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The Amazing Signature Sound of Stokowski

Leopold Stokowski
Wikimedia Commons
Leopold Stokowski

WCRB’s CD of the Week is so big, we’ll have it around for the whole month of April! This set of the complete Decca “Phase 4” recordings of conductor Leopold Stokowski features 22 discs of music, illuminating his wondrous sound.

The double life of Stokowski as a movie star (100 Men and a Woman; Fantasia) and a conductor gave him the kind of fame that motivated audiences to pack the concert halls, anxious to hear and to see him.

But behind the household name was an impeccable ear for the color and drama in music. His drive to find the emotional potential in virtually every note steered him toward “rewriting” portions of a number of pieces, in order to add a visceral power and dimension that he could feel. That earned him, for many, the reputation of a charlatan. The great clarinetist Gervase de Peyer, who played under Stokowski (and loved and believed in him), is heard on this set’s final disc admitting that there were times when he felt “sickened” by Stokowski’s dismissal of a composer’s wishes, making the musicians dip into an exaggerated and over-dramatic style that made little sense in context. 

But even the conductors who despised those “rewrites” wondered where that rich Stokowski sound actually came from. The legendary Carlos Kleiber once demanded to know, “How did he get that amazing sound from the orchestra? What did he do?”

Part of the answer comes from the string section. According to Gervase de Peyer, it had a lot to do with flexibility: “Free bowing! Which means that they didn’t all have to follow the leader of the section, or do what was printed, but they could do something that felt comfortable for themselves. And at that point the audience no longer saw the regular up-bow and down-bow of an organized section that there usually is. Everybody was doing it their own way, and two people wouldn’t necessarily do it the same. So there were a lot of variations going. And he did that because he wanted sound.”

That rich and complex sound came from unexpected places, too. While rehearsing Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade, a musician asked for guidance because the orchestra was not playing together. Stokowski’s knew his response was unorthodox:  “Please don’t listen to what I’m going to say … but there are places in music where it shouldn’t be together … it should be wild in a place like this. You did it wonderfully!”

Stokowski’s historic 1964 recording of Scheherazade brings an awe-inspiring sweep and adventure to this music. This was his first time working with Decca’s Phase 4, 20-channel technique. Since Stokowski was a pioneer in the development of recording and broadcasting techniques, the result is a marriage of science and emotion that will be forever a classic.

Hear Stokowski's 1964 Scheherazade:

Watch a trailer for the collection:

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