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Georges BIZET (1838-1875)
Symphony in C (1) [28:09]
L’Arlésienne Suite no. 1 (arr. Bizet) (2) [16:53]
L’Arlésienne Suite no. 2 (arr. Guiraud) (3) [15:04]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Children’s Corner Suite (orch. Caplet) (4) [18:09]
Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra
rec. 5, 21 March 1952 (1), 29 February 1952 (2), 5 March 1952 (3), 2, 30 March 1949 (4), Manhattan Center, New York
CALA CACD0548 [78:15]


Experience Classicsonline

A boomy recording, with some distortion at climaxes, in a cavernous acoustic, cannot disguise the fact that Stokowski finds a Mozartian grace in the first movement of the symphony. At this gentle gait the second subject relaxes smilingly with very little actual slackening of the pace.

After this friendly prelude, the long arching melodies of the slow movement are shaped as only Stokowski knew how. It should be over the top, yet it is worth noting how the often extreme rallentandos at the ends of phrases are cunningly gauged so that the music moves on again before it has fully stopped. Thus flow is maintained without the sensation of getting stuck at every lamp post that can beset even less indulgent, but heavier-handed, interpreters. As a further example of Stokowski’s mastery of mood and colour, when the oboe returns to its theme at the end, it doesn’t seem a repetition but rather an aftermath, as if we’ve been through a whole gamut of Carmen-like emotion in between.

The scherzo is a riot of folkloristic colour while rustic revelries are again to the fore in the finale This often veers towards a pace that is risky even for this hand-picked band, yet finding space for vocal, operatic moulding of the lyrical second subject.

I shall not be throwing out those performances that see this early piece as a youthful offering at the classical shrine, giving it a brisk, early-Beethoven purposefulness, especially those in fine modern sound. All the same, Stokowski finds more in this work than most of us thought existed.

The “most of us” alluded to may possibly have included Bizet himself. Whether he would have been so nonplussed by the “Arlésienne” suites is less certain. There are those for whom Bizet, even the relatively late Bizet of this work and “Carmen”, is to be treated with Gallic grace and restraint. For others he was the forerunner of the no-holds-barred verismo of Mascagni and Leoncavallo. Not unexpectedly, Stokowski is of the latter persuasion. The colours are strong, the emotions simple yet violent, as befits a country tale. It is an ideal counterpart to the cover illustration, a detail from a work by Corot in his most pre-Cézanne vein, with sharp contrasts and a geometrical design. It was a cunning choice. Just as Corot, it seems to say, could leave his more usual tranquil post-Constable manner and take a leap into the next century, so, too, could Bizet. And Stokowski shows us how. The famous “Adagietto”, I should add, is played with the most tender restraint, voluptuousness only hinted at.

A great Stokowski performance, then, even if “Stokowski performance” remains the operative phrase, since Stokowski never lets you forget that there’s an interpreter between you and the music.

Or does he? I followed “Children’s Corner” with the piano score and was struck by his fidelity to the text, in phrasing, dynamics and tempi. Curiously, I made the comparison with a “faithful” interpreter, Vittorio Gui (Naples 1968) and was more struck by the similarities than the differences. Gui, too, was a great musician with a way of getting to the heart of the music he was conducting. In spite of having a lesser orchestra, he and Stokowski agree, above all, in finding a bright-eyed, childlike innocence in the music. So in this case I am inclined to say we have here, not only a great Stokowski performance, but a great Debussy performance too. Although this recording is three years earlier, I found it better than the Bizet, if anything.

Richard Gate’s notes are a model of what we want from this type of release. There’s a brief history of earlier recordings of the works – the Debussy was the second complete recording ever – and other Stokowski versions of them: none in the case of the Debussy. There are reproductions of the original covers, a 1949 NY Times cutting with photos of Stokowski and six of the principals engaged in “his Symphony Orchestra” and other information about those taking part – a fairly mythical line-up.

Not just a disc for Stokowski fans, then, but one for all those who willingly exchange modern sound for the magic of a great interpreter.

Christopher Howell

see also Review by Jonathan Woolf 



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