EMI, of course, is based in England, and apparently didn't pay too much attention to the 2008 American presidential election, otherwise it might have thought twice about naming this 10-CD box set Leopold Stokowski: The Maverick Conductor. Ironically, the word maverick -- in its traditional sense -- certainly fits Stokowski; he was probably the figure who more than any other established the symphony conductor as a superhuman entity, able to conquer the weakest orchestra in a single bound and get his patented string sound from it. He was a tireless advocate of modern music who gave first performances of composers such as Edgard Varèse and Charles Ives in Philadelphia in the 1920s. He was a prolific recording artist who was very active in attempting to improve the technology of recordings and a pioneer in many stereophonic sessions going back into the 1930s. His career as conductor is one of the longest on record, stretching from his 1909 debut with the Cincinnati Symphony to his last recording session, made within days of his death, with the London Symphony in 1977. Thus, Stokowski's activity as conductor encompasses nearly the entire twentieth century.
The 10 CDs included in Leopold Stokowski: The Maverick Conductor features recordings made between 1956 and 1960 and basically encompasses all of the compact discs EMI previously released either as single discs or as smaller sets. That comes as excellent news for those who missed the short-lived three-CD EMI set devoted to his United Artists' recordings of the Symphony of the Air, containing Stokowski's electrifying recordings of Respighi's The Pines of Rome and Khachaturian's Symphony No. 1, "The Bell." On the downside, it also incorporates his Capitol recording The Orchestra, which once was accompanied by a deluxe booklet illustrating the different instruments of the orchestra and necessarily consisted of excepts. So instead of a full version of Mussorgsky/Ravel's Pictures at an Exhibition you get just the last two movements; of course, he did record that elsewhere, but it's not the sort of thing that makes for the most attractive filler. The portion of Stokowski's output that EMI owns belongs to the latter stages of a long, wandering period where he was without a standing position with a major orchestra, and this did not end until he was appointed to serve as the conductor of the Houston Symphony in 1958. The group identified as the "Leopold Stokowski Symphony Orchestra" was the Symphony of the Air, the reorganized NBC Symphony after Toscanini retired; Stokowski recorded both under that name and his own. There are also some guest situations with the ORTF Orchestra, Los Angeles Philharmonic, and even the Berlin Philharmonic, and the front tip of his work in Houston, the rest being captured by Belock Labs (i.e., Everest). Interestingly, there is a stray recording, from 1957, of Ravel's Rhapsodie espagnole made with the London Symphony, an organization to which Stokowski would later get appointed and with whom he made many of his final recordings.
In sum, during these years Stokowski was still a name, but was not entirely in control of his destiny as far as recording was concerned; Stokowski: The Maverick Conductor is partly a collection of curios, a grab bag of dates he was able to secure in those years. Orff's Carmina Burana shares its disc with the Scherzo from Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony. However, it's a very reasonably priced box set, and the recordings -- especially the ones made by United Artists, which were mastered on 35mm film -- still sound great overall. Those who bought these discs in their original form, as single items, might not be so pleased that this represents such a price break over having obtained them that way, but everyone else is likely to find at least three to four discs in the set that are worth their while, even if they never get around to listening to all 10.