Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), great conductor? Probably given his ability to get an orchestra to do his bidding in every particular, including embracing often unconvincing/off-putting changes to some scores, sometimes wholesale rewrites, invariably infuriating. Still this ICA box of reissues is inviting, and although familiar to me from the BBC Legend originals, it was time to reappraise these examples that haven’t made it (yet) into my personal hall of fame.

CD1 – The Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony is exciting, from a time – July 1963, Royal Albert Hall, BBC Proms – when this work was a novelty (unlike today) and the recording vividly captures a sense of occasion, the audience hanging on every note (perhaps unfamiliar to many, although Maazel had previously conducted M2 in London), the LSO inspired. Generally well-judged by Stokowski, the Finale (via Janet Baker in ‘Urlicht’) is the relative weakness, pushed through by him to bring a cohesiveness that is not needed and underplaying such as the two huge crescendos (track 5, 8:18-8:30) that here go for nothing, then too quick for the march (from 9:08) – fatal (tell-tale brakes on from 10:56 though) – with an offstage band that is far too loud and raucous (12:30…), and then, having been pedestrian leading to it, the choral apotheosis ultimately lacks orchestral expanse (7, 6:55…) … nevertheless this is a handsome souvenir for anyone present, which certainly includes at least two friends.

CD2 couples Vaughan Williams Eight with Shostakovich Five. Good that Stokowski was championing the wonderful VW (BBCSO), a reading at its best in the first and third (slow, strings) movements; but the for-winds second is absurdly fast and loses the music’s viperous character, while the percussion-festooned (if here over-clangorous) Finale has some episodes swallowed, try 2:45-2:50. The Shostakovich (LSO) is good, the slow movement especially, but speeding (more so than even Bernstein) through the robotic “you will rejoice” coda makes it inconsequential, the unmarked rallentando, and the added gong (to the final chord), only go to reinforce the miscalculation, Stokowski undoing himself.

CD3: Symphonie fantastique and Poem of Ecstasy. Both New Philharmonia. The Scriabin is tremendous, fantastic playing, not least trumpets, ideally suited to Stokowski’s brand of alchemy, with the Berlioz not far behind in terms of fantasy and passion, although ‘March to the Scaffold’ is speedy and jaunty (!) rather than menacing at Berlioz’s requested moderate tempo, although the Witches have a ball (track 6 is a slightly late cue point), well-sounded ominous bells, albeit the ‘Dies irae’ is pulled around. Much to relish overall, although the ultimate chord isn’t one of them.

CD4, BBCSO, includes Purcell Variations and Fugue/Young Person’s Guide – lethargic for the older composer’s tune, livelier and with much character for Britten’s tour of instruments. Beethoven 7 begins sleepily (faux monumental) if catching up in the first-movement Vivace. Without repeats, it’s a short performance, and even shorter given the Scherzo is cut from ABABA to ABA (for which I have a certain sympathy… but); and although the Allegretto is on the funereal side, the Finale is spot-on for Allegro con brio (it’s not the Presto that some conductors deal out). Falla’s El amor brujo (Love, the magician) is superb in its fiery and pantomimic countenances.

CD5, New Philharmonia, includes Otto Klemperer’s delightful Merry Waltz (similar to the composer’s recording, if with a contrasting section missing); a refulgent/ecstatic VW Tallis Fantasia; an atmospheric Ravel Rapsodie espagnole (not sure the composer would have recognised the opening of the ‘Habanera’); and a Brahms Four free of ennui. The final track contains something perpetual from the LSO.

CD6 – away from London and BBC tapes, Stokowski conducts the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic in an imposing/surging account of Franck’s D-minor Symphony that broods and exalts in all the right places (Stokowski made an early recording of this work in Philadelphia, August 1927), and Prokofiev’s music for Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky (cantata version), brought off vividly and including fine solo and choral singing.

Throughout, Paul Baily has done a marvellous job with the recorded sources – some of the Legends’ transfers were very poor; however, they all sound great now. BTW, there’s no booklet. ICA Classics ICAB5180 (6 CDs).

https://icaclassics.com/releases/leopold-stokowski-great-recordings-from-the-bbc-legends-archive