Leopold Stokowski

Stokowski conducts Grainger, Sibelius, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninov, Granados, Debussy, Ibert

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This disc captures a colorful stretch of the American classical music mainstream half a century ago. The music is credited simply to Leopold Stokowski and His Symphony Orchestra -- how many present-day conductors could get away with that? The short works included were mainstays of concerts by the likes of the Hollywood Bowl Symphony, which Stokowski founded, and which had considerable popular reach. Many of the performances here were released on RCA-label 45 rpm records. Anyone with a large collection of 45s, classical or popular, can tell you how quickly sound engineering advanced as the, well, quantum leaps in physics during World War II filtered down to record-company lab levels, and the sound of these recordings is startlingly good, with excellent clarity and wide dynamic range. The eccentric old Brit who put on Polish airs has proved impressively accurate in the composers he championed, a list that included Mahler and Ives when both were rarely present on concert programs. The list also includes Percy Grainger, who orchestrated some of his folk-tune-oriented music at Stokowski's request, and in a distinctly Stokowskian manner. "My thought was that each time a theme is repeated, fresh instruments would play, such as Vibraharps, Marimbaphones, Saxophones, Celestes -- in fact all the colourful instruments of the modern orchestra," Stokowski wrote to Grainger. The result less strange than it sounds, for Stokowski's orchestra responded to his attempt to create lighter textures that (again quoting the conductor) would "have the atmosphere and impression of folk music played and danced on the village green." Among the selections heard here is the Irish Tune from County Derry, better known as Danny Boy in vocal renderings. Grainger wrote subtle piano parts for himself into several of pieces, and he is heard on these recordings. The rest of the orchestral standards on the album, all recorded between 1947 and 1953, are vintage Stokowski. His cellos in the Sibelius Valse triste and the Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis of Ralph Vaughan Williams have the uniquely rich Stokowski sound, created by meticulous control over the players' bowing; the sound survived Stokowski's departure from the Philadelphia Orchestra. One of the few works here untouched by an arranger's pen is the Escales or Ports of Call of Jacques Ibert, orchestral showpieces that make for a rousing finale. Definitely recommended for Stokowski lovers and for anyone who remembers or admires American classical music's mid-century golden age.

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