Stokowski's 1927 readings of Beethoven and Schubert achieve an ardent, fiery gloss
urges the mania with diabolic focus, easily a frothy companion to the
later 1936 New York Philharmonic reading with Arturo Toscanini" -
Leopold Stokowski is not usually associated with the Viennese Classical repertoire; yet, there were certain composers and works to which he returned time and again throughout his career. While he only made one commercial recording of a Haydn symphony and only one movement of a Mozart symphony, his Beethoven discography is more substantial. The Seventh Symphony was a work he recorded three times. The present version is his first, and is prefaced by a discussion of themes by the conductor.
This was not the first time such a venture into music appreciation had been attempted; two months earlier, Walter Damrosch had recorded a similar analysis of the “Eroica” Funeral March (reissued on Pristine PASC 395). At the same session, Stokowski recorded an outline for the Brahms First Symphony, and later that year would record two more, for the Franck Symphony and the Dvořák “New World”. In the latter two recordings, an uncredited Artur Rodzinski would serve as the pianist, as Stokowski tended to turn away from the microphone while still speaking in order to play his excerpts. The talk sides were only released in the USA, although a Spanish-language version recorded with another speaker was prepared for the South American market.
There are few Stokowskian exaggerations in the performance of the symphony itself, the most notable being the distended, swooping portamenti employed midway through the final movement. On the whole, it is a reading of immense vitality and rhythmic propulsion, aided by playing which was on a level far above what every orchestra other than, perhaps, Mengelberg’s Concertgebouw was presenting on records at the time. A classic account, it ranks with Toscanini’s New York Philharmonic version as one of the finest ever committed to disc.
For Schubert’s “Unfinished”, Stokowski and his Philadelphians were returning to a work they had previously set down acoustically almost exactly three years earlier (Pristine PASC 441). The new electrical process better conveys the burnished sheen of the strings in a swiftly-flowing reading which alternates lyricism with explosive outbursts. As with the Beethoven, Stokowski would go on to re-record this work two more times during his long career. The Schubert encores were also favored by the conductor in later recordings. The 12-inch, longer version of the Rosamunde Ballet Music was not first released until late in the LP era, having been re-recorded later in the year by a 10-inch version with more repeats cut.
The sources for the transfers were “Z” and “Gold”-label pressings, with vinyl tests used for the unissued Rosamunde side as well as the last side of the first movement of the Beethoven. The first side of that same movement came from a first edition “Orthophonic” pressing. Later copies on quieter shellac use a sonically inferior dubbing which was substituted to avoid blasting. This marginally-noisier side has been treated to a light decrackling, and all the sides have had their original rising pitches stabilized using Celemony Capstan software. I have opted to keep the upper frequencies wide open, so as to reveal as much detail as possible. As one can hear on the two sides which come from vinyl pressings, there is a good deal of hiss inherent in the original recordings that is not a function of the generally quiet shellacs used for the transfers.
Outline of Themes from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7
Leopold Stokowski (speaker and pianist)
Recorded 30 April 1927 in the Victor Studios, Camden, New Jersey
Matrix no.: CVE 38605-2
First issued on Victor 6669 in album M-17
BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
Recorded 6, 15 & 25 April 1927 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix nos.: CVE 37470-2, 37474-2, 37475-1, 37476-2, 37477-2, 37478-2, 37479-2, 37480-2, 37481-2 & 37482-1
First issued on Victor 6670 through 6674 in album M-17
SCHUBERT: Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D759, ‘Unfinished’
Recorded 28 & 30 April 1927 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix nos.: CVE 29052-6, 29053-6, 29054-6, 29055-6, 29056-7 & 29057-7
First issued on Victor 6663 through 6665 in album M-16
SCHUBERT (orch. Stokowski): Moment Musicale No. 3 in F minor, D780
Recorded 6 April 1927 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: BVE 25941-8 ∙ First issued on Victor 1312-A
SCHUBERT: Rosamunde, D797 – Ballet Music No. 2
Recorded 11 October 1927 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: BVE 37497-1 ∙ First issued on Victor 1312-B
SCHUBERT: Rosamunde, D797 – Ballet Music No. 2
Recorded 2 May 1927 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: CVE 37497-2 ∙ Unissued on 78 rpm
The Philadelphia Orchestra ∙ Leopold Stokowski
Reviews: Fanfare & Audiophile Audition
From the beginning, as the orchestra’s double basses pour out a deep, rich sound, I suspected that this Schubert “Unfinished” was going to caress the ears, but it does more than that—it is a model of discreet manipulation of the music’s pulse for expressive purposes. At first, it sounds like it’s going to be a slow performance but before long, it has, if anything, become slightly faster than average and remains so throughout except for some modest stretching of cadences. There’s an ever-present hiss from the original 78s but I found the performance sufficiently absorbing that I was able to ignore it. This 1927 effort was Stokowski’s second recording of the symphony, having been preceded by a 1924 acoustic one and was eventually followed by two more, with other orchestras. As for the Schubert “encores,” they are pleasant enough. There are two recordings of the Rosamunde excerpt. One of them, a 12-inch 78, was never issued on 78s—the other, also recorded in 1927, was issued on a 10-inch disc and has more repeats cut.
Speaking of repeats, here’s the score in the Beethoven Seventh for those interested: first movement, no repeat observed; third movement, just the first one; fourth movement, just the shorter ones. This performance, also dating from 1927, simply crackles with energy … it’s a good thing sparks can’t fly off the stage for there’s at least figurative electricity up there. It’s generally a fast performance except in the Allegretto, which is stretched out to a dirge-like 10-and-a-half minutes, not what one expects to encounter nowadays. To weaken the shock, let me point out that some distinguished colleagues have, at least, approached his tempo: Beecham 8:56, Reiner 9:00, Leibowitz 9:17, Walter 9:25, Fricsay 9:36, Klemperer 10:00. On Stokowski’s later Seventh with the Symphony of the Air, the Allegretto runs a slightly faster 10:18. Anyway, I don’t insist on a pure Allegretto and I survived. I suspect that Stokowski, perhaps at Victor’s insistence, seems to be using a cut-down string section. That might explain the remarkable precision with which the strings execute the rapid runs in the finale—there’s hardly any blurring at all even at Stokowski’s headlong tempo. Quite amazing. The performance is preceded by an “outline of themes” from it with the maestro himself at the piano. The producer, Mark Obert-Thorn explains that Stokowski’s assistant conductor, Artur Rodzinski, assumed keyboard duties on two later outlines because Stokowski had a habit of turning away from the microphone as he was about to play the piano. James Miller
This article originally appeared in Issue 40:4 (Mar/Apr 2017) of Fanfare Magazine.
Producer and editor Mark Obert-Thorn revitalizes a select group of 1927 recordings by Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) with his Philadelphia Orchestra, at the time an ensemble whose discipline and homogeneity of execution rivaled the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam under Mengelberg, the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky, and the Halle Orchestra as led by Sir Hamilton Harty.
The first of Stokowski’s recorded interpretations of the Beethoven Seventh Symphony (6, 15 and 25 April 1927) projects an enthusiastic energy throughout, although occasionally the vehemence tends to exaggeration. The slow first-movement introduction enjoys a hearty sense of harmonic drama, leisurely in its traversal of three major keys of A, C, and F. The ensuing Vivace carries a restless breadth quite exhilarating. The a minor Allegretto movement rings tragically true, with fine response in the divided strings and the balanced voices from winds and brass. Stokowski does indulge in swoops in the line typical of a Romantic vestige of style.
The sudden eruption of F Major for the whirlwind Presto movement basks in the various sonorities of the Philadelphia players, particularly in the low winds and brass in the two trio episodes. The “very much less than fast” designation from Beethoven here carries an almost funereal sensibility in stark contrast to the manic outer impulse. Stokowski wants a Dionysian revel for his Allegro con brio finale, and mid-way through we once more hear Stokowski negotiate creamy portamentos, especially in his high and low strings, almost a parody of rhythmic motion. The dervish-dance gathers a momentum virtually unprecedented before Beethoven, and the sheer rush continues into the coda, where the composer builds the tension by pitting pairs of notes against each other in chromatic descent. Stokowski urges the mania with diabolic focus, easily a frothy companion to the later 1936 New York Philharmonic reading with Arturo Toscanini.
The Schubert Unfinished Symphony (28, 30 April 1927) projects directness and lyrico-dramatic tension, though its climaxes tend once more to exaggerated dynamics. The main melody of the Allegro moderato basks in a sweet serenity that the Philadelphia strings enshrine with their especial sonority. Stokowski’s tempo remains generally quick, so instilling a virtuoso cast on the performance, again indulging in swooped string phrases. The tragic sensibility of the music retains its power and sincerity, despite the added sense of urgency in selected transitions. For the Andante con moto, the clarity of the string and woodwind line testifies to the remastering process that has illuminated the original shellacs. The French horn sonority against the strings, the clarinet and oboe lines, the flute, and the deep basses emerge effectively. When the orchestra plays tutti, we hear that idiosyncratic “organ” sonority Stokowski cultivated, as though the Philadelphia ensemble were the diapason for a Romantic’s excursion into Bach.
Producer Obert-Thorn adds a trilogy of Schubert encores, recorded April – October 1927: Stokowski’s own (syrupy) transcription of the little f minor Moment Musical for solo piano and two versions of the Ballet Music No. 2 from Rosamunde, the latter of which (2 May 1927) derives from a previously unissued 12-inch pressing, and runs a full minute longer than its official counterpart from 11 October 1927. Setting the entire stage is a music-appreciation “Outline of Themes from Beethoven’s Symphony No. 7” (30 April 1927) with Stokowski’s narration and keyboard examples realized by Stokowski, a feat having only been initiated prior by Walter Damrosch for the slow movement of the Beethoven Eroica.