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Rob Barnett
MusicWeb International, April 2011

Stokowski and the Fabulous Philadelphians were a partnership made in heaven and remained so until the inevitable rift. During that halcyon period Rachmaninov came to see conductor and orchestra as his collaborators of choice. Indeed this continued undimmed when the orchestra became the long term property of Eugene Ormandy. Stokowski maintained his allegiance even while living his gypsy career from band to band. Stokowski it was who premiered the Rachmaninov Third Symphony and many other works by this composer in Philadelphia.

In 1975—then 93 years young—Stokowski went into the studio in London with the National Phil to record the Third Symphony for Desmar. The disc opens with a luxurious (7:03) rendition of the Vocalise, the composer’s own orchestration, but full of the conductor’s tenderly attentive ministrations. These act in a beneficent way and bring out the work’s lushly romantic side. It had me thinking of the Second Symphony’s long and elaborately spun luxuriance. The sound, though now with just a suggestion of glare, is out of the analogue top-drawer. This carries over into the Third Symphony which has a leisurely unfolding power though nowhere near as measured as Svetlanov with the USSRSO in the 1970s. Stokowski’s way is hectic at 10:34 in the first movement where things seem to come close to grief in the mêlée. It is impetuous and exciting stuff. The chattering urgency of the finale is well communicated. That said I did I wonder about the strange tizzing noise around 5:34 in the LH channel. This is a possessed and thundered out finale goaded onwards; at this point more redolent than ever of The Bells. The feral exuberance is remarkable with the notes seeming to tumble one over another—one can almost see the conductor wild-eyed with white hair flying amid the brilliant glitter and thunderous attack. Would that he had recorded the Symphonic Dances at the time—he might then, on this form, have supplanted the classic Kondrashin analogue version.

The notes are by Edward Johnson and are the same as those on the 1998 EMI reissue.

Short playing time but there are compensations.

James Miller
Fanfare, March 2011

Stokowski conducted the world premiere performances of the Third Symphony in 1936 and never performed it again until 1975 when he made this recording. It does make me wonder if he was much of an enthusiast for the music. One cannot tell from this performance, a display of his ability to exploit the colors of the orchestra and churn up some excitement. One might infer that this was his general approach at the premiere, a performance praised by Rachmaninoff…but I wonder about that, too, given that Rachmaninoff himself got to record the symphony a few years after the premiere and, at least in one respect, his performance is not like Stokowski’s at all. I refer to the second movement, marked Adagio ma non troppo, in which Stokowski seems to give great weight to the non troppo, impatiently rushing the first part of the movement. I have never heard it pushed along at this pace. The brilliant middle section is taken at a more conventional tempo. It also seems odd that this conductor, who was so cavalier about cuts during his career, conscientiously observes the first-movement exposition repeat. Otherwise, the National Philharmonic certainly plays for him and the sound is vivid enough. I no longer own the original LP so I can’t say if Newton added any extra resonance—it’s a bit too much, at least for my taste. More clarity would have been appreciated. Those familiar with Stokowski’s musical personality will anticipate his sensuous treatment of the Vocalise and they are not likely to be disappointed.

Nigel Simeone
International Record Review, March 2011

The main item on the second disc, with the National Philharmonic, is Rachmaninov’s Third Symphony. Stokowski gave the world première of this work, but he did not perform it again until these sessions near the end of his life (he handed over the Philadelphia Orchestra to Rachmaninov for the first recording—discussed below). A couple of seemingly contradictory observations need to be made about this: on the one hand there are a few precarious moments of lax ensemble, but on the other I don’t know any recording of this piece (including Rachmaninov’s own) that is as consistently imaginative, or as dazzling at climaxes. Provided you can live with the occasional imprecisions, this is a joyous performance. The Vocalise is lovely and the recorded sound is opulent.

Phil Muse
Audio Video Club of Atlanta, January 2011

For a work of its stature, it’s surprising how seldom one encounters Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 3 in A Minor, Op. 44 in U.S. concert halls and recordings by American orchestras (which by the way is not the case on the other side of the pond). A basic reason was its cool reception when premiered by Leopold Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra on 6 November 1936. The times, it seems, were out of joint for a work as lush, long limbed (though still considerably more concise than the composer’s Second Symphony of 1909), and darkly and moodily romantic as the Rachmaninov Third. Critic Lawrence Gilman was impressed by the work’s “sweeping cantabile phrases” and its brooding melancholy moods, but he was clearly a minority of one, as the symphony was universally panned.

Almost forty years later in 1975, Stokowski returned to the Rachmaninov Third, this time with the National Philharmonic, a British orchestra created exclusively for recording purposes, and vindicated himself and it completely. At the age of 93 (!), and having neither conducted nor recorded the work in the meantime so that he was obliged to relearn it, he came up with the magnificent performance we hear on the present CD release by Newton Classics. (It was previously released on LP on the Desmar label in 1975 and on CD by EMI in 1999, both of which incarnations I was privileged to review).

Scored for a very large orchestra with expanded woodwinds and brass, the Third Symphony uses all these resources with marvelous economy, so that the BIG climaxes, such as we hear early in the opening movement, coming after a sparsely scored and desolate sounding landscape in the Lento introduction, loom even bigger and more impressive. Brooding silences, contrasted with sweeping passages and overlapping waves of intense emotion, make a profound impression in this work. The long, songlike theme of the opening movement, of a definitely attractive lyrical and plaintive character, is heard later on, to great effect, in a different guise. The families of the orchestra are handled with surprising independence, especially for instruments such as the lower brass that aren’t accustomed to such refreshing treatment. In this performance, Stokowski strikes an ideal balance between control and total abandon, keeping us on the edge of our seats. At a playing time of 39:06 the symphony actually seems much shorter, so rapt are we in the spell that composer and conductor weave.

The filler here is the well-remembered Vocalise, Op. 34, in Rachmaninov’s own transcription. Originally, as the title suggests, a wordless warmup exercise that takes a vocalist (usually a soprano) through the whole range of her tessitura, this work has proved so irresistible it has been transcribed many times for various instruments. In Stokowski’s hands, it conjures up its timeless charm once again.

Robert Stumpf
Classical Net, December 2010

Originally recorded in 1975 at the young age of 93, this is ranked as the only recommended recording of the symphony in American Record Guide’s overview of Rachmaninoff’s music (I’m not taking sides in the debate on the spelling of his name…what appears above is what is on the jacket label of this and the earlier release). That Desmar LP was later issued on EMI 66759 and sounded spectacular. This new release is essentially the same. At times I think it is a tad warmer than the EMI but at other times I think it’s the same. If you have the earlier release I see no need to duplicate it, but if not grab this or maybe send it to your son (as I plan to do).

I think the reviewer in ARG put it best: “Rachmaninoff chose Stokowski and the Philadelphia Orchestra for the first performance. Stokowski has his own kind of flexibility and gives a more vivid, dramatic, and colorful performance than the composer have managed. (The writer is comparing Stokowski’s with Rachmaninoff’s) He is able to connect the episodes into something coherent. And his way with strings often saves the day.”

Rachmaninoff was a ROMANTIC composer, hailed by some as the scion of Tchaikovsky. It takes a ROMANTIC conductor to do the music justice and Stokowski does it better than anyone with this hand-picked orchestra. To hear the strings in the Vocalise, the plaintive English horn emerging from the texture, is just a mind-blowing experience., November 2010

RACHMANINOV, S.: Symphony No. 3 / Vocalise (National Philharmonic, Stokowski) NC8802024
DVOŘÁK, A.: Serenade / VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R.: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis / PURCELL, H.: Dido’s Lament (Royal Philharmonic, Stokowski) NC8802025
BYRD, W. / TAVERNER, J.: Masses / Motets (King’s College Choir, Willcocks) NC8802020

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 première 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 Dvořák’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.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, November 2010

Newton Classics reissues the Leopold Stokowski reading of the Rachmaninov A Minor Symphony (1936) originally issued on Desmar Records and then given a CD incarnation via EMI (CDM 5 66759 2). Even the liner notes by Edward Johnson grace this latest version of this romantic coupling, inscribed 28, 30 April and 1 May 1975, when Stokowski was already 93 years of age.

Critics and the public at large have been reticent on the subject of A Minor Symphony, arguing that while the work absolves Rachmaninov of any debts to Tchaikovsky, it still plays as a hazy shadow of the E Minor Symphony, Op. 27. There are economical changes in the composer’s style, a tightening of form, and he condenses the Adagio and Scherzo (Allegro vivace) into one innovative seamless movement. Stokowski himself led the music’s debut performance with the Philadelphia Orchestra (6 November 1936), though he did not perform the work again nor record it with that esteemed ensemble.

Yet, having returned to the score after forty years, Stokowski builds up a magisterial tension very slowly, ever alert to the subtle shifts in meter and dynamics, and always playing fully the composer’s trump card in warm effulgent melodies. Stokowski’s fixed attention to the melodic ostinati and low brass appears idiosyncratic, but it works. The occasional modulation to distant and even possibly disturbing harmonies finds a perennial foil in Rachmaninov’s sure sense of colorful orchestration, and he always relies on the Dies Irae sequence to remind us that nostalgia must concede to mortality. The second movement invokes a solo violin, flute, bass clarinet, and harps in an ardent melody, a step away from Scheherazade. The music pays homage—it seems—to Liadov and that composer’s luxuriant sense of color combinations. The deft transition to the Scherzo suggests Rachmaninov had gleaned much from Sibelius in matters of symphonic compression. The last contrapuntal movement cuts loose with the battery of the National Philharmonic, requiring hard mallets, snare drum, tympani, triangle, all the time recycling impulses from earlier in the score. Forever convinced of the composer’s innate sincerity, it would seem that Stokowski were making amends for years of neglect, compensating with a potent expression of belated love and passion.

The forever charming Vocalise floats and charms at once, diaphanous and exquisitely tender, a simultaneous tribute to Wagner’s dream of “endless melody” and Rachmaninov’s fluent and lyric genius. [All the new Newtons that have come thru here have been exemplary remasterings from the original discontinued discs—bringing them into current sonic standards. And of course this one is stereo…Ed.]

David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer, November 2010

The Stokowski recording is one of the conductor’s deathbed efforts—he was 93 in these 1975 sessions—where you put up with some messiness for moments of Stokowski magic. Then there’s the cachet of his having conducted the 1936 world premiere.

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, October 2010

One of the advantages of being a reviewer is the joy of discovery. Of the many discs I get to audition each month, not all are interesting enough to mention at the site and only a relative few jump out and demand serious attention. Such a recording is Stokowski’s Rachmaninov Third Symphony. The old maestro premiered the work in 1936, but it wasn’t the hit the public expected it to be after the success of the Second Symphony. Stokowski never conducted the piece again until he recorded this performance in 1975, just two years before his death. Originally, I believe the Desmar label released it on LP, and then in 1998 EMI made it available on CD. Now we get it from Newton Classics in what appears to be the same master EMI used. So if you already have it on EMI, this one is identical.

I had never heard the recording before EMI sent it to me in ’98, and it was a pleasure hearing it again recently on Newton Classics. It only takes about two minutes of listening to realize that here is something special, an unqualified recommendation with no if’s, and’s, or but’s. The interpretation is, to say the least, highly idiosyncratic (it is Stokowski, after all), and it may not appeal to everyone grown accustomed to a more traditional approach. The Third contains none of the big, memorable themes of Rachmaninov’s more overtly Romantic Second Symphony, one of the reasons it often comes off by comparison as rather humdrum and rambling. At best, say under Previn (EMI) or Ashkenazy (London), conductors have made the Third sound lush, if not always exciting. Under Stokowski, however, the Third takes on new dimensions, imbued with a passion I’ve never found in it before.

I’ve heard it said that in Stokowski’s last years, when he was in his nineties, he never really had much to do with his own recordings, that the recording studio merely propped him up in front of an orchestra to wave his hands and lend his name to the production, and that technicians in a control booth later assembled the real performance. I’d say this recording puts the lie to that contention. No studio technician could have come up with the continuously challenging tempo variations, inflection changes, and rhythmic nuances that Stokowski fashions here.

The first-movement Allegro holds unlimited surprises, the slow-movement Adagio is conservative but committed, and the third-movement Allegro vivace is truly exhilarating. After his first performance of the work, Stokowski had almost forty years to think about it further. Maybe the years helped.

What’s equally important, though, is the disc’s excellent sonic quality, recorded by engineer Bob Auger. There is nothing of the typical studio production about it—nothing of the up-close, ultra-analytical, multi-miked, highly defined, feel-the-air-around-the-instruments characteristics so beloved of hi-fi demo enthusiasts. It merely sounds like a live orchestra. Nor is there a tremendously wide stereo separation, but, rather, the natural spread of an actual orchestra set back a short distance behind one’s speakers, slightly elevated, in a conventional quarter circle. There are no sections unduly highlighted, no sudden forward placement of instruments, no holes in the sonic structure, nothing untoward in the sound at all, which in itself makes it stand out for its realism.

Of course, all of this sonic pleasantry could merely be serendipitous, a fortuitous match between my system and this particular recording. If so, lucky me. It continues to be one of the best discs I’ve listened to in quite a while.

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7:04:54 AM, 22 August 2014
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