back transcriptions. You love them or you hate them, and if you love them, as I do, he is the master — or at least he taught the Philadelphians how to you take the Bach organ sound and make it work for the symphonic instrument. He recorded the Toccata and Fugue many time, but nothing surpasses the 1927 original (available on a Dell’arte LP):

It’s only arguable that he was surpassed in this piece with the same orchestra, when Ormandy put it down again 50 years later (far superior to his earlier Columbia LP):

But like many showman, one criticism old the Old Magician is he didn’t know when to quit; he just came back with the same bag of tricks. And in a way he did, but it kept working — until the end. He kept going, kept recording, and often re-recording the same pieces. But at the same time, he frequently defied the naysayers. There was the rightfully famous Rhapsodies with RCA Living Stereo, but by and large he wasn’t deemed “serious” enough for Nipper in thoseIMG_3340 heady days. Too Hollywood. Well, OK…he went with it. Capitol thought he was washed up in the 1950s but he turns around gives us a stellar Shostakovich 11th, a famed Carmina Burana and Berlin Firebird — though not really to my taste as a matter of interpretation, but an (edited down) Ilya Murourometz I consider one of those less-than masterpieces than come off sounding like one; my copy is a UK Capitol, which can be IMG_3349highly unreliable in their sound because of where the actual masters were kept; I had a Planets on UK Capitol that sounded like it was being played through a tin can compared to the US version. But when you get a good, clean Capitol from those golden years of ’58 and ’59 the sonic results are just stellar, and the players knew they had a living legend standing in front of them. And then there was a bunch of French repertoire, the wonderful Debussy record of which is my favorite. And plenty of others, though maybe a little less memorable.

And then comes along the upstart Everest label, not as fancy or well-funded as Mercury, and he does it again. The Shostakovich 5 that knocks your socks off. The Francesca da Rimini and Hamlet that again make second-rateIMG_3338 compositions come off like masterpieces. He never lost the magic. And this was all in the 1950s. The Everests were all issued on CD in the early ’90s and are harder to come by than the vinyl in some cases.

And the energizer bunny kept going into the 1960s. And then his Indian summer in London gave us a bevy of Phase 4’s, finely recorded and including the best Scheherezade since possibly his own 1927 rendition, miraculously restored Stokowski.org transfers from the 78s, as well some more unknown masterpieces including — of all things — a Khachaturian 11th (the only one ever recorded?) that is positively stellar. IMG_334115 trumpets, yes. And that wasn’t a Stoki embellishment! A MahlerIMG_3350 Second that is on par with Bernstein’s final NYPO record in its vastness of scope, grandiosity, and revelatory power. Both are available on CD, although you have to either find an old issue or spring for a newer box set, or in the (deserved) case of the Mahler, an SACD.

And sure, some weird stuff, too — he has a Brahms 4th from this period that seriously leaves one wondering if he was off his meds. The tempi are bonkers. After all, he was getting really, really old.

But until his dying day, he literally kept at it. His last record for CBS, from 1976 (at age 94!), is a delight. The Bizet Symphony is on par with Ansermet for sheer joie de vivre. 

Albéniz’s Iberia

I’ve always enjoyed Spanish classical music, ever since I was indoctrinated as a child to the bustling excitement of de Falla’s Three Cornered Hat, which remains a favorite still today. Among the pieces I came to know later was Isaac Albéniz’s masterpiece Iberia, a piano suite written in the first decade of the 20th Century. As with much of this underrated composer’s works, it is known mostly in transcription form; probably his most popular works are commonly performed on guitar, though first written for the piano (“Asturias,” originally titled “Leyenda” for piano, as the prime example).

Iberia is a suite of 12 short pieces, each evocative of Spanish folk themes or regions. I favor the piano version(s) recorded by


the great Alicia de Larrocha, who did so much to popularize Spanish piano works over the years. She recorded the full suite three times, 1962 (EMI/Hispavox), 1973 and 1986 (both London/Decca). I favor the 1973, which won the Grand Prix du Disque that year. It is a rich and lilting performance free of affect that too often infects folk music-inspired works. The CD transfer is eminently acceptable.

The orchestrations of Iberia are a hodgepodge, but nevermind. Two of Albéniz’s next-generation colleagues, E.F. Arbós and Carlos Surinach, provide a combined orchestration (Arbós also created a shorted Suite of five movements). A much more contemporary orchestration was completed by the Slovak musician Peter Breiner in the 1990s. I’m not familiar with it, though guess it would sound foreign after coming to know the Arbós/Surinach version.

As a piece of orchestral music Iberia is opulent and spectacular, in keeping with the moods of Ravel, de Falla, and other romantic impressionists of the time. There are only a handful of recordings of the full orchestration — single movements from the suite do crop up more often on Spanish-themed collections.

100_6475The first full recording on LP was Ormandy’s 1956 set with Philadelphia (M2L-237). Hardly hampered by mono sound, it is spread out generously over four sides with no filler, and on my pristine 6-eye copy is as sonically rewarding as any of the later stereo competitors, if not more so. Compared to the RCA Living Stereo favorites Jean Morel and Fritz Reiner, Ormandy is to my ears even more rhythmically interesting and compelling, eschewing the olé!-let’s-dance-a-flamenco stereotypes that are hard to avoid in music like this. The mono sound is opulent and, though I’ve not heard it myself, is now finally available on CD in a masters transfer from Pristine Classical label and engineer Mark Obert-Thon. The vinyl was never reissued on LP after its original release in 1956.

The lush drama of the piece easily lent itself to the early Living Stereo showpiece selections, and Jean Morel’s 1961 version100_6474 with the Paris Conservatoire is among the most sought after of the series (LSC 6094; my copy used for this analysis, loaned by a friend, is 1S-1S-3S-3S). While the sound is crisp and light, I find it to be reedy, lacking in depth and bass, as is the case for me with so many of these highly touted LSCs. Unlike Ormandy, the Morel set is squeezed onto three sides, with Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole on side four, and the sonic depth suffers. Ironically, though Albéniz lived and composed in Paris, and was hugely popular there, Morel’s French élan doesn’t quite suit the work, which has too much romantic brooding and drama in it for this snappy, showy interpretation. In its mono issue, the Morel is even more thin and one-dimensional. Morel’s Living Stereo version is currently unavailable on CD, though his later London/Decca remake is, on the Eloquence label in the European market. I’ve not heard that later version on LP.

A few years earlier, in 1958, Fritz Reiner had recorded three of the more popular Iberia selections with Chicago for the travelogue Living Stereo album “Spain.” While my admittedly ruddy 5S-1S has some ticks and pops, the sound is to my ears more acoustically pleasing than Morel. Perhaps it had to do with recording venues? But Reiner too lacks the depth of the 100_6472Philadelphia version, or for that matter of later digital incarnations including Enrique Bátiz’s shortened Arbós Suite with the opulent London Symphony on EMI (1981, DS-37878), or Jesus López-Cobos’ complete 1998 Cincinnati version on Telarc. If Bátiz is a 100_6473bit wayward in his pacing, the early digital sound is extremely dynamic and belies many of the critiques of this period. It is out of print on CD but still available — I can only speak to the sonics on the vinyl pressing. López-Cobos benefits from theatrical Telarc Direct Stream Digital engineering, and if anything overdoes the symphonic fireworks. On CD, however, there is no better way to experience the theatrics of this relatively unknown Spanish masterpiece.