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Leopold Stokowski – A Gala Concert 1963
Giuseppe VERDI (1813-1901)
Overture - La forza del destino [7:09]
Umberto GIORDANO (1867-1948)
Un di all’ azzurro spazio (from Andrea Chenier, Act I) [4:58]
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)
Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, Op. 43 [24:01]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Recondita ardmonia (from Tosca, Act I) [3:30]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Dance of the Seven Veils (from Salome) [10:03]
Gaetano DONIZETTI (1797-1848)
Il dolce suono … Ardon gli incense (Mad Scene from Lucia di Lammermoor, Act III) [10:50]
George ENESCU (1881-1955)
Romanian Rhapsody No.1 in A, Op.11 No.1 [11:45]
Joan Sutherland (soprano)
Franco Corelli (tenor)
Susan Starr (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. 19 January 1963, stereo broadcast by WFLN-FM from Academy of Music, Philadelphia
TESTAMENT SBT1513 [72:16]

This concert saw Leopold Stokowski reunited with the Philadelphia Orchestra, of which he had been the long-time principal conductor. He performed as accompanist to three distinguished soloists in four items and also as the ‘star’ in his own right in three others. The theme was mainly operatic, but two of the pieces – Rhapsodies by Rachmaninov and Enescu – belong in the concert hall.

In 1959, Joan Sutherland was propelled to international fame by her portrayal of the title role in Donizetti’s opera Lucia di Lammermoor. Lucia’s famous set-piece, which also became Sutherland’s, is the Act III Mad Scene which occurs after Lucia, betrayed by her brother and apparently rejected by her true love, has murdered her new but unloved husband. Donizetti introduced a flute obbligato and, in part of the scene, voice and flute are heard in unison. This demands absolute accuracy from the singer, which Sutherland delivers, along with singing of great beauty and agility. The Philadelphia flute matches the singer in poise and beauty. These are things to marvel at. This must have been the highlight in a night of highlights for many in the audience.

In 1961, Sutherland had sung in Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots with a cast that included Franco Corelli, so his appearance with her in this 1963 concert had symmetry even if they did not, this time, sing together. In Act I of Giordano’s opera Andrea Chenier, a party is attended by aristocrats in Paris just prior to the French revolution. Chenier, a poet, is persuaded to recite. Corelli, in the title role, sings Un di all’ azzuro spazio (One day, in the blue heaven). In this piece “he contrasts the beauty of nature with the misery man makes around him; he denounces the selfishness of those in authority” as Kobbe’s Complete Opera Book tells us. Corelli has both power and a splendid flood of tone. The American Record Guide’s survey of Italian opera (September/October 2000) described Corelli as one of the three greatest Cheniers on records. He is, according to the survey, “not always elegant, but zealous and magnetic”.

Corelli also sings Recondita armonia di bellezze diverse (Strange harmony of contrasts deliciously blending) from Act I of Tosca. This aria tells of the painter Cavaradossi’s feelings when he compares his painting of a blond Mary Magdalen with his love, the dark eyed Floria Tosca. As in the Chenier aria, Corelli brings conviction and glorious tone to his performance.

In 1962, pianist Susan Starr had been awarded the silver medal at the second International Tchaikovsky Competition. The Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini was an appropriate choice for this concert, given the pianist’s obvious commitment to Russian music and the fact that this conductor was closely associated with the composer and had given the work its premiere. Moreover, 1963 marked the twentieth anniversary of the death of the composer. Rachmaninov’s inspiration for this piece was the legend of Paganini himself, who was supposed to have sold himself to an evil spirit in return for perfection in his art and the love of a woman. The Dies Irae theme portrays the evil spirit, while the love music is heard in variations 11 to 18. Starr’s pianism is commanding and she and Stokowski are at one in conjuring all the anger and menace you could wish for in the ‘evil spirit’ music. They then relax sufficiently to portray the love music with just the right amount of affection. The emotional climax of the work, the universally adored Eighteenth variation, is played with great tenderness and yearning.

In the accompanied items, the recording balance was at times a touch too favourable to the soloists at the expense of the orchestra but the effect was not extreme. The reproduction of the orchestra itself is discussed below.

Verdi’s relatively lengthy overture to La Forza del destino is an apt choice to start a concert which was as much about celebrating the reunion of conductor and orchestra as it was about honouring opera. Stokowski’s imposing conception and the wonderfully rich and assured playing of the orchestra result in a standard of performance one would be unlikely to hear in any opera house. It is in these purely orchestral items, though, that one notices most the rather veiled reproduction of the orchestra’s sound. Despite being recorded in stereo, it lacks the freshness, range and clarity of good studio productions of the time. Still, the sound is serviceable and, in a concert like this, it’s the sense of occasion which is paramount.

In the Dance of the Seven Veils from Strauss’s Salome, conductor and orchestra are, by turns, exciting and languorous. On my copy, the sound drops out for less than a second at about 2:40 into the piece. Stokowski is slower than Otto Klemperer in this music, but he has found the right tempo for his more romantic conception and there is not the slightest suspicion of waywardness or dragging.

An appropriately rousing performance of Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1 brings to an end what must have been a memorable experience for performers and audience alike. In spite of some reservations about its sound, this CD is warmly recommended to enthusiasts of any of its ‘stars’ and to anyone who simply loves a great occasion.

Rob W McKenzie



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