Leopold Stokowski

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7; Bach: Passacaglia and Fugue; Mendelssohn: Scherzo; Gluck: Sicilienne; Ben-Haim: From Israel

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The Leopold Stokowski Society announced that it was closing at the end of 2009; it has achieved its goal of raising the profile of Stokowski from that of a blustering mythmaker and musical tinkerer to its rightful place as one of the twentieth century's most iconic and universally significant conductors. This Cala release, Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 and other first stereo releases on CD is the last Leopold Stokowski Society release on its blotter. Although the main work here is a spirited, tasteful, and assured reading with the Symphony of the Air of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony, originally issued as a United Artists LP, stereo sound and lack of availability on CD are the unifying factors of this collection. EMI gathered several of Stokowski's 1958 Symphony of the Air recordings and released them as a three-disc set in 1994 and has also used the same discs as part of a boxed set devoted to the maestro. However, the Beethoven symphony ranks among United Artists/Symphony of the Air items that EMI left off those compilations, and it appears here along with Paul Ben-Haim's orchestral suite, From Israel, recorded in 1959.

These two works frame a 1969 International Festival Youth Orchestra performance of his own transcription of Johann Sebastian Bach's Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582, of the earliest, longest, and most elaborate of the maestro's Bach transcriptions for orchestra. This recording, made with massed youth orchestras from several nations, was recorded in St. Moritz and issued only on a special souvenir LP. While the master tape is a tad unstable in spots, it is an intense and passionate performance that pays tribute to Stokowski's ability to get his distinctive sound, even with an orchestra made up of kids. That Stokowski had a way with student orchestras is also attested by the sparkling binaural remastering of Mendelssohn's Scherzo from A Midsummer Night's Dream from 1941 as performed with the All-American Youth Orchestra; as Stokowski recorded very little Mendelssohn, this is decidedly a special event. By contrast, the Beethoven symphony is a work Stokowski first performed with the Cincinnati Symphony in 1910; the Symphony of the Air performance was the second of five he would ultimately make of the work. His long experience and level of comfort with it is readily apparent in this 1958 version, captured in loud, powerful sound that occasionally blasts.

It seems a pity to bid a fond farewell to the Leopold Stokowski Society; since 1994's Cala disc Philadelphia Rarities it has sponsored some 40 Stokowski CDs, including the four Naxos discs of his complete orchestral transcriptions led by José Serebrier. Nevertheless, there is hope that the Leopold Stokowski Society is correct in its assertion that the torch has been passed, and perhaps it has, given the wide variety of Stokowski products available from various sources worldwide.

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