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When Stokowski died at the age of 95 in 1977, the vast 60-years discography of his commercial recordings revealed three composers heading the list: Bach, mostly in his own orchestral transcriptions; Tchaikovsky, whom he once declared was his favourite Russian composer; and Wagner, whose music Stokowski also frequently performed both in the concert hall and recording studio.
Born in 1882, his first experience as a conductor came when he sang in the choir at St. Marylebone's Parish Church in London. One evening the regular choirmaster was unable to take a rehearsal, so the 12-year-old Leopold stood in for him. He was later to confess that he had a sleepless night, as he suddenly realised that conducting was something he wanted to do above all else. His musical precocity led him the following year to become the youngest student at that time to enter the Royal College of Music. His work as a youthful organist and choirmaster in several London churches led in 1905 to a similar appointment at St. Bartholomew's in New York. Here his brilliantly played organ recitals drew large and fashionable crowds, entranced not only by his playing of Bach but also by his own organ arrangements of orchestral music, including many works by Wagner.
His musical direction of church services also stood him in good stead for the time when he could fulfil his ambition to be an orchestral conductor. That day arrived in 1909 when he made his official conducting debut with the Colonne Orchestra. The Cincinnati Orchestra was looking for a new conductor and two of their representatives were in the Paris audience. Stokowski received an ovation and the representatives' description of him as "a magnetic conductor" ensured his immediate Cincinnati appointment.
His first concert with them the following November included works by Mozart, Weber and Beethoven. The programme ended with music by Wagner - the Siegfried Idyll and the Ride of the Valkyries - and with these two works Stokowski conducted Wagner's orchestral music for the very first time. The Siegfried Idyll, an eloquent birthday present from Wagner to his wife Cosima, was originally scored for a small ensemble and later expanded for larger forces. Although Stokowski recorded numerous works by Wagner commercially, the Siegfried Idyll was not among them, so this NBC broadcast is something of a rarity.
Like Brahms, the music of Wagner was to pop up in a number of Stokowski debuts. For example, his first concert with the London Symphony Orchestra in 1912 began with the Mastersingers Overture. Later that year, his appointment as the Philadelphia Orchestra's new chief conductor found the Tannhäuser Overture concluding his opening concert with them. In 1917, when he and his Philadelphians began making 78s, Wagner was naturally included. (All the Stokowski / Wagner acoustics have been issued on Pristine Audio: PASC 192, PASC 441 and PASC 471).
As it happens, the concert listings for Stokowski's Philadelphia seasons reveal that when it came to single-composer programmes, Wagner topped the bill. The first of these, in December 1912, included the Siegfried Idyll again. However, Stokowski never conducted a complete Wagner music-drama in the opera house. The nearest he came was when he gave a concert performance of Parsifal, its three acts given over successive evenings during Easter Week in 1933. It was also around this time that he began creating "Symphonic Syntheses" of Wagner's operas and his own arrangement of music from Act 3 of Parsifal was duly recorded by his Philadelphians in 1934 and repeated for his NBC audience in 1942 (PASC 591).
Tristan and Isolde was also given the "Symphonic Synthesis" treatment, though it exists in more than one version. His first recording, made in 1932, began with the Act 1 Prelude and lasted 35 minutes. He was to record this "long version" again for a 1950 LP with his ad hoc 'Symphony Orchestra' (PASC 167). Later, he utilised music just from Acts 2 and 3, originally entitled "Liebesnacht" and "Liebestod," and this became the "Love Music" from Tristan and Isolde. Stokowski wrote: "All through the three acts of Tristan is sounding the despair and ecstasy of love, but its supreme expression is in the garden scene of the second act and in the last scene of the third act ... This love music continues its overpowering eloquence when words cannot continue. It is the supreme and ultimate of the poetry of love."
The Prelude to Lohengrin was one of the many orchestral works that Stokowski transcribed for organ during his St. Bartholomew's period. He conducted it for the first time in Cincinnati during his opening season there and recorded it acoustically in 1924 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. He also recorded an acoustic 78 of a hugely abridged version of Wotan's Farewell and Magic Fire Music, actually its closing pages, though his later recordings with the New York Philharmonic and Houston Symphony were both complete. The musical evocation of Wotan, ruler of the gods, putting his disobedient daughter Brünnhilde to sleep on a rock surrounded by flickering flames is well realised in Stokowski's grandiloquent arrangement and provided a splendid addition to that evening's NBC Symphony concert.
STOKOWSKI conducts Wagner
1. WAGNER Siegfried Idyll (18:43)
Concert of 6 December 1942
WAGNER (arr. Stokowski) Tristan und Isolde
2. Love Music (22:19)
Concert of 28 February 1943
3. Prelude (10:00)
Concert of 23 January 1944
WAGNER (arr. Stokowski) Die Walküre
4. Wotan's Farewell (13:17)
5. Magic Fire Music (4:48)
Concert of 23 January 1944
NBC Symphony Orchestra
conducted by Leopold Stokowski
XR Remastered by Andrew Rose
Live broadcast recordings from NBC Studio 8H, Radio City, New York
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Leopold Stokowski
Total duration: 69:07