Monday, March 8, 2010

Getting Stoked on Stokie

Recently, I stumbled on a website that has many of the early recordings of Leopold Stokowski. Many of his stereo recordings have been issued on CD, but finding his classic recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra is a challenge – he was music director there from 1912-1940, although only part-time after 1936. Despite his popularity with audiences, Old Stokie came in for a lot of criticism from cognoscenti in his day, particularly from adherents of the literalist school. George Szell, who could be called part of that school (but not with total accuracy) admired Stokowski with some reservations, and was astonished how, in the 1960s, the old man was able to get the Cleveland Orchestra to sound like the Philadelphia Orchestra of the 1930s after only ten minutes of rehearsal. Nevertheless, it’s true that a lot of Stokowski’s interpretations can be considered suspect. His rendition of the first movement from Beethoven’s 5th Symphony is totally out of whack. But his performances of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade and Dvorak’s New World Symphony are in a class of their own. And he was championing Scriabin and Schoenberg long before anyone else.

A lot of Stokowski’s legend came from the unique sonority he got out of the various orchestras he conducted. It became known as the Stokowski sound. He was also highly interested in improvements in recording technology. He made some of the first electrical recordings (that is, recordings made with a microphone instead of a recording horn) in 1925. He adopted unusual seating arrangements of the orchestra to make it sound better on records. In 1932, he made the first experimental studio recordings. 1932! I was able to hear those recordings, and even though they are not high-fidelity recordings by today’s standards, the almost obscenely lush sound of his orchestra came through.

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