Leopold Stokowski

Stokowski: The Eternal Magician

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Cala's Stokowski: The Eternal Magician is an entry in a continuing series of Leopold Stokowski re-releases -- and in some cases, first releases -- in cooperation with the Leopold Stokowski Society. It mostly consists of commercial recordings made in the 1950s and credited to "Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra" -- Stokowski was probably the only symphony conductor with enough ego to bill himself that way at that time; however, he was between established conducting posts for most of that decade and working as a guest conductor on a freelance basis. His symphony orchestra was an especially hand-picked group of players engaged for the recording sessions, which were for RCA Victor; as most of these recordings are mono, they were seldom tapped for reissues by the former BMG, and of these, only the Enesco Rhapsodies have appeared on CD before.

Of course, Stokowski's most famous recording of the Enesco Romanian Rhapsody No. 1 was made for RCA in Living Stereo in 1960, ensuring a limited future for this mono recording made nearly a decade earlier. This performance of the First Rhapsody is notably spirited, though more notable is the one of the Romanian Rhapsody No. 2, the only time Stokowski conducted it on record. One can see why it isn't as famous as its sister work; as far as rhapsodies go, it's all "Lassù" and no "Friska." However, Stokowski shows the same concern for it as he does the more popular work. The Debussy Nocturnes was the second of five known recordings Stokowski made of the whole cycle of three pieces, which was unusual because it was more common in his time to perform only the first two, and this recording has the advantage of the excellent Robert Shaw Chorale in "Sirènes." Stokowski, however, made no less than nine -- count 'em, nine -- recordings of Stravinsky's Firebird Suite, and this is a very spirited, colorful, and exciting version, even in mono, which is marred, however, by a too enthusiastic goosing of the low brass in the "Finale"; it is as though someone stuck the firebird underneath an elephant.

The bonus track, however, is something really neat, an accidental stereo recording from 1941 of Stokowski and the All-American Youth Orchestra in the "Ride of the Valkyries" from Richard Wagner's Die Walküre. Apparently RCA was not alone in recording master discs from multiple microphone settings; it appears Columbia did so as well early in its history, and this is one example where two masters have been matched together by a technician in the digital domain. It is a less than perfect match; the stereo image gradually goes increasingly out of phase as the recording progresses, and by the end it is sweeping around one's head in a totally unpredictable fashion. But it is still pretty remarkable, and one wonders what else lurks in the CBS vaults in terms of such masters. As to Cala's Stokowski: The Eternal Magician, it shouldn't be one's first choice for any of the material therein, but it does contain some high-voltage music-making and is easily recommendable to fans of the great Stokowski.

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