When Leopold Stokowski, last of the oldtime superstar conductors, died in 1977, 95 and unanachronous – more “in date,” in fact, than he sometimes was c. 1937 – he shot straight to a Valhalla constructed to his own specifications and quickly proceeded to organize an Elysian orchestra cozy with everything from Gluck to Gliere, Auber to Zemlinsky. At the time of his obituaries it seemed impossible this amazing creature was no longer with us, a quasi-Byronic figure who in sessions as efficient and cordial as a military briefing had rehearsed his various orchestras, the Philadelphia, the All-American Youth, the NBC, the Hollywood Bowl, the New York City Center, the Houston, the American, etcetc., and produced with them performances that burst with life, fascinated with their dramatic colors, impressed hugely with their unsurpassed transparency, their arrangements of great sonic cubes representing individual orchestral choirs into seamless ensembles of philharmonial Togetherness. Who else could make cellos HUM in capital letters? And what about those lilts and quivers, snaps and rumbles, open-mouthed mezza voces, incredible walls of fortissimo – summoned, these, with that methodically air-slicing right hand. What were you doing at the age of 94?  Stokowski was recording the Sibelius First Symphony in London, an elegant production as exuberant as something knocked off by a Rock star a year or two short of voting age.

Since he traveled with Greta Garbo, married a Vanderbilt, made a movie with the singing starlet Deanna Durbin (and the whole Philadelphia Orchestra) and Fantasia of course, complete with post-Stravinskian dinosaurs, and because he lectured the latecomers among the little old Main Line ladies at the Philadelphia’s Friday afternoon concerts – he did so in an inimitable society accent the origin of which was, Stokowski used to say, known only to God – he was known, as few conductors are, to the man in the street who doesn’t care a fig for Beethoven. Only the mercurial Toscanini was as much a household name in the days when “Maestro” and “Stokie” plyed their trade along the busy orchestral corridor of the northeastern United States. Stokowski’s name even became a verb: to “Stokowski-ize.” Alas, many of us who were growing up in the Forties just after his long Philadelphia reign found ourselves brainwashed by critics riding the new anti-romantic backlash into a passion for so-called literal performances. These zealous fellows, even joined sometimes by Virgil Thomson the idiosyncratic composer-critic who knew better, delighted in complaining about Stokowski’s “taste,” deficiencies in it, that is.

This was grandstanding from the Critical Right (and Middle too) about what you might call Orchestral Values. Stokie was leading us down a primrose path of performances corrupted by goopy or overly gorgeous frills. And he could, therefore, almost do no right.

Now it’s perfectly true that extra bells-and-whistles sometimes found their way into Stokowski performances in the form of elongated final diminuendos, an added high note, a phrasing ripe as a Brie passing its peak, several measures admiring in the mirror their undoubtedly handsome self, but not so often as to be remotely chronic, and frequently his aberrations were convincing, effective, even RIGHT. As in the famous epigram wrongly attributed to Cocteau, he usually understood that delightful old bit about “knowing how far one can go too far.” If I were king and could wave a wand – Stokowski didn’t use one! – to wash away his orchestral sins I would probably concentrate on un-glueing some of the heady portamento that occasionally cloyed in the Philadelphia recordings of the Twenties and Thirties. After that he clearly saw the handwriting on the auditorium wall: PORTAMENTO IS OUT — meanwhile don’t forget that even Toscanini lapsed on occasion. While we’re on the defensive, be advised that such distinguished musicologists as Hans Keller and Deryck Cooke thought Stokowski was a fabulous podium talent . . . And now a parade of Stokowski recordings, in alphabetical order:

BACH-STOKOWSKI: Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor originally for organ (9-72) – Listen to the beautiful legato canoodling his audience from the first to the second note of this “live” performance. And the thunder-ready bass that enters almost dragon-like immediately thereafter. “Stokie” at 90 is making the Czech Philharmonic into his own as he did with any orchestra he touched — fifty years ago I heard him transform Pierre Monteux’ San Francisco Symphony in an instant. This is a performance as clean and to-the-point as his rehearsal manner, with a characteristic exhilaration unsignalled by any prep-time verbal calisthenics because all he did was say quietly “it must have life” and the Vesuvius of the orchestra would erupt. Interrelating choruses of sound constitute the sonic package here, with organ-evoking “registrations” aplenty, and perhaps a bit of story-line as well, because the grouped strings’ first statement of the passacaglia tune suggests tragedy, controlled weeping, while the fugue has us happily harking to the music of angels.

BEETHOVEN FIFTH SYMPHONY (11-14-40) – After his Philadelphia reign came to an end Stokowski who wasn’t afraid to share billing with a teenage Miss Durbin founded the All American Youth Orchestra. Reviews of the Stokowski/All American recordings in mid-century “Record Guides” could be patronizing, and I’m ashamed to say they kept an innocent from listening. Wow, what I missed – in intensity, nuance! The All American, although it was without a doubt a Stokowskian product, did have its own sound, more wiry than the Philadelphians. And that can-we-call-it-youthful? intensity was certainly special. These kids were like Sean Wilsey on his skateboard.

Enter Beethoven’s Fifth, the opening Morse broad and unusually marcato, the three dots like a fist pounding three times on a desk – which, come to think of it, is like the traditional three-thumps-on-the-boards launching a play at the Comedie Francaise. Yes, pay attention. We’re into a crisp, tightly controlled performance, fraught but capable of sweetness. The fanfare launching the second subject is STENTORIAN, followed immediately by lyric i-n-t-i-m-a-c-y, an absolutely faithful reproduction of Beethoven’s p dolce. And so it goes, until the delightful Stokowskization of the movement’s last two chords, played on the strings “tarr-Rooom . . tarr-Rooom.” The andante con moto is very rhythmic, with lively accompaniment figures – the charming pizzicato of proactive violas at 23, under the second theme, is especially striking – and not without inflections of sadness. The woodwinds sound sometimes as if their lives were at stake. The transition via fraught aperture from scherzo to finale is agonized, as if illuminating one of Tamino’s trials on the way to some Perfect State, and said finale notable for rip-snorting energy and glorious shafts of sound. Also be informed that the initial Pronouncement of the horns in the scherzo is done Nikisch-style with a slight lengthening of the first note to put its foot in the orchestral door.

BEETHOVEN PASTORAL SYMPHONY (1954) – After Arturo Toscanini walked out of his NBC Symphony post in one of his many huffs – emotional immaturity, anybody? – the Stokowski no longer wanted in Philadelphia was available to step in, and he had an excellent run at Radio City in the early Forties until Toscanini became too jealous to tolerate Stokie in his studio. Fast Forward to 1954, Toscanini had retired in spring of that year and the NBC Symphony soon disbanded, except that the players carried on for a few seasons as the Symphony of the Air. At the very end of their NBC identity they did participate in a few sessions for RCA Victor, some of the players anyway, catalogued as “Members of the NBC Symphony.” From this halfway symphonic house issued some wonderful Stokowski recordings, none better than this enchanting, utterly graceful and constructively creative Pastoral.

Nature is busy talking in the opening movement, thanks to Stokowski’s fond but not disproportionate highlighting of the woodwinds. And the brook of the next movement is already clearly heard in the legato of cello arpeggios flowing in such crystalline profile at measure 75 — this is the opening movement’s second theme transferred after eight bars from its debut appearance in the first violins. Stokowski’s key tempo for this Awakening of Cheerful Feelings on Arriving in the Country is about half note = 58, much more comfortable than the composer’s rarely embraced 66. The Scene by the Brook takes us to a destination brook indeed, the music lovestruck and radiant as it reclines most convincingly at about dotted quarter = 36 rather than Beethoven’s 50. I’m sure I’ve said it before, this is a love scene as much as an essay on aquatic motion: yes, I see the pebbles in the stream but amorous hands are entwined . . .

Stokowski’s decisions re tempo in the Storm scene have an inescapable dramatic logic. The composer has left us with a blanket half note = 80 for the whole movement, but as Nietzsche helpfully tells us, “there are no facts, only interpretation.” Stokowski sees that the nervously tiptoeing pizzicati of second violins and the fearful little phrases of the firsts in the opening  measures amount to a  BIG – SUSPENSE – IN – VIEW – OF – METEOROLOGICAL – THREATS  that will register extremely well at only 72 beats to the minute, not 80. And he sees too that when the full fortissimo of the Storm is unleashed in bar 21 an aggressive 86 to the minute will do the optimum job of scaring Beethoven’s harassed picknickers out of their wits.

. . . And then Stokie provides as tranquil (but not soporific!) a Grateful Feelings After the Storm as one could wish.

BEETHOVEN SEVENTH SYMPHONY (7-23-63) – Something of an echo of the NBC Pastoral in this “live” BBC Symphony Seventh. In the wake of a joyously anticipatory introduction Stokie takes off in the first movment vivace at a Beechamesque zip, casting his woodwinds as fun birds in the orchestral sky, treating us to the delightful yackety of Nature, chirpy and proud as it holds its own in the shadow of great orchestral tuttis. Such lightness and personality in his hi-lit winds, the flutes for instance flutey as can be, pleasantly penetrating. Very characteristic. It’s as if Stokowski were extracting maximum taste from ripe plums . . . And out of curiosity I reached for a comparison, an autumn ’39 “live” Toscanini Seventh I couldn’t recall. That’s just as well: what a grouchy, mechanistic ride through Beethoven’s notes from Studio 8-H!

BERLIOZ, ROMAN CARNIVAL OVERTURE (12-1-31) – This is a time machine trip to a Philadelphia Orchestra rehearsal three quarters of a century ago. Step inside and fasten your seat belt for an allegro vivace as rollicking as you will ever hear: the Phillies sound like an impetuous child left in the kitchen with a bowl of egg whites and a handy beater. It’s fastidious too — Berlioz’ ppp 24 measures into that allegro is really, well,

d-o-w-n   t-h-e-r-e.

BERLIOZ, SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE (6-18-68) – Magic is a word we must use sparingly. It might apply, though, to the enchanting weight loss Stokowski engineers from the New Philharmonia, London’s most elegant orchestra of that period, in Berlioz’ Ballroom scene, we’re at the point where the music is directed to go in four speedy bars from ff to forte to piano (the composer does not write diminuendo), landing on the pah-pah over which the movement’s main tune, dolce e tenero, will momentarily appear. Stokowski seems, with his hands of course, to wave the proverbial magic wand and aha, with his forte replacing ff the orchestra is playing in a lovely head tone instead of from the chest so to speak. No wonder this sounds so special — neither Weingartner nor Monteux, such eminent Berliozians, make anything of this opportunity, crashing on through to Berlioz’ piano . . . Other delights in this “live” Fantastique: the highly parodistical, cartoonish March to the Scaffold and, in the finale, a deliberately stodgy tramp of the dread Dies Irae.

BRAHMS TRAGIC OVERTURE (4-9-77) – A recording made with the “National Philharmonic” in London nine days short of Stokowski’s 95th birthday, it’s a tribute to the aerobic benefits of waving your hands in the air for a living. A fiery, buoyant performance it is, various choirs and sections of the orchestra sounding in characteristically bold relief. Above all it’s a luminous performance: much of the recapitulation, in fact, seems to be constructed from the top down, the flutes coming on as leaders of the pack. Stokowski of course is thinking organistically. Well, his first big job was organist at London’s St. James Church, in 1900!

As for the conundrum of that haunting passage, tempo primo ma tranquillo, in the wake of the overture’s central interlude, Stokowski elects to do the primo and let the tranquillo take care of itself. Whether he succeeds here depends on how you wrestle the various meanings of tranquil in dear old Webster’s. For me mere calmness is not quite enough – and placid of course is out. I want the removal-from-the-fray that a somewhat reduced tempo makes vivid. And while we’re at it how about an attunement-to-the-infinite, or hey, just the Rich Vibes of a ritenuto, a friggin’ Caress! To get, perhaps, a better idea of what Brahms really wanted you could look at other passages where a ma tranquillo, or ma più tranquillo, is invoked along with tempo primo – after the big horn solo in the opening movement of the second symphony, for instance – and see what sort of tempo packs an appropriate expressive punch in those other contexts.

. . . And now let’s take a look at the first movement of several Stokowski BRAHMS FIRSTS across the years, bearing in mind that he was a pioneer in bringing this “difficult” composer to the attention of a less than idolatory U.S. public. My mother who went to school outside Philadelphia and was no stranger to the Academy of Music used to remind me of that surprising fact quite often . . . meanwhile I have to tell you how thrilled I am that Stokowski welcomed as one of his soloists at the Academy my great aunt the pianist Fannie Bloomfield Zeisler and gave her a signed photograph of himself in full matinee idol mode in appreciation. It hangs in my front hall.

The first First in our symphonic “flight” is dated April 1927. It’s a fetching performance and let’s get the one demerit out of the way immediately, the overly sticky articulation of the cellos’ suggestive descent, bars 33 to 35, toward the main allegro. Never to be quite duplicated again is the wonderfully HUMMY sound of those rocking low-lying strings as they begin, Letter A, to move toward the introduction’s great climax. All this, the hum and the portamento, are pure Period Philadelphia. A number of interpretive ideas in the 1927 allegro, which is free but admirably cohesive in tempo, will turn out to be perennials, repeated in 1941 and ‘45 exactly as before or somewhat altered. Stokowski for many seasons favored a springy basic allegro, a generous reduction in speed in the second subject to foster a feeling of yearning, then (a tad less in ’41) an ANGRY attack at the onset of the movement’s closing theme, brushing aside Brahms’ piano marcato and convincingly anticipating with this yearning blocker of a gesture the composer’s molto crescendo two bars ahead. Early in the development the sequence of rising thirds in the woodwinds meant for Stokowski l-o-n-g-i-n-g, to be interrupted in due course by Reality. And after reducing tempo more or less with the rising chromatic line at Letter H he liked for sure to create a b-r-o-o-d-i-n-g effect at Letter I — this is where undulating strings eye an inevitable recapitulation with a poco a poco crescendo, a Beethovenian dot-dot-dot-dash of the timpani providing a punctuative tattoo.

Meanwhile Stokie’s peppery recording with the All American Youth Orchestra (7-8-41) has for all the interpretive similarities a totally different flavor from ’27 Philadelphia. Credit this to the personality of the orchestra and the conductor’s reaction thereto as well as to some extent his fostering its image. At all events this hormonally advantaged orchestra playing in a new and dangerous era sounds not only higher strung but sweeter than their senior colleagues at the Academy of Music, more vibrant indeed. In the introduction the solo oboe is maximally regretful, the cellos despair!

Glamour returns, relatively speaking, in the recording of 8-1-45 with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra, a Stokie-assembled band of studio musicians who certainly knew a thing or two about passion and lilt and the Shining Sound . . . And then, after these Brahmsian siblings from ’27, ’41 and ’45 comes the “live” Stokowski First from the London Symphony concert celebrating on 6-14-72 the 60th (!) anniversary of his debut with this orchestra. This we must call a half-brother because while Stokowski has not in the movement we’re discussing forgotten all his previous interpretive ideas the performance is inherently slower and the autumnality in this case makes a significant difference. A video of other parts of this concert exists: watch it and you’ll see Stokie with his beautiful long fingers making not one gesture too many. Very elegant is the long slow retreat of his left hand to signal a panoramic diminuendo.

Of the other BRAHMS symphony recordings by Stokowski and the Philadelphia released in the late Twenties and early Thirties the most consistently successful is the SECOND (April ’29), a relaxed, delicate, tastefully glamorous performance with much pastoral flavor and some dazzling detail, the exquisite definition for instance of the timpani’s pianissimo trills toward the end of the symphony’s introductory scene, bars 32 and 36. Polished diamonds indeed . . . The recording of the THIRD from September ’28 is full of wonderful things, the waltzing cellos at the beginning of the first movement development, the finessing of Brahms’ rhythmically awkward approach to the bittersweet landing which is the second movement’s questioning second theme, the mellow nurturing of the finale’s second theme, rich horns doubling the cellos more audible than is often the case. But I’ve never made my peace in the first movement with Stokowski’s abrupt change of course from such a fast, light start to his richly elongated take on the lyric idea beckoning us at Letter A. Stokie’s trademark cohesion is missing here, the scenery has been changed too fast.

The recording of the FOURTH from 1933 is a bit of a mixed bag as well. Much to be cherished is the airy opening, light as Bizet, and the dancing, iamb-launched staccato running interference for the soaring cellos and horns of the first movement’s second theme, likewise the lightly ricocheting fanfare at the beginning of the slow movement — yes, this Brahms might be tagged more French than German! But Stokowski binges on portamento in the lovely cello/violin interplay of this movement’s second theme, ruining a wonderful opportunity. Still, who wouldn’t buy a ticket into Stokie’s sonic pleasure garden, especially when it’s peopled by tootly satyrs and fauns as enchanting as flutist Kincaid and oboist Tabuteau. Not surprisingly given other recantatory evidence Stokowski when he returned to the Fourth at NBC 11-18-41 achieved a sweet Cloud Nineteen in this passage without the sticky bluenote rhapsodizing of ‘33. Well, as Laurie Colwin wrote about meals, “never serve anything that drips.” What’s surprising perhaps is that the first movement chez NBC is much faster than its predecessor, bristling with an almost adolescent brio, consorting with the very soul of impetuosity, sideswiping notes — but not, I’m glad to report, failing to milk tastefully the exposition’s wistful closing theme, theme of a lingering eye.

BRITTEN, THE YOUNG PERSON’S GUIDE TO THE ORCHESTRA (7-23-63) – What better tour guide through this carnival of the instruments than Stokowski. Characterization in his “live” BBC Symphony performance is maximal, oboes dreamy, clarinets giddy, flutes like chirping birds in flight. A coy bassoon comes complete with “straight man” partner. And the cellos — their savorous tone is like a gently oozing chocolate truffle left perhaps one second too long in the sun.

BRUCKNER? One has to wonder why this composer with his organistic textures doesn’t appear (so far as I can tell) in the Stokowski discography. My suspicion is that Bruckner’s music struck him as too earnest, as if it were a kind of anti-entertainment. A book of Inconceivables would have to begin with the mix of good Anton Bruckner and Fantasia. Well, on to . . .

DEBUSSY, PRELUDE TO THE AFTERNOON OF A FAUN (3-14-43) – Not a piece to be dissected; suffice to say this broadcast performance with the NBC Symphony deposits us on a lovely pillow of espressivo, delicate, otherworldly, a selection of lilting little lingerings woven cohesively into an eleven and a half minutes that would, in the days of 78s, have made for a three-sided Faun rather than the conventional two. This Faun is a minute longer than Stokowski’s 1940 Philadelphia recording, and a shade shorter than his “live” performance in London 6-14-72! The point of course is to make the music move forward while seeming to recline – all in a day’s work for Stokie . . . and DUPARC-STOKOWSKI: EXTASE (1974) – This arrangement of Duparc’s song constitutes another nicely dreamy Afternoon on Stokie’s calendar, solo flute, horn and friends from the London Symphony providing the bedding.

ELGAR, ENIGMA VARIATIONS (1972) – A clean, warm, genial performance of a piece tailor-made for Stokowski’s love of casting an orchestra – in this case the Czech Philharmonic – as a flock of personalities. Tempos are very interesting, at least five of the variations significantly slower than “normal.” They work! R.B.T., for instance, the amateur actor Richard Baxter Townshend, registers depth and compassion as well as perkiness at approximately 120 beats to the minute rather than the prescribed 144. The great Nimrod number, dedicated to Elgar’s publisher August Jaeger, loses absolutely nothing in thrilling grandeur by sounding in the upper 30s rather than at 52. Dorabella, who follows Nimrod, was a stutterer. This could be why Stokowski elects to move her at about 66 rather than 80 quarters, as if she needed to take careful steps to accommodate her s-s-syncopated way of s-s-speaking. Her mind seems to have wandered a bit as well, but not so much that Stokie’s tempo drags. Actually not one of his “slow” Enigma tempi drags. Then there’s B.G.N., the cellist Basil Nevinson whose variation gives the world’s principal cellists a wonderful chance to shine — I’ve seen a video in which a female first-desker actually rolls up a sleeve to perform her special bit — and Stokowski by knocking about fifteen percent off the prescribed tempo creates a touching mood of extreme sadness . . . Finally comes the Romanza variation labeled simply with three asterisks, and the mysterious protagonist, obviously on a steamer because of the quote from Mendelssohn’s Calm Sea and Prosperous Voyage (could it be a humid Indian Ocean, the good old P. and O.?) seems at 60-ish rather than 76-to-the-minute a drowsy but imperious personality. On a scale of 1-to-10 the Hypnotic Element here is about a 12.

FALLA: EL AMOR BRUJO (9-15-64, with Gloria Lane) – As a connoisseur of the voluptuous Stokowski is on very comfortable ground here, in a “live” performance with the BBC Symphony. The lovely Fisherman’s Song is as molto tranquillo as requested, the Ritual Fire Dance sets off like a great buzzing bee, the Pantomime is ideally murmurous and ecstatic . . .

FRANCK SYMPHONY IN D MINOR (10-27) – I grew up with this recording, old Victor album M22, residing peacefully in a mahogany cabinet in my parents’ living room, but thanks to the bad press Stokowski frequently received when I was old enough to read music criticism I was afraid to touch such radioactive material as M22. A million years later I’ve discovered this Philadelphia performance on CD and gotten, well, a big bang out of it. It’s incisive, tension filled, building stormily in the introduction with the vibrance of despair, the savagery of tempests. All right, a bit of overacting here and there: this is young Stokowski. With almost too much portamento in evidence we’re in a near-John Barrymore mode, the music at times like an overripe peach. But the excitement, the thrust, the danger, intimacy and grace! The judicious slowings of tempo in the first movement’s pockets of quiet remind of the great Furtwaengler. Consciously programmed of course, the performance has tremendous spontaneity – rarely did Stokowski make a “studio” recording that didn’t sound “live.” Note by the way in the finale the wonderful shall I shan’t I? weave of the brooding strings in the great sonorous wiggle down to the reprise of the slow movement’s English horn theme, the wings of the orchestra banking, so to speak, like a 757’s approaching Heathrow, Logan or SFO.

HOLST, THE PLANETS (2-14-43) – As Edward Johnson has aptly remarked, Stokowski’s erotically tingling way with the Venus movement in this vintage NBC broadcast seems to be more about the Goddess of Love than Holst’s Bringer of Peace. I agree, but must add this footnote, Love can = Peace, sometimes. Saturn the Bringer of Old Age is an inexorable threat in Stokowski’s fearsome unfolding of this movement, but Saturn of course had a tough customer to deal with in the nonagenarial Stokie. Super poignant is Neptune the Mystic, Holst’s final planet, the chorus so quiet as to be absolutely otherworldly, the tinkly celesta arpeggios providing a poetical ladder up to . . . . . . ? Incidentally, when Stokie arrived on the NBC scene, Toscanini territory, in late ’41 he arranged for adjustments in the acoustics of the less than mellifluous Studio 8-H. “Convex diffusers” were the chief gewgaws installed, to improve reverberation.

MAHLER! Stokowski had a special liking for the SECOND and EIGHTH symphonies. Mahler’s far-ranging orchestration appealed to his highly developed sense of color, his rhythmic acuity helped reveal the contents of the composer’s complex contrapuntal textures, and the constant dramatic element in the music was seducing of course. Supple and evocative “live” performances, absolutely comme il faut, are the London Symphony Second with Janet Baker and Rae Woodland (7-30-63) and – a performance even Virgil Thomson liked – the New York Philharmonic Eighth with George London and many other vocal soloists (4-9-50).

MENDELSSOHN, SCOTCH SYMPHONY (10-26-47) – I would take this one to the desert island especially for the regretful lost soul opening, played on a New York Philharmonic broadcast at no more than an adagio of circa 48 beats to the minute rather than the composer’s andante con moto, quarter = 72. A case could probably be made that even at an “up” tempo this minor mode introduction’s glass is half empty. Dynamic care is much to the fore in this Manhattan Scotch and Stokowski gives no ground to Weingartner when it comes to sweetness. The scherzo is daintily breezy, almost toy-like, the slow movement handsomely cantabile. Individual choirs are firmly delineated throughout. Bravo!

MESSIAEN: L’ASCENSION, Four Symphonic Meditations (1949) – This is a “modern” piece that caught on quite well with the general symphonic public. Pierre Monteux even played it, three quarters of it anyway, on one of his Sunday evening Pops. Stokowski’s New York Philharmonic recording from ’49 is rather more volatile than Monteux’ excellent performance from San Francisco, and effectively so. The music at times seems to be toying with the idea of throwing itself overboard.

MOUSSORGSKY-STOKOWSKI: Excerpts from BORIS GODUNOV with Nicola Rossi-Lemeni (December ’52) – I attended a concert on which this San Francisco Symphony recording is based, and it sticks in my memory, a prestissimo glimpse of the leonine Leopold making a dashing exit out a side door of San Francisco’s Opera House – not the official stage door – and into a waiting coupe which immediately whisked this novelistic character away, presumably to a Nob Hill hotel but perhaps some more exotic rendezvous. By the way, a few weeks later in the same city a libidinous Maestro de Sabata was chasing a gorgeous blonde I happened to know . . . At all events, Stokie had the winds sitting immediately on his right hand as was his frequent pleasure, and it took him perhaps two measures to transform the San Francisco Symphony into a much crisper entity than its usual mid-century self. Of course Stokowski in his orchestration of Boris liked to treat brass and bells as sonic statuary. The Coronation Scene he launches with a tintinnabulation extraordinaire, an orchestral babble so-to-speak with a college education, we’re invited to lose ourselves in an elaborate counterpoint of resoundings as graceful as they’re spectacular. What painter has painted so bright a picture, industrial strength in its color.

Too much? Just walk into any Russian orthodox church for a fete (or no fete at all!) and see immediately how operatic the scene is, a Tosca-like figure for instance darting in from a taxi, lighting a candle and rushing out again. But to Boris — now the chorus enters, after which the orchestra recedes in one of those exquisite, and  l – - o – - n – - g ,  morendos for which Stokowski seems to have held the patent. Credit him in later chapters with a snappy Varlaam’s drinking song, a delightfully elegant Polonaise, ultimately a Death Scene supple and with the right amount of pathos. He joins Vincenzo Bellezza and a few other conductors who’ve caught fully the dignified despair of this opera’s final paragraph. In short, Don’t Rush!

MOZART is not a composer one associates Stokowski with, but the fact is he was a considerable Mozartian – or Amadean! Since he cared a lot about drama and grace this is not surprising. Look to his broadcast of the Don Giovanni overture with the Boston Symphony (1-13-68) for an absolutely non-generic performance, highly suggestive in its nuance. Measure 11 and the first violins’ syncopated, searching line is played with a subtly edgy beauty, a tone about to break into splinters as those violins consider Terrors to come. Two bars later the noodling sixteenths of the second violins are very clear, somewhat more than mere foot-soldiering accompaniment. You might even say they carry the seeds of a certain malevolence . . . And the matinee of 2-6-49 takes us to Carnegie Hall (“Good AFTERnoon!” the CBS announcer would intone as we finished a rice pancake brunch) for a collaboration with the pianist Myra Hess. The concerto at hand was the C major later associated with the film Elvira Madigan. The opening is crisp, joyous, unrushed, the celebrated slow movement properly seraphic, the finale emerges out of nowhere. Stokowski easily accommodates Dame Myra’s prevailingly contemplative approach, revels in the wind writing, and stops just short of letting the New York Philharmonic sound too glamorous.

The Philharmonic broadcast of 11-20-49 (ever-ready Stokie was coming to the rescue of a Philharmonic whose latest music director, Artur Rodzinski, had stormed off to Chicago, that’s another story) brings us a Big Band but delightful Haffner Symphony. Chart here a bustling & balletic opening movement, an andante phrased like a stately dance, a finale jolly as a Bach gigue. And there’s a charming throwaway ending for the minuet in the form of a fading octave reach in the low strings. It’s as if the music were making a slightly apologetic bow. By the way, have you heard Edwin Fischer conduct this symphony? Sturdy, transparent and wonderful.

PUCCINI’S TURANDOT, with Nilsson, Corelli, Moffo, and a Timur, alas, who sounds at times as if he’s reading from the telephone directory (3-4-61) – What a loss that the superb dramatist Leopold Stokowski appeared so rarely in opera houses. No Otello, no Aida, no Tosca. Here he is at the Metropolitan Opera (“Ah, there go the house lights,” announces the unctuous and affable Milton Cross) in an urgent, fluid, handsome performance of Turandot, sensitively phrased. Note how he waltzes the obsessive and quite furious ensemble at the end of Act 1. In the “bells and whistles” department one has to report an arguable but harmless bit of macabre-issimo, Stokie’s heightened tinklization of the xylophone bit before the Mandarin’s speech at the opening, a brief percussion statement to which he adds a big trill and a flourish. It sure rattles the music’s bones. Well, Puccini probably would have thought this not the best orchestral table manners, like tapping playfully on one’s goblet at a formal dinner. And then again he might have loved it, a composer can’t think of everything before he sends the script to the publisher. The case for the defense could certainly argue that this TRRRRILLLLL increases a sense of danger, the emotional roller coaster on which Puccini’s opera is undoubtedly about to embark.

RACHMANINOFF SECOND SYMPHONY (8-13-46) – Great rumbles of melody in low strings, stained glass sonic attitudes from the woodwinds, blocks of sound that flow like wine: this is a “live” performance with the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra that becomes at times almost unbearably beautiful. In the slow movement many romantic implications – the course of true love not always running smoothly! – are explored . . . RACHMANINOFF-STOKOWSKI: Prelude in C Sharp Minor (1960) – If you need another Coronation Scene this could be it. Fun stuff. But the possible protagonist of this exhilaratingly efficient pocket drama, whipped up in a revisited Philadelphia with shuddering tutti crescendo and liquid tremolando strings, is more Hyde than Jekyll.

SCHUBERT UNFINISHED SYMPHONY (7-10-41) – More from the All American Youth Orchestra, and put this Unfinished in your bag for the Gramophonic tropic island. Stokowski would have to be considered an interpretive force to be reckoned with if only for the way in which he differentiates — as Schubert does not literally do in his score — between the exposition and recapitulation of the second movement’s second theme, wherein there is always one woodwind soloist in the minor followed (Hurray!) by another in the major. (By the way Stokowski doesn’t quite duplicate this nuancing in other Unfinisheds). The first time around Stokowski permits the clarinet speaking in minor an unusual exuberance and intensity, and while the oboe in major is properly pianissimo almost like a jazz player it gives added zap to some of Schubert’s accents: an outspoken lyricist this oboe is for sure. And then . . . in the recapitulation the exuberance is gone, replaced by Autumn; shadings are tragic, the oboe entering in the minor now is altogether less propulsive, the world has irrevocably changed. And the judge in Music Court can rule: recapitulatory alterations of this sort are a time honored sort of respectable creativity.


SHOSTAKOVICH FIFTH SYMPHONY (1950s) – A recording of a Stokowski staple with the Stadium Concerts Symphony, aka New York Philharmonic. If you hear this record notice how with a touch of sweetness its pilot adds pathos to the long violin theme near the beginning. With a just slightly honeyed vibrance the second theme high in the violins has a feminine quality. More of these leetle things as Koussevitzky would say that count! Not surprisingly Stokowski highlights the galumphiness of Shostakovich’s scherzo, applying the composer’s requested allegretto. In the finale there’s maximum melodization of the long-noted horn solo with its haunting Heartland fourths.

SIBELIUS FIRST SYMPHONY (1976) – Age cannot wither. The 94-year-old Stokie masters like a Cunard captain suavely crashing symphonic seas, the music bursting with life (burstitis?). Straight, smooth, seamless is this recording with the so-called National Philharmonic, a haut ad hoc ensemble adept at laying Turkish carpets of orchestral largess (see also Stokie’s slow-paced Rachmaninoff Third from the previous year!) The andante ma non troppo lento is taken adagio, very much the lament, but the proof is in the fetching expressivity of this tactic. Did we quote Mahler before? Tempo, he said, is “a matter of feeling.” With the crazily swift and maybe angry timpani ZAP at the end of the scherzo Stokowski may be shaking his fist at Mortality, but I doubt it, he scarcely had time for such concerns . . . and RICHARD STRAUSS, DON JUAN (1950s) – A rakish and scintillating recording with the Stadium gang, the orchestra like a hundred flitting butterflies. Characteristically Stokie pulls the curtain to reveal Another World as the ppp dolce tranquillo of Letter D provides boudoir cushions for the molto espressivo of the chief violin. Also for our notebook is the exceptionally crisp outlining of the harp arpeggios before the great scene in which the first oboe is the main protagonist. (And connoisseurs of Straussian harps should also listen to Rudolf Kempe!)

STRAVINSKY, RITE OF SPRING (c. 1929) – Suave, swinging, hummy, this Philadelphia Rite positively sashays its way toward Sacrifice Lane. A Why Worry? Performance.

TCHAIKOVSKY, ROMEO AND JULIET (2-6-62) – Passion and tumult, the Philadelphia Orchestra to convey it, what for a fellow like Stokowski could be better? I used to find this performance, a “live” one, a little calculated. Well, a conductor has to plan. And now I find there’s so much here in the way of meaningful nuance it’s a joy. A slight hesitation in the procession of clarinets and bassoons at the end of the third and fifth bars constitutes a gracefully expressive prolongation of the ecclesiastico element. Then who can complain of the silken sound of divided dolce cellos oscillating at measure 21? At Letter A the demonic downstepping pizzicati are somewhat accelerated, enhancing the fateful Impatience easily imagined at this hot-button point in the score. Measure 78, poco a poco stringendo accelerando toward allegro and Stokowski enflames this pregnant passage with an unlicensed but surely affecting ATTACK on Tchaikovsky’s timpani roll. Life can come in jolts. The main allegro giusto is ultra taut, swirling and curling, gripped by frustration and anger (Mercutio speaking?) but with subtle restraints suggesting the music is being kept from committing a felony . . . and TCHAIKOVSKY, HAMLET (1-13-68) – Here is Romeo’s less known Tchaikovskyian brother in an incisive “live” performance, full of body and vinegar, with a Boston Symphony that sounds sharper-edged than its customary Sixties self, while certainly rich. You can actually hear a distraught protagonist in this No-Moods-Barred Hamlet.

VERDI, FORZA DEL DESTINO OVERTURE (1-26-63) – I cannot tell a lie, the Full Disclosure Act makes it imperative I tell you that a good chunk of this “live” Philadelphia performance is an aberration, with such bad ideas as adding a timpani roll to the last of those Destiny chords at the outset, then a virtual allegro for the theme marked andantino dolce espressivo at Letter B. Elsewhere, though, the tension and brilliance are exemplary and I still feel Stokowski on his best behavior could have been a fabulous conductor of Otello or Aida. A case here of applying some of one’s favorite devices without checking to see if they work. The bottom line came to me this morning while soaking in the bath: I’m sure Stokie had great affection for this music, otherwise he wouldn’t have bothered to program it. Well, folks will be arguing over it in the blogs — Zounds, the end of the piece is enveloped in a mushroom cloud of percussion!

And now to Stokowski’s WAGNER . . . “Try to make no accent – it comes out of nothing, right?” . . . “Hide it more, please – we heard too much” . . . “No matter what’s printed, give it Life.” That is a soft-spoken, all-business Stokowski rehearsing Wagner with his American Symphony Orchestra in New York 12-6-69. And then of course there are Wagnerian avalanches and tornadoes in his performances I daresay he could only summon with his eyes and hands. Although he seldom if ever conducted complete operas from this source he was a frequent and passionate Wagnerian, combing the usual bleeding chunks and more for insights. And SOUNDS. The capital “W” warmth of the Big Tune early on in the Rienzi overture (a Royal Philharmonic recording from the 1970s) has you melting in your hi fi chair. The first act Meistersinger prelude from his anniversary concert with the LSO 6-14-72 is adorably impish and amorous. A Magic Fire recording with the New York Philharmonic 11-17-47 is mellifluously soporific, wrapping the rock-bound Bruennhilde in enough string tone to keep her safe through a hundred wars, fifty revolutions and a Vesuvian uproar or two. The gavel of finality comes down hard in a give-no-quarter Siegfried’s Funeral Music with the LSO, a performance swaggering and musing by turns, the wind at times whistling right through the orchestra . . . In the Tristan Liebestod with the RPO the sense of unreality becomes more and more vivid, the airiness in the music, the luminosity, more pronounced. Then on the final chord, a fermata’d cresc./dim., this Liebestod drifts finely into an illimitable perspective, not perhaps unlike the receding train of an empress . . . . . . while the amazing first movement of Stokowski’s galactic 1959 recording of Bertok’s Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, very slow indeed, and very moving, empties into an apotheosis of eeriness.

And the WEBER-BERLIOZ INVITATION TO THE DANCE (1926) – An ideal performance from Philadelphia, elegant, fond, demure, cleanly articulated, absolutely in style. And it has always suggested to me this paraphrase: a melody is like a pretty girl.