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Crotchet   £15.99

Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Symphony no.5 in c minor op.67
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828) Symphony no.8 in b minor D.759, ‘Unfinished’
London Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded at the Fairfield Halls, Croydon, 8 September 1969
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883) Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918) Prélude a l’après-midi d’un faune
London Symphony Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski (conductor)
Recorded at the Royal Festival Hall, London, 14 June 1972
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935) The Sorcerer’s Apprentice
London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux (conductor)
Recorded in London in 1961
EMI CLASSICS DVA 492842-9 [93’57"]


Perhaps it was the contrary sprit of the old magician himself which impelled me to start this DVD not with its opening Beethoven 5 but with Wagner’s ‘Meistersinger’ Prelude. I was initially nonplussed to observe no white hair and hands but instead shaky stills of the South Bank, which are revealed as the opening slides of what was evidently a delayed and not a live broadcast. But ten bars in, and there he is. The grand theme swings away with verve and purpose - and Stokowski’s clenched right fist is rotating in minuscule movements. That’s it, he makes no other movement. After a while the left hand moves over the fist to turn the page, and then maybe to make a small encouragement to the strings, but the economy and effectiveness of his gestures is breathtaking. Agreed, at the age of 90 (this and the Debussy come from his birthday concert) he was hardly likely to be jumping around the Festival Hall’s podium, but this is a farther distance than imaginable from the fantasy created by Fantasia (in which its youthful and ever vain subject willingly colluded), all imperious silhouette. The only similarity is the magic factor - ‘How does he do it?’ A question even more pertinent on this occasion, for as Stokowski Society President Edward Johnson’s thorough and engaging notes reveal, Stoki stopped the rehearsal of the Wagner after a few bars, saying ‘We don’t need to do this - you all know it!’. Yet this is no run-through, but a paean of joy and colour. The prelude’s concluding fugue bursts at the seams with contrapuntal detail which Stoki is seemingly able to conjure from a glance here, a raised hand there. Sections glide into one another like molten iron, with a seemingly fully-formed and hardly flashy musical artefact as the result.

Debussy’s Prelude suspends time in the same miraculous way that Wagner’s Prelude filled it. We’re unused to seeing the initial solo conducted, but Stokowski manages it with three or maybe four gestures that do not impose upon the flautist but lead him on, Pan-like. Where Boulez’s faun is withdrawn, shadowed even, Stoki’s is voluptuous, frankly erotic. With the first violins granted freedom to bow individually, their phrases swell and contract ripely. If the balance seems preternaturally clear, that must also be due to the privilege of seeing as well as hearing what Stokowski wants, but more often than not there is no explanation for the translation of his appearance into the musicians intuitive understanding - other than those vague dabbings, ‘charisma’, and ‘personality’.

If the two Austro-German symphonies from three years earlier don’t capture the same air of unrepeatable perfection that makes you want to hit the repeat button again and again, there is still so much at which to look and learn. Though the bowings are no longer free, they are eccentrically placed in the first movement of the Unfinished, breaking the first phrase and placing the high point of others later than is usual. It’s not just the bowings, either; cellos and basses are ranged each in one long row along the back of the Fairfield Hall, with the woodwind where the cellos would usually sit. The woodwind principals’ consequent proximity to the conductor seems to inspire from them solos of remarkable poise and freedom. It’s worth the price of the DVD to see the clarinet phrase the long first theme of the second movement.

Monteux in the Sorcerer’s Apprentice is what it says on the packet, a bonus. There’s no question who the sorcerer is here. For those of us under the age of 35 who started watching television just as television executives started opining that no one wanted to see stuffed shirts playing dead men’s music, this cooperation between BBC, IMG, EMI and the French group Ideale Audience International could conjure a musical Eldorado.

Peter Quantrill

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