New Philharmonia, Czech Philharmonic, London Symphony Orchestras / Leopold Stokowski
(Decca "Phase Four" 443 898-2)
Sibelius: Finlandia; Valse triste; The Swan of Tuonela; Festivo; Karelia Suite; Tapiola
Berlin Philharmonic / Hans Rosbaud
(Deutsche Grammophon "Originals" 447 453-2)
Stokowski turns Mussorgsky's Pictures into an aural cartoon, flooding each frame with prime colours and making maximum capital of Decca's multi-channel "Phase 4" recording technique. The Promenade "motto" parades sumptuous strings, though its later manifestations favour a shivering tremolando: perhaps someone had switched off the exhibition's heating system! The gnome leers and snarls, the ox-cart whizzes past in a trice and the "unhatched chickens" cavort on clumsy feet. Samuel Goldenberg's bellicose admonitions cause Schmuyle to squirm (his gibbering entreaties are imaginatively conveyed via trumpet and flutes) while Baba-Yaga's ride suggests bats, branches and the staring moon: there are no punctuating timpani and Stokowski's catch-me-if-you-can accelerandi keep the action in top gear. The "Market Place at Limoges" is omitted (it's not part of this "symphonic transcription") and although the "Great Gate" is notably flexible, even Phase 4 couldn't quite focus its immense size.
La Poeme de l'extase (Czech Phil) features pert woodwinds (clarinets flit across the sound-stage like migrating birds) and there's a powerful organ pedal for the final peroration, but the Firebird suite (LSO) is simplistically over-stated: Kastchei's "Infernal Dance" sports elephantine brass and the Hollywood-style "Lullaby" is hardly what Stravinsky had in mind. It's an entertaining programme, but Stokowski's pre-war Philadelphia recordings of the same repertoire (Dutton Labs and Biddulph) tell an even more dramatic story, albeit with a smidgen of scratch.
When these recordings were made, Sibelius was already part of recent musical history. OK, Beecham, Koussevitzky and Toscanini had long protested his cause (Karajan and Anthony Collins, too), but Hans Rosbaud represented the active avant-garde and therefore a rather special brand of approval.
Tapiola is the main prize - an ardent, intelligently moulded reading, uncompromising in its power (sample the "great wind" climax) and consistently transparent. Similar care over texture informs a superb Valse triste, where fastidious phrasing and expert timing suggest the subtlest of romantic narratives.
Festivo is relatively easy-going, Karelia's popular "Alla marcia" - taken (for once) at an appropriate march tempo - is played with a warming legato and The Swan of Tuonela is more outwardly expressive than bleakly atmospheric (Toscanini is slower than Rosbaud by around two minutes).
Finlandia, on the other hand, has tremendous vitality, but my favourite track of all is Karelia's "Ballade" where, just prior to the central hymn- tune (at, say, 2'59''), Rosbaud sustains an artfully calculated diminuendo.
A keen observer of both letter and spirit, Hans Rosbaud invariably struck the right note at the right time. His perception was intuitive and let's hope that DG now follows up with his Haydn symphonies, Philips with his Stravinsky Petrushka and Wergo with further volumes in their Rosbaud Edition.Reuse content