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Stokowski conducts Vaughan Williams, Dvorák & Purcell

Audio Samples

>Vaughan Williams, Ralph : Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis
>Purcell, Henry : Dido and Aenaeas
>Dvorak, Antonin : Serenade for Strings

Album Summary

>Vaughan Williams, Ralph : Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis
>Purcell, Henry : Dido and Aenaeas
>Dvorak, Antonin : Serenade for Strings
Conductor Ensemble
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Notes & Reviews:

International Record Review - Nigel Simeone
The Small Desmar label made two recordings with Leopold Stokowski in 1975, when the conductor was 93. They were released on CD by EMI in the 1990s but didn't last long in the catalogue, so it's great to see these getting a new lease of life on Newton Classics. The first disc, with the RPO, is of music for string orchestra: the Serenade by Dvorßk, an arrangement of Dido's Lament by Purcell and Vaughan Williams's Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The Vaughan Williams is radiant and spacious - it's one of the most beautiful readings I know of this much-recorded work - while the Dvorßk is full of coaxing charm. The recorded sound is first-rate.

Audio Video Club of Atlanta - Phil Muse
Herewith hangs a tale. In the summer of 1975, at the tender age of 93. Leopold Stokowski was lured into EMI's Abbey Road Studio No. 1 to make a brace of recordings that summed up his life and work. Among them were two of the landmarks of English music, Ralph Vaughn Williams' Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis and Stoki's own setting of the Lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas.

In the Tallis Fantasia, based on a Psalm melody by the 16 th Century English composer, the string section of the Royal Philharmonic cultivates a rich, full and persuasive sound that serves well this meeting of ancient polyphony in the Phrygian mode with modern string orchestra technique. Vaughn Williams divides the strings into three parts. This configuration resembles a great organ, with a string quartet as the swell division, orchestra I the great division, and orchestra II, composed of a single desk from each section, the choir division. The pattern of sound and decay replicates what we might hear in a great cathedral. A noble secondary melody, first heard in a solo viola, forms the climax of the work. Stokowski seems to have been born to conduct this remarkable work combining beauty with emotion, and intense joy with the unseen mystery of things, as luxuriant growth develops from fragments of the theme.

The heroine's lament "When I am laid in Earth" from Henry Purcell's 1695 opera Dido and Aeneas, with its noble melody underscored by acdescending chromatic line in the bass that is repeated eleven times as Dido resolutely faces her death, was long a favorite of Stokowski's. The worderful word painting in this music, climaxing in a sudden register leap and a crescendo, was just the sort of thing of which Stoki was termeramentally equipped to make much. And he does!

Finally, Stokowski pours all the ardour of "youthful" discovery into Antonin Dvorßk's Serenade for Strings, Op. 22, in the very rich key of E Major. He makes up here for his previous unfathomable, total neglect of a work that arrests our attention immediately with its ardent nature and the sheer beauty of its folkinspired melodies. The serenade is in five movements: Moderato, Tempo di valse, Scherzo: Vivace, Larghetto and Finale: Allegro Vivace, with the same jaunty melody that captured our attention in the opening movement coming back again at the end. Stokowski uses considerable rubato to advance the tempo at key points in the waltz movement (Now, why would a 93 year old want to do that?). He applies the same technique more expertly in the finale to generate much excitement. And he thins out the string sound at the end of the Larghetto to impart a breathless, rapturous feeling to the music. This is a recording not to be missed!

There is a different sort of delving into the past in three new Newton Classics releases. This CD company is re-releasing recordings, most of them originally made in analog form, from the middle and latter part of the 20th century. And some of them are very special indeed. Leopold Stokowski's broadly Romantic conducting style was not to everyone's taste during his lifetime and will not be so today, but it has to be said that two new recordings made when Stokowski was 93 years old (two years before his death) are fascinating and in many ways quite remarkable. Stokowski conducted the premiFre of Rachmaninoff's Third Symphony in 1936 but then never again led it in public - so his return to the work in 1975 was quite an event. And he makes a strong case for this symphony, emphasizing its very broadly melodic lines and lush, even cloying orchestration. The pacing is deliberate, but not slow, and the National Philharmonic plays willingly and with feeling, if not perhaps with the burnished quality of brass that shows Rachmaninoff at his best. The composer's orchestration of the well-known Vocalise completes the CD, with Stokowski making the work as expansive and emotional as anyone could wish.

With the Royal Philharmonic, Stokowski in the same year made his first-ever recording of Dvorßk's Serenade for Strings, giving the work a lush and expansive performance that feels rather old-fashioned and a touch heavy-handed, but is certainly quite beautiful in its own way. Vaughan Williams, whose work Stokowski advocated for many decades, is here represented in a beautifully modulated and highly emotive version of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis that shows Stokowski's conducting style at its most effective. On the other hand, Stokowski's overblown orchestration of Dido's Lament from Purcell's Dido and Aeneas shows why musical purists have long been uncomfortable with Stokowski's handling of early music. Whatever else this version may be, and it is certainly lush and broad, it is not Purcell except in the most general sense. It is, however, very well played, and indicative, for those interested in such things, of the way music of pre-Classical times was brought to the concert hall at a time when such works were rarely heard and Stokowski was seeking ways to make them sonically appealing to audiences of the day.

Moving even further back in time, and in a much more authentic way (although not fully in accordance with historical performance practices, which had yet to become the norm), the Choir of King's College, Cambridge, offers some beautifully sung versions of masses and motets by William Byrd (1540 - 1623) and John Taverner (c. 1490 - 1545). The Taverner works were recorded in 1961; the Byrd, in 1959 and 1963. The sound of these a cappella pieces is actually quite fine - the recordings were all made in the Chapel of King's College, Cambridge - and the singing is warm, mellifluous and beautifully controlled. The sound is more massive than would be heard in more-authentic performances today, and there is more overt emotionalism expressed in the singing, but the purity of tone of the performers is winning, and their commitment to expressing the underlying sentiments of the texts comes through with clarity and feeling. The music of Byrd and Taverner is not often heard even today, but it is of considerable musical - not merely historical - interest, and this well-priced two-CD set provides a fine opportunity to hear some very beautiful and effective performances by a choir that was, at the time of these recordings, one of the very best. What the performances lack in terms of adhering to historical principles that were unknown at the time, they make up for in sheer quality of sound and expressiveness. That makes these and the other Newton Classics CDs recordings to which listeners can look forward, even as the reissues themselves look back at performances from 30 to 50 years ago.

Audiophile Audition - Gary Lemco
Among the last recordings by Leopold Stokowski (1882 - 1977), these luminous readings - of the archetypal "Stokowski sound" - restore original EMI issues from sessions 16, 18 - 19 August 1975 made at No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London. Stokowski first led the Tallis Fantasia in 1926, recording it for RCA in 1952 (LM 1739), and here for the last time, having included it in his last public concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1974. Typically, Stokowski attends to each harmonic and textural nuance, the work itself based on a tune in four parts from a 1567 metrical psalter. Stokowski's insistence on free bowing to maintain an unbroken string line produces a most Wagnerian lushness in the antiphonal realization, which throbs with erotically radiant life in both large and diminutive ensemble groups. A grandly leisurely tempo moves the gathering crescendi in relentless waves of ecclesiastical passion, achieving a blazing effect and a sonic triumph for the RPO strings.

Stokowski arranged the aria "When I am laid in earth" from Henry Purcell's Dido and Aeneas for a New York concert - including a Purcell suite - in December 1950, the aria an almost liturgical outpouring of sorrow drawn in autumnal lachrymose colors. The extended meditation conveys the same mortal aura as Grieg's Ase's Death: stately, noble, inexorable.

Collectors who missed the Desmar incarnation of this disc some fifteen years ago will seek Stokowski's first and only inscription of the Dvorak String Serenade, Op. 22, rendered in luscious harmonies that make the 1954 Talich reading seem chaste by comparison. Stokowski's rhythmic freedom borders on license but never transgresses against sound musical taste. The passionate Valse movement enjoys that give-and-take of tempo rubato that proves suavely thrilling. A touch of marcato suffuses the central Scherzo but without intruding upon the ardent cross rhythms that mark the music, with its enthralling romantic counter-subject. The splendid Larghetto movement proffers an extended nocturne in long-drawn shades from Rembrandt and Caravaggio. A quick segue to the Finale: Allegro vivace, a spirited antiphonal dance that later recaps tunes from the opening Moderato. Busy, energized music from first to last, it is played with the mystique that defined Stokowski's seven decades of robust music-making.

Winnipeg Free Press - James Manishen
Newton Classics is a young Naxos-distributed Dutch label specializing in classic reissues. It has a good one here in a splendidly recorded set by the towering Stokowski made in 1975 when he was 93, the years clearly dropping off as he traverses the sounds of strings that was his trademark over a storied career mostly with the Philadelphia Orchestra.

And what a sound. The RPO strings have motion even when just holding a note, such is the organ-like sustaining power Stokowski achieved through his demand for free bowing along with the special karma he instilled in his players.

Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasia soars magnificently. Stokowski's inflated setting of Purcell's Dido's Lament is interminably slow and imprinted, yet an absorbing curiosity. Stokowski had never conducted Dvorßk's Serenade for Strings until this recording.

Though not entirely idiomatic, there are so many exquisite moments that you are drawn in, the artist on an equal plane to the work here.

Notes & Reviews:

Recording information: No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (08/16/1975); No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (08/18/1975-08/19/1975).


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Works Details

>Vaughan Williams, Ralph : Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis
  • Conductor: Leopold Stokowski
  • Notes: No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (08/16/1975); No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (08/18/1975-08/19/1975)
  • Running Time: 16 min. 33 sec.
  • Period Time: Post Romantic
  • Written: 1910

>Purcell, Henry : Dido and Aenaeas
  • Conductor: Leopold Stokowski
  • Notes: No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (08/16/1975); No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (08/18/1975-08/19/1975)
  • Running Time: 4 min. 55 sec.
  • Period Time: Baroque
  • Form: Vocal
  • Written: 1689

>Antonin Dvorák (1841 - 1904) : Serenade for Strings
  • Conductor: Leopold Stokowski
  • Notes: No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (08/16/1975); No. 1 Studio, Abbey Road, London (08/18/1975-08/19/1975)
  • Running Time: 30 min. 30 sec.
  • Period Time: Romantic