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Leopold Stokowski conducting The Houston Symphony Orchestra

Classic Records Everest 35mm Magnetic Film Recording

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The Classic Records’ latest re-release of three 1960 Everest recording are marvels to behold. The Everest label was founded in 1958 by missile electronics engineer Harry Belock (1908 – 1999), with the infamous ambition to surpass both the sound quality and scope of repertoire of the classical label of the day – Capitol. To accomplish his ambition, Harry pioneered the use of 35-millimeter magnetic film that offered much higher data density, minimal tape noise, and superior storage longevity than the quarter-inch tape used by the recording industry at the time. The film audio recorder was custom-built by Westrex Corporation to a cost of $20,000 then to facilitate three-channel recording on the 35mm tape.

From this extraordinary vault of Everest comes a Chopin recording the caliber of which even the big labels of the modern day have yet to surpass.

For the Chopinist among us, the composer’s many modern-day advocates and interpreters, such as Martha Argerich, Claudio Arrau, Vladimir Ashkenazy, Emil Gilels, Vladimir Horowitz, Dinu Lipatti, Maurizio Pollini and Arthur Rubinstein, to name a few, all contributed immensely to the popularity of the work of the 18th Century Polish composer/pianist. Many of us derive more fantastical magic in Chopin’s piano solo works, such as his Ballades, Etudes, Mazurkas, Nocturnes, Preludes, Polonaises, Scherzos and Waltzes, than from his Piano Concertos, although the Concertos are arguably in more demand in concert performances.

Perpetuated by the most ingeniously arranged orchestral accompaniment, the Concertos harbor some of the most lyrical and hypnotic passages for the human ear, the efficacy of which grows with each round of listening. Unlike the grand concertos of Beethoven and Tchaikovsky that are the definitive show horses of the classical repertoire, the Chopin Concertos awaken our noblest self from the depth of our subconsciousness and speak to us in a language that is both direct and personal. But to many, the most beloved and priceless of the composer’s music continues to be found only among his solo piano music. Suppose somewhere exist manuscripts of some of Chopin’s most celebrated piano solo works in full orchestral arrangements – wouldn’t that be simply a godsend for all humanity?

Enters conductor Leopold Stokowski (1882 – 1977) who, in his blatant re-arrangement commonly acknowledged as the “Stokowski transcription” of classical pieces, most notably in a collaboration with Walt Disney in the production of the 1940 animated classic, Fantasia, caused a new sensation in classical music and reshaped the classical landscape in the minds of generations to come. The audiophile label Telarc once issued a CD titled The Stokowski Sound that showcased the genius and passion of Stokowski in the most glorious sound-scape; it remains a demonstration disc of mine despite its 1986-vintage.

As abominable as the maestro’s arbitrary transcriptions may be to many of the classical music fans, orchestral versions of evergreen classics on the Telarc disc, such as J.S. Bach’s Toccata & Fugue in D minor and the Fugue in G minor, renders the music immensely more compelling and evocative than their original church organ sound, both for the deliciously dynamic and more entertaining orchestral re-arrangement, as well as the incomparable level of proficiency and talent displayed in Stokowski’s knowledge of the capabilities of the orchestra. There is only one thing missing: the maestro did not conduct the performances on the disc.

Here comes Classic Records’ re-issuance of the maestro’s personal performance of a few major classical pieces recorded originally on the 35mm magnetic film medium. Among them is a disc titled simply Leopold Stokowski conducting The Houston Symphony Orchestra in a repertoire that includes such heavyweights as opera giant Richard Wagner’s “Wotan’s Farewell and Magic Fire Music from The Valkyrie (Die Walküre).” The maestro’s forte is prominently displayed by the Houston Symphony Orchestra, an ensemble which he had nurtured to prominence during his tenure as its Music Director from 1955 to 1961. Innumerous recordings of the Wagner epic abound, but I will guarantee a fresh perspective when you experience Stokowski’s transcription under his own command. Chances are, you will return time and again to his version.

But the three Stokowski transcriptions of Chopin’s piano music are the ones to long for. The almost immediate rush of adrenaline to Chopin traditionalists that will certainly ensue upon hearing the first note of the “Mazurka in A Minor, Op. 17, No. 4” will probably be of similar relevance to listeners not familiar with this piece. For the Mazurka in its original form, just like any other piano music, speaks in a solitary voice of the most expressive kind that projects the most orderly and fluidic sound-scapes. To the purists, Stokowski might have distorted the intents of Chopin by transcribing his piano music to full orchestra, but Stokowski’s impeccable craftsmanship and the diverse voices arising from the orchestration created new moments of transcendence and persuasion as communicative as the piano version, if not more so.

The quintessential “24 Preludes” suite is standard practice in piano training; but it also has been tackled by countless of the most skillful and is still regarded as among the most difficult to render faithfully, partially because of the tremendously varying range of intensity that Chopin had incorporated into each piece, which wrecks havoc on all but the most versatile and unlearned performers. Here, Stokowski gave it an utterly unrecognizable façade, albeit a no less imposing one. The magnificence of orchestral engagement in this piece can make the original piano version rather blend to the casual ear.

The one Chopin piano music that many Chopin loyalists would protest feverishly for its conversion into full orchestral version is probably his Waltzes. In the “Waltz in C Sharp Minor, Op. 64, No. 2”, the Stokowski transcription removed the listener from the lyricism and marvel of the piano playing that only Chopin could create, one that had captured audiences for more than a century; but what it gave birth to instead was a Chopin composition with fragrant subtlety and just enough of the fleeting grandeur that can rival those by the Strauss’. I don’t doubt that many listeners of this transcription will scramble and have their much offended sentiments cleaned and restored with good dosages of the pure piano playing; but you knew this was the Stokowski disc.

The accompanying booklet lists five tracks, while in fact the CD player shows six, the extra one being the second half of track No. 1.

The sound of the Redbook CD on this release is understandably limited by the original 35mm magnetic film master, and the recording engineers did not have the same set of parameters and protocols as that of Telarc of the 1980s. The dynamics are impressive, do not feel compressed during playback but rather modest next to those from big labels of the modern day, a direct product of antiquated recording technologies, I think. Although richness of tone and spatial cues are noticeably less when compared to modern recordings, the sound quality is superb enough that one can become more immersed into the music and be content with the sound at the same time.

Keep in mind the gem of this glorious release is the performance as conducted by the maestro himself, the fact that it can pass as a decent recording even to today’s standard is a painful reminder to many of today’s “star” conductors. Had we a conductor of Stokowski’s caliber living among us in this very day, most other conductors would be considerably less comfortable.

This Classic Records release also includes a DVD with DVD-A on one side. The prospect of superior sound is mesmerizing to say the least, and will be the topic of a future article when a DVD-A player comes along…


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