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A Sorcerer's Box of Adventures in Sound

Leopold Stokowski
Otto Rothschild
Leopold Stokowski

Superstar conductor Leopold Stokowski's decade of recordings with Decca brought his visceral, multi-dimensional musical experiences into the realm of recording. All month, we're celebrating Decca’s 22-disc box set on WCRB’s CD of the Week.

Leopold Stokowski spent nearly seventy years in a spotlight that was as unique as he was. With the Philadelphia Orchestra he crafted a signature sound so voluptuous that it mesmerized his audiences. And while his many critics called it a seduction of the worst kind, combined with a notoriously irreverent bent for "rearranging" famous pieces, no one could argue that the result was electrifying. Over the decades, the spotlight shone on his Hollywood flamboyance (he appeared in the film One Hundred Men and a Girl) as well as his innovative spirit. His work on the film Fantasia with Walt Disney gave him world-wide recognition, with a transcription of Bach's D-minor Toccata and Fugue that, as Bernard Holland of the New York Times said, gave baroque music a "cinematic swagger, lighted up in Broadway lights." And America loved it.

While he dominated American musical life from the 1920's on, he mystified even his detractors with an ecstatic, ringing sound that players witnessed him draw from one orchestra to the next, as if by magic. Ultimately, he performed more new music than any of his contemporaries, championing with passion living composers like Schoenberg and Ives. His sincere desire to give audiences a visceral musical experience led him into great experiments in engineering and production. From 1964 to 1973 he worked with the record label Decca on creating a sound that didn't mimic the sound of a concert hall, but aimed at providing an aural adventure.

When Decca pioneered their "Phase 4 Stereo" technique, Stokowski became their superstar conductor. What was it exactly? Decca put it this way: "Twenty separate sources (channels) to be combined and blended in precise perspective. Each instrument can be pinpointed to exact locations from extreme left to extreme right along the horizontal plane, or forward and back through an astonishingly large depth of field." That spatial sorcery was right in line with Stokowski's vision, and now that all of the Phase 4 recordings he made on Decca have been boxed up (22 CD's!) and released together for the first time, WCRB has gleefully chosen them as our CD of the Month. Here you'll find the super-plush arrangements as well as the major pieces Stokowski premiered. There’s Brahms, Ravel, and Ives along with his own idiosyncratic orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition – and so much more. There's even a 23rd CD that serves as a memoir with commentary by musicians and Stokowski himself.

It's a treasure box we'll be dipping into all month!

Watch a trailer for the collection:

Watch Stokowski in a rehearsal with the American Symphony Orchestra:

Hear about conducting from Stokowski himself in a discussion at the WGBH Forum Network

For more information, a track listing, and to purchase this recording, visit ArkivMusic.