CD Premières of Their Rarest 78 RPM Recordings, 1927-1940
This set of heretofore unissued recordings from the late '20s and '30s with Leopold Stokowski leading the Philadelphia Orchestra isn't just for Stokowski cognoscenti. It's for anyone who wants to know what classical music was like in a time now nearly passed from living memory. As the repertoire on these discs demonstrates, those were very different times, times that happily embraced the notion of orchestral transcriptions. Here, the whole first disc, most of the second disc, and parts of the third and fourth discs feature orchestral transcriptions by Stokowski himself, most of them of what later became known as early music. Thus the first disc has his transcriptions of Handel, Vivaldi, Palestrina, Frescobaldi, Lully, and Byrd and the second disc includes not just his well-known Bach transcriptions, but also his arrangements of movements from Boccherini and Haydn's quartets. The third disc includes not just Stokowski's transcription of Debussy's "Claire de lune," but also a three-minute talk by the maestro on Franck's symphony. Even in the otherwise straight fourth disc, Stokowski can't resist the temptation to touch up Berlioz's transcription of Weber's "Invitation to the Dance." Stokowski's early music arrangements like his other arrangements are for full-blown nineteenth century orchestra with quadruple wind, expanded strings and brass, plus one or more harps, and his early music interpretations, like his other interpretations, are likewise heavy-duty late romantic with glissando, portamento, and molto vibrato. Embodied in the plushly textured, radiantly colored, and immensely sensuous playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra in its prime, these transcriptions will delight all but the most aesthetically austere. In the non-transcription repertoire, some may have difficulties with Stokowski's massive tempo rubato in Beethoven's "Fifth Symphony," Franck's symphony, and Debussy's "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," but few would deny that he knew what he wanted to do, how to do it, how to convince an orchestra to follow him, and, most importantly, how to convince an audience he was right. For their time and place, these performances are compelling testimony to the rightness of Stokowski's transcriptions. Mark Obert-Thorn's transfers from RCA 78s are miraculously transparent, enabling contemporary listeners to hear these performances with the same clarity and fidelity as the original listeners.