No one who ever saw Disney’s Fantasia can forget Leopold Stokowski, who in many ways was the star of the film, even though he shared conducting honors with Mickey Mouse. Stokowski’s reputation as one of classical music’s greats is still largely unassailable, even though our taste as turned towards “purer” renderings, those that are more about the composer than the interpreter. Stokowski was, first and foremost, an interpreter, known as much for his tendency to pull out all the stops as for his musical erudition. This collection of concert favorites is a showcase for his particular brand of conducting.
It starts with Stokowski’s own idiosyncratic version of Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2, one of the all-time favorites. An idea of Stokowski’s approach can be gleaned from a look at the timing: his version runs 8:41, while that recorded by Arthur Fiedler, equally appealing, runs 9:34. To call Stokowski’s version a “headlong rush,” however, would be missing the point — there was some editing involved (itself an issue, but not one that I will address here). What is more pertinent in the differences in readings are the ways Stokowski plays with tempi and dynamics: the brooding, passionate opening in Stokowski’s hands becomes Brooding and Passionate, with capital letters, Liszt writ large, and so for the piece as a whole.
Enesco’s Roumanian Rhapsody No 1 is not a piece that I was familiar with before encountering this recording, but it holds a great deal of charm, as well as the kind of intensity that few besides Stokowski could bring to it. Smetana’s “Vltava” (“The Moldau”) from Ma Vlast has always been one of my favorites: programmatic music at its best, from the light, almost unhearable beginnings to the lovely, lilting melody that carries the listener down the river through the Bohemian countryside, with musical asides that paint a vivid picture. Stokowski, needless to say, pulls everything from the music that he can, and even manages a couple of brief passages that are almost Wagnerian in the best sense, that deft and subtle coloration that is such a hallmark of Wagner’s music. The high points are just a little bit higher than anyone else’s, and I can’t say that’s a bad thing at all. The same can be said for the Overture to The Bartered Bride, although it’s a sprightlier and less fundamentally emotional piece of music.
And, speaking of Wagner, while we are spared another rendition of the “Ride of the Valkyries” (although I will admit to it being one of my favorite pieces, but only in the context of the full opera — it really needs the singing to have its full impact), the selections from Tristan und Isolde and Tannhäuser presented on this disc are almost indescribable: consider that the composer left us some of the most beautiful and compelling music ever written and was himself not averse to the idea of pulling out all the stops. Put that package into the hands of a conductor who believed very firmly in the role of the interpreter in presenting this music. Stokowski takes the somberness of the Overture to Act III of Tristan and manages to find the pathos that underlies the coming scene as well as the bittersweet quality of the doomed love that is about to find the only solution possible. The music fades almost imperceptibly into the opening of Tannhäuser, stately, understated, and itself full of tragic implications. Stokowski captures all the enchantment of the entry of the chorus in the “Venusburg Music,” which continues through to an ethereal and quite otherworldly finish. It’s a good reminder that Stokowski, in spite of his reputation for high dynamics and strong coloring, was capable of a great deal of subtlety.
It’s evident from this collection that Stokowski believed very strongly in the idea of music as an emotional experience, and I don’t think anyone can legitimately argue with that. The only argument comes from varying ideas of just how emotional that experience should be. The notable thing about Stokowski to my mind is that, in spite of the over-the-top feel of much of his recorded music, I don’t think he ever really lost sight of the intellectual underpinnings of what he was doing, and that is a remarkable legacy.
The complete contents of the album are: Franz Liszt, Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 in C-Charp Minor; Georges Enesco, Roumanian Rhapsody No. 1 in A, Op. 11; Bedrich Smetana, Ma Vlast: Vltava, The Bartered Bride: Overture; Richard Wagner, Tristan und Isolde: Prelude to Act III, Tannhäuser: Overture and Venusburg Music, performed by the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra and the Symphony of the Air conducted by Leopold Stokowski.
(Sony BMG Music Entertainment (orig. issued on RCA Red Seal), 2005)