October 1998

Leopold Stokowski Conductor Vaughan Williams: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis;
Purcell (arr. Stokowski);
Dido's Lament; Dvorak: Serenade in E, Op.22
EMI CDM 5 66760 2
Released: 1998

by Deryk Barker

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ***
Overall Enjoyment ****1/2

[Reviewed on CD]Leopold Stokowski studied at the Royal College of Music in London -- at 13, he was the youngest student there -- and his first professional engagement was as a church organist in London. Stokowski's organ teacher at the RCM was Sir Walter Parratt, among whose students was also Ralph Vaughan Williams, ten years Stokowski's senior. The paths of these two students undoubtedly crossed, although they do not appear to have known each other well at that stage. (Indeed, Stokowski later recalled Vaughan Williams as a teacher at the college, which he did not become until Stokowski had long since departed). This was, of course, before the famous days of the Philadelphia Orchestra and the "Stokowski Sound," (or "The Stokowski String Sound" as the original LP incarnation of this disc proclaimed), Disney's Fantasia or any of his other movie appearances; not to mention the curious accent which Stokowski, a Londoner by birth, acquired in the US and which seemed to come and go as the mood took him.

Stokowski's years at the RCM and at that church organ, though, provided him with the requisite background to conduct Vaughan Williams' Tallis Fantasia, a work whose very fabric seems inextricably entwined with English cathedrals and a particular sort of "Englishness." The Tallis Fantasia is the opening work on this new EMI CD, a transfer of recordings made in 1975 (Stokowski died in 1977 at the age of 95), one of two he made for the independent company Desmar at a time when the majors had apparently lost interest in him.

From the work's magical opening -- perhaps just a trifle overloud -- Stokowski works his legendary magic over the piece, summoning forth sumptuous playing from the strings of the RPO. This is undoubtedly a rhapsodic, even Romantic view of the work -- something Stokowski has in common with Barbirolli's magnificent recording-- and there will undoubtedly be those who prefer the Tallis Fantasia played with more restraint, with no heart-on-sleeve. I am not of their number. I love this performance, with its all-encompassing acoustic, bathing the listener in sound. The layering effects of the two orchestras -- the second is a double string quartet plus double bass -- is well handled also.

But, to reiterate, what really convinces me about this performance (as with Stokowski's two earlier recordings, his 1952 once available on a Sony reissue, and the 1974 live Royal Albert Hall performance, on a BBC disc) is that he gets right to the heart of the matter. Yes, this is religious music, but not an intellectual, ascetic religion, but rather a poetic, mystical devotion.

Dido's Lament is Stokowski's orchestral arrangement of "When I am laid in earth" from Dido and Aeneas and was one movement from a suite of such arrangements of pieces by Purcell. Again the lush string sounds are, or so it would seem, a world away from the sounds we today expect of music from the late 17th century, and early-music purists should probably avoid this recording. But they will be missing something. Whether or not this is "real" Purcell is, to some extent, beside the point. What emerges here is a genuinely tragic, deeply moving work, played with consummate mastery. Perhaps the strings seem occasionally verging on the saccharine, but Stokowski doesn't have to fake the big Romantic gesture. He grew up with that kind of music-making, and the element of truthfulness to the performance, for me, overcomes any quibbles.

I have saved what is arguably the best for last. Dvorak is not a composer with whom Stokowski seems to have had any particular affinity -- although he recorded the "New World" Symphony no fewer than six times (in varying degrees of eccentricity). In fact, he conducted the Serenade for Strings just once in his entire career, for this recording. This fact is certainly not apparent from the recording, which is redolent of an affection for the music and was either very rapidly acquired or surfacing after a long interment.

Given the legendary Stokowski Sound, which was primarily built upon a rich string cantabile -- Stokowski never used a baton, preferring the expressive possibilities of his bare hands -- and the relative paucity of great music for string ensemble, it seems strange that he had never approached this work earlier, one of the staples of the string orchestra literature. All the more reason, then, to be grateful for this splendid recording. Not only does it represent a significant addition to the Stokowski discography (on CD), it is also a first-rate performance. Again the opening bars tell much of the story. The wonderfully rich and resonant string sound combined with an almost paradoxical clarity of line. This is not an "old man's" performance, if by that is understood something lacking in fire. There is all the vigor you could ask, particularly in the scherzo, which some might find even a little too robust.

The sound is vintage 1970s analog, lacking the ultimate clarity and crispness which state-of-the-art digital recordings offer, but compensating (or more than) with a warmth which suits Stokowski's music-making perfectly. At 52 minutes, this disc might seem a little on the short side, but the accompanying LP (Rachmaninov's Symphony No.3 & Vocalise) contained too much music for the two to appear as a single CD (The Rachmaninov works are available on a companion disc). I, for one, should have been extremely sorry if any of this wonderful music-making had been sacrificed in the name of economy. And it is, after all, offered at mid-price.