TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No. 5.1 AVSHALOMOV The Taking of T’ung Kuan.1 SMETANA Má Vlast: Tábor2 • Leopold Stokowski, cond;1 Detroit SO;1 Rafael Kubelík, cond;2 MercuryRead more O2 • MUSIC & ARTS 1190 (65:06) Live, Detroit 11/20/521
Here is a truly fascinating CD, part of which comes to us through a quirk of fate. When Mercury taped Rafael Kubelík’s complete Má Vlast in December 1952, audio pioneer Bert Whyte (who later produced some spectacular Everest recordings) was given permission to attend the sessions and try some experiments with stereo taping. My understanding is that he wasn’t supposed to tape complete pieces but here, nevertheless, is a complete Tábor from those very sessions. Along with the Tchaikovsky and Avshalomov recordings with which it shares the CD, the Kubelík tape came into the possession of Leopold Stokowski’s assistant Jack Baumgarten and, through him, the Leopold Stokowski Society of Great Britain. Why? Because, for some reason, the tape was labeled “Stokowski.” As the first conductor to be recorded stereophonically (by Bell Labs in the early 1930s and later, in Disney’s “Fantasia,” which actually had nine channels but most theaters were not equipped to play it), Stokowski, who was always interested in improvements in recorded sound, consented to have Bert Whyte make a two-channel tape of a 1952 concert with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra. The first half of the program had music by Bach-Stokowski, Schubert, and Wagner. It is the second half that shares this CD with the Kubelík recording.
Jacob Avshalomov may be better known to collectors as the longtime (more than 40 years) conductor of the Portland Youth Philharmonic—two of their CDs were issued by CRI. As a composer, he is also represented by several releases on the Albany label. The Taking of T’ung Kuan refers to the fall of T’ung Kuan pass in 755 A. D., when barbarians fought the army of the emperor Hsuan Tsung. Avshalomov, denying that his brief piece is a tone poem, prefers the term “musical imagery” for his music, which is intended to evoke the atmosphere leading up to the battle. Although the music alludes to Chinese-like themes, it is basically “Western,” not “Eastern” in sound. It is also quite a terrific showpiece for orchestra, and I wish someone would do a modern recording, though Bert Whyte’s tape is certainly an impressive specimen of what could be done in 1952. The brilliantly orchestrated music has such rhythmic energy that I find it hard to sit still when I hear it. Avshalomov, although he was obviously pleased to hear his music with a first-class maestro leading a first-class orchestra, thought that Stokowski took some of the piece too slowly.
What Tchaikovsky would have thought about the performance of his Fifth Symphony, I can’t imagine. I hope he wasn’t too much of a literalist, for this is anything but a connect-the-dots rendition. In fact, it’s the most-free-wheeling, no-holds-barred performance of the piece I’ve ever experienced. You might notice a few gestures in this direction on his live American Symphony Orchestra version from 1967 (also issued by Music & Arts)—a good one, to be sure, but rather a domesticated cousin of this Detroit performance. Obviously, there was a rehearsal, but there are times when it sounds as if Stokowski is making it up as he goes along—and the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, as if holding a tiger by the tail, refuses to be shaken off. It’s a bit bumpy at times and the conductor engages in much gear-shifting, but I found the ride exhilarating. Not the tidiest performance you’ll ever hear—and talk about elastic tempos! The more sober or easily offended among us will dismiss it as, perhaps, fussy and self-indulgent or even some sort of Satanic outrage. Let’s just say, it shouldn’t be your only Tchaikovsky Fifth, but I envy the folks who were present at Masonic Hall on November 20, 1952. I wonder if I would have been too limp to drive myself home after the concert.
Oh, yes, there is ample separation of channels, even though Stokowski minimizes it, to some extent, by his eccentric version of orchestra seating, with the winds and brass on the right and all the higher strings on the left, with cellos in the middle and basses lining the rear wall. There is a gritty quality to the sonority that may simply represent what the orchestra sounded like in a (presumably) packed Masonic Hall. There is what seems like a snipped-off dropout just before the coda of the finale. The other two little cuts (one bar of the coda’s introduction and another bar just before the end) are standard Stokowskian procedure in this piece. They can be heard in other Stokowski performances.
Rafael Kubelík recorded Smetana’s Má Vlast (“My Country”) four times (I don’t know if the Bavarian Radio Orchestra recording was authorized). The 1952 Chicago sessions were his first attempt. His other three were stereophonic and featured the Vienna Philharmonic, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the Czech Philharmonic. The Vienna recordings struck me as a dud when I heard them but I admire his Boston recording quite a bit and would recommend it to anyone who isn’t determined to own more than one. I’ve never heard the final, Czech Philharmonic performances. The Chicago set was deservedly admired in its day for its vivid, powerful monaural sound; and the performances are quite terrific and similar in approach to his Boston version. Mercury’s production team had a horror of gain-riding, wanting listeners to experience something at least resembling the dynamic range of an actual performance, and they succeeded—but at the cost of some distortion in the loudest passages. When I had the LPs, I gladly put up with that flaw because of the recording’s other virtues and the splendid performances, while cursing my inadequate cartridges that just couldn’t handle the powerful climaxes. Then I heard some of the CD reissues and discovered that the distortion was still there, so I hereby apologize, after the fact, to Audio Technica, B & O, Empire, ESL, Fairchild, Grado, Shure, and Stanton (I hadn’t realized I had owned so many until I wrote this; I’m now down to a Shure V-15 V, whose stylus, fortunately, doesn’t get much wear). Bert Whyte’s stereo experiment seems to place the mikes further from the orchestra than the single mike perched several feet above the conductor that Mercury preferred. The result, at least to my ears, resembles the sound I used to hear from the Gallery, way up above the stage at Orchestra Hall (I don’t actually believe that Whyte was attempting this). The sound is a shade tubby and less directional than we are accustomed to nowadays, but one does get the sense of an orchestra spread across the stage in an empty hall and there is no distortion in the loud passages. I find even the thought of someone making a stereo tape at that time exciting and, while Whyte failed to capture the level of detail that Mercury’s team did, his experiment is very listenable. The performance seems identical to the Mercury issue, which suggests that Kubelík did Tábor in one take. If he didn’t, Mercury’s tape editing was very discreet and skillful. No less than two little birdies have told me that Whyte was allowed to continue his experiments at other Mercury sessions, in both 1952 and 1953, but many of the results may be fragmentary and it took a lucky fluke to get this one out there. Whether we will ever hear any of the other experiments is quite another question.
The annotations, which are a model for a historic release such as this one, are by the producer Mark Obert-Thorn and Stokowski expert Edward Johnson, along with a brief, interesting recollection of the occasion by Mr. Avshalomov.
The Taking of T'ung Kuanby Jacob Avshalomov Conductor:
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century Written: 1943/1947; USA Date of Recording: 11/20/1952 Length: 7 Minutes 53 Secs.
Symphony no 5 in E minor, Op. 64by Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky Conductor:
Detroit Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic Written: 1888; Russia Date of Recording: 11/20/1952 Length: 43 Minutes 52 Secs.
Má vlast: no 5, Tábor, T 120by Bedrich Smetana Conductor:
Period: Romantic Written: 1872-1879; Czech Republic Date of Recording: 12/06/1952 Length: 13 Minutes 20 Secs.