Tag Archives: Fantasia

The Old Magician — Just A Few Random Notes

Much ink has been spilled on the pros and cons of Stokowski and his long career, so I’m just offering a few notes here as I’ve been re-listening to a few of the handful of his (mostly) later records, particularly ones that show his uncanny ability to make a less-than-masterpiece sound like it was just that. For me, that’s the magician part. He was 95A4CA2F-E16F-4670-922B-054F9C5E5ECF_1_201_aa showman, much like his friend Walt Disney, always interested in the next new3989650F-5997-4BF1-8162-CB0D92ADAB81_1_201_a technology to advance the art; this meant early stereo, of course, and the Fantasia Soundtrack is in actual 1939 stereo sound. As much as one hears those pieces, some of them have never really been matched — the menace of Night on Bald Mountain, the Disney-assisted jollity of the Dance of the Hours.

One can’t mention Fantasia, or indeed mention Stokowski at all, without mentioning the Back transcriptions. You love them or you hate them, and if you love them, as I do, he is the master — or at least he taught the Philadelphians how to you take the Bach organ sound and make it work for the symphonic instrument. He recorded the Toccata and Fugue many time, but nothing surpasses the 1927 original (available on a Dell’arte LP):

It’s only arguable that he was surpassed in this piece with the same orchestra, when Ormandy put it down again 50 years later (far superior to his earlier Columbia LP):

But like many showman, one criticism old the Old Magician is he didn’t know when to quit; he just came back with the same bag of tricks. And in a way he did, but it kept working — until the end. He kept going, kept recording, and often re-recording the same pieces. But at the same time, he frequently defied the naysayers. There was the rightfully famous Rhapsodies with RCA Living Stereo, but by and large he wasn’t deemed “serious” enough for Nipper in thoseIMG_3340 heady days. Too Hollywood. Well, OK…he went with it. Capitol thought he was washed up in the 1950s but he turns around gives us a stellar Shostakovich 11th, a famed Carmina Burana and Berlin Firebird — though not really to my taste as a matter of interpretation, but an (edited down) Ilya Murourometz I consider one of those less-than masterpieces than come off sounding like one; my copy is a UK Capitol, which can be IMG_3349highly unreliable in their sound because of where the actual masters were kept; I had a Planets on UK Capitol that sounded like it was being played through a tin can compared to the US version. But when you get a good, clean Capitol from those golden years of ’58 and ’59 the sonic results are just stellar, and the players knew they had a living legend standing in front of them. And then there was a bunch of French repertoire, the wonderful Debussy record of which is my favorite. And plenty of others, though maybe a little less memorable.

And then comes along the upstart Everest label, not as fancy or well-funded as Mercury, and he does it again. The Shostakovich 5 that knocks your socks off. The Francesca da Rimini and Hamlet that again make second-rateIMG_3338 compositions come off like masterpieces. He never lost the magic. And this was all in the 1950s. The Everests were all issued on CD in the early ’90s and are harder to come by than the vinyl in some cases.

And the energizer bunny kept going into the 1960s. And then his Indian summer in London gave us a bevy of Phase 4’s, finely recorded and including the best Scheherezade since possibly his own 1927 rendition, miraculously restored Stokowski.org transfers from the 78s, as well some more unknown masterpieces including — of all things — a Khachaturian 11th (the only one ever recorded?) that is positively stellar. IMG_334115 trumpets, yes. And that wasn’t a Stoki embellishment! A MahlerIMG_3350 Second that is on par with Bernstein’s final NYPO record in its vastness of scope, grandiosity, and revelatory power. Both are available on CD, although you have to either find an old issue or spring for a newer box set, or in the (deserved) case of the Mahler, an SACD.

And sure, some weird stuff, too — he has a Brahms 4th from this period that seriously leaves one wondering if he was off his meds. The tempi are bonkers. After all, he was getting really, really old.

But until his dying day, he literally kept at it. His last record for CBS, from 1976 (at age 94!), is a delight. The Bizet Symphony is on par with Ansermet for sheer joie de vivre. 


Paul Dukas’s La Peri, De Falla and so on…

Paul Dukas is most known, better or worse, for his Sorcerer’s Apprentice and it’s cultural iconification thanks to Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski; to be clear, I love Fantasia and have no time for anyone’s nose-thumbing it. I thought I’d listen to some Dukas after writing about his pupil Joaquín Rodrigo and the piece Lliri Blau which came out in 1934 while the two were pupil and student. Clearly, there was an influence here: Dukas’s 1897 piece was based on a poem by Goethe, while Rodrigo’s 1934 piece was from a Valencian poetic legend.

When I think of Dukas, though, the piece I’ve found rewards the most isn’t the cliched Sorcerer (with or without mouse ears) but his 1912 ballet La Peri. Pupil Rodrigo must have studied up as well on La Peri; the thematic material in Lliri Blau (a legend about a blue lily’s magical power) and the central Orientalist story of the search for a flower of immortality in Iran can hardly be coincidence. To my surprise, the ballet merited no mention in Edward Said’s classic on the genre, Orientalism.

Peri is a one-act ballet, and the opening fanfare is probably the most well known/performed selection. The piece as a whole found a non-surprising champion in Ansermet, who recorded it twice on London/Decca. It is a rich and harmonic score, bridging the periods of French Romanticism and Impressionism. (Should Dukas be considered conservative or m odern? Compared to what — apologies to Les McCann — when we have Bizet, Chabrier, Debussy, Ravel, all swirling in the musical atmosphere before Dukas died one year after his pupil’s Lliri Blau debuted in 1934.)

Ansermet’s first recording dates from 1954, London LL-1155 (Decca LXT-5003). I’m using data here from the Ansermet discography at Brenno Bolla. The UK pressed London copy I’m using is NM and no IMG_1720excuses need be made for the range of mono sound. The performance is rather lackluster though — I say this as an admitted Ansermet skeptic. His mono Sombrero de Tres Picos is a bore, if you ask me, though when stereo came along his performance in the studio seemed to get a boost. (I don’t think the mono record is even available on CD.) The same goes for my opinion of La Peri from the 1954 mono version to the early 1958 stereo, also London/Decca. It’s as if the thing suddenly sprang to life. Perhaps this had something to do with the cultural connotations of recording in the early days of the LP? Less realism, with no audience there to applaud?

In the event, the 1958 version, Decca SXL-2027, is an immense improvement, not just due to the stereo sound, but the overall drama. Also, the 1954 version oddly omits the fanfare. Can’t find an IMG_1722IMG_1723explanation as to why this would have been the case. The vinyl I’m using here is unfortunately not an original but a Speaker’s Corner reissue which is — have to say — a reason to stay away from reissues. Way too brightly lit, high frequencies punched, depth depressed despite the 180g weight. The London blueback pressing I’m comparing (CS-6043), is a nice copy wide band/ffss grooved, with far superior sonics and overall warmth.

The last record I mention here is an outlier, in that it’s more modern and I know from prior conversations with vinyl friends draws disdain: Pierre Boulez with the New York Phil, 1976. Recorded in SQ Quadraphonic, and reproduced using my old restored Sansui, the IMG_1724sonic effect is astounding. Yoiu can buy it on CD, to be sure. Boulez is worlds apart from Ansermet, and I wish I could accurately recall the disdainful line from one audiophile friend who said something about Ansermet having dreamed in more colors than Boulez ever saw in the world. That may be so, but in this case the precision and edginess of the score accentuates its drama for me as a listener, as opposed to the blatant (and very much enjoyable) lushness of the Suisse Romande under Ansermet. Boulez is making a point. It’s very much a modernist Stravinskian reading of a Orientalist romantic fantasy; and all the more interesting for it. Ansermet makes this score easy; Boulez makes it rather more hard to digest. One wonders what the composer might have thought, with his clear delight in storytelling and exoticism, whether of magical sorcerers or Iranian immortality.

A perfectly acceptable contemporary account of the complete Peri, similar to Boulez in overall approach, is from Slatkin and the Orchestre de Paris on RCA (1999 recording). You can sample the fanfare here:

And compare Ansermet’s more lush stylings:

Postscript I: Sorcerer’s Apprentice. To my surprise, I checked my collection and only had one record of this piece, Dutoit with Montréal on Decca 421-527, a late 1989 pressing which I had to hunt around IMG_1725for. I recall the CD sound as being perfectly fine, but the late digital vinyl is super. (Again, apologies to my pals who won’t conscience anything on vinyl past 1965.) By comparison, Ansermet’s 1963 OSR version is slower, more lush, and yes — in this case I’ll give in — has orchestral color light years beyond Dutoit, IMG_1726whom I greatly admire. Leave Boulez out of it on this one! Here using a UK Decca first pressing, SXL-6065, ffss, grooved. Going back to my earlier post, wondering why Rodrigo’s Lliri Blau didn’t make it on to one of these compilation records. You can find the Ansermet Sorcerer on CD here. Can’t vouch for the sound.

Postscript II: Three Cornered Hat. Here again is Ansermet, champion of this era. I don’t have the mono version to compare in real time, but have been unimpressed when hearing it in the past; the stereo on London ffss wide band pressing (CS-6224) is, however, wide ranging, dramatic, and a full tilt up toward the final moments. IIMG_1727 also have the Speakers Corner reissue to compare as above, and in this case think the engineers did a IMG_1729much better job. I am partial to Dutiot and Montréal in this on vinyl, though, heresy though it may seem (also looks like this is out of print on CD). And then again there is the Boulez, CBS 33970, also Quadraphonic, and I can’t defend the IMG_1728sound as much in this case. Here his approach loses too much of the romance of the piece. But its precision is remarkable, and cinematic in its drama. A counterpoint to the Dukas and other pieces discussed imagesabove.

The Dutoit finale, on vinyl or on CD, arguably packs even more of a punch than Ansermnet. Sample here: