The last couple of years EMI has followed the lead of such labels as RCA, Mercury and Sony in going back to its original session tapes for what it calls its "Full Dimensional Sound" series, reissues of some of its early stereo classics from the '50s and '60s.
For the most part, the results have been impressive, offering cleaner bass and more sharply defined high frequencies. But with few exceptions, the Leopold Stokowski reissues have been just that - reissues of material EMI already has done a more-or-less-decent job on by way of earlier CDs.Not this one. For what is enshrined on this 78-minute disc is the complete contents of one of the most sought-after of all Stokowski recordings, "The Orchestra," and all but one item from "Landmarks of a Distinguished Career," a sort of greatest-hits collection of pieces long associated with the controversial English-American maestro.
Surely few if any were his equals when it came to orchestral sound, something apparent from his very first acoustics for the company he was most closely associated with, RCA. But "The Orchestra," taped in New York in 1957, was something new even for him - a single-disc survey of that body's various instrumental choirs, bringing them all together for the final sections, "The Hut on Fowls' Legs" and "The Great Gate of Kiev," from Mussorgsky's "Pictures at an Exhibition."
Not, however, his own arrangement of "Pictures," the only form in which he recorded that piece complete. No, what we have here is his only recording of the Ravel orchestration, and not only does it strike me as superior to the Stokowski edition - so does the performance.
Remarkably, the same is true of the pizzicato Scherzo from the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony, its plucked strings registering more winningly than they do on any of his complete recordings.
The rest, however, is music he otherwise never recorded, at least commercially. That includes things like the memorable "Fanfare" to Dukas' "La Peri," Barber's "Adagio for Strings" (a beautifully graded performance), the "Gavotte" from Richard Strauss' Suite for Winds, the first part of Harold Farberman's "Evolution" for percussion, the Scherzo from Vaughan Williams' Symphony No. 8 (a complete BBC broadcast performance of which is available on Music & Arts) and the "March" from the Divertimento for Band of Vincent Persichetti.
Nearly all are marked by clarity and wit (though I have heard more fanciful readings of the Vaughan Williams) and the above-mentioned sonic virtues, even if the original LP still seems to me a bit fuller in places.
Indeed, as performances I would take them over most of what one finds on the "Landmarks" tracks, where the fabled Stokowski mannerisms sometimes get the upper hand.
That means pulled-about phrasing in everything from Debussy's "Clair de Lune" to Sibelius' "Finlandia" ("The Swan of Tounela" actually comes off better) and an almost parodistically "Fantasia"-like approach to Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
In a way, it's too bad this last was included at all, as it at least was previously available on one of EMI's earlier now-you-see-it-now-you-don't CDs of Stokowski Bach transcriptions and seems to have been placed here at the expense of his "Blue Danube." (Significantly the liner essay mentions the latter but not the former, suggesting this was a last-minute production move.)
No matter. The Stokowski collector, or anyone interested in the art of orchestral performance, should snap this disc up without delay. And, should EMI's in-and-out view of its catalog still prevail, the same might be said of the disc combining Debussy's "Iberia" and "Nocturnes" with Ravel's "Rapsodie Espagnole" and what is still my favorite stereo recording of Ibert's "Escales" - an intoxicating issue; his knockout Shostakovich 11th Symphony - still a notch below the LP but an improvement over the earlier non-FDS CD; his Houston "Ilya Murometz"; and a two-disc box containing most but not all of his United Artists recordings with the Symphony of the Air.
When it comes to the last, I'd have willingly traded the Khachaturian Second Symphony, which is included, for the Beethoven Seventh, which isn't. (Some years ago it was rumored that the stereo master was lost.) But that's worth putting up with for generally honest transfers of things like "The Pines of Rome" - his only Respighi recording - and his deftly characterized Shostakovich First.
These are among the landmarks I choose to remember his recording career by. And considering how long it was, and how many high points it had, that's praise indeed.