Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Bach-Stokowski: Famous Transcriptions

Published in the April 29th issue of the Elmhurst College Leader.

Album: Bach: Famous Transcriptions—Leopold Stokowski
Artist(s): Leopold Stokowski, Symphony Orchestra

For many people, Leopold Stokowski will forever remain the superbly histrionic conductor-with-the-amusing-hair who shook hands with Mickey Mouse in Fantasia and was occasionally parodied by Bugs Bunny. Given such unquestionably excellent credentials, it may seem strange to learn that Stokowski has long been out of favor in musical circles, and is commonly regarded as something of a charlatan.

While there is some truth to this view (most easily demonstrated by the English-born conductor’s entirely contrived Slavic accent), it sells the maestro very short—little now is said of his seemingly unique ability to draw a lush, burnished tone from even lesser orchestras, so distinctive and evocatively rich that it was known as the “Stokowski sound.” Worse yet, we seem to have forgotten how he introduced an entire generation of listeners to “classical” music, both through his engaging showmanship and—most blessedly—his own orchestral transcriptions of J.S. Bach.

In our era of “historically informed performance”—manifest in shrill, scratchy interpretations and usually advanced by those of comparable temperament—Stokowski’s huge orchestral transcriptions may seem somewhat out of place. But the solidity of Bach’s musical structures and idiom is such that it can hold up to a variety of approaches. Witness, for example, the Jazz Sebastian Bach albums by the Swingle Singers, or the abominable Switched on Bach synthesizer albums of the 1960’s. In light of such examples, Stokowki’s Bach seems downright purist, but this comparison proves very little—to gauge music by its historical “correctness” (as defined by scholarship’s latest capricious whimsy) entirely misses the point of the art. Ultimately, all music is meant to stimulate the mind and emotions of the listener. Bach wrote great music which does both of these things, and the emotion in his essential idiom is perhaps most directly expressed by charlatan transcriptions, in which the grand gestures of romanticism and the intense precision of baroque forms combine to make music of a most affecting and engaging type.

With notable exception to the Air on a G String—in which Stokowski’s syrupy sonorities miss the lovely innocence of the original—most every transcription and its performance is nearly ideal. The opening C minor Passacaglia and Fugue is a superb example of Stokowski’s deep, organ-like sound, in which—to paraphrase the conductor’s own words—the towering, ‘gothic architecture’ of the original is painted in broad strokes of dramatic color. Komm, süβer Tod and Mein Jesu, was vor Seelenweh both display this same “cathedral” sound, along with an attractive gleam to the strings and an overwhelming sense of deep, emotional piety.

But what’s more striking is just how natural Bach can sound in these romantic trappings. Ein’ feste Burg ist unser Gott, from Bach’s cantata after the Lutheran hymn, uses a brass choir to great effect and is of a similar character to the Act I Prelude of Wagner’s Parsifal. And the “Little” G Minor Fugue—which initially uses a dialogue of reed voices to highlight the counterpoint—builds with an almost maniacal sense of inevitability, weighty without ever lagging, gradually adding orchestration until the fugal subject violently emerges in its final, crashing conclusion. This is music in an almost Beethoven-like spirit, in which the extreme development of material creates “operatic” drama where the “protagonist” finally prevails. In the case of this transcription, the “protagonist” is a maddeningly catchy little tune, and, apparently, a heaven storming villain with a talent for theatrics.

Other cuts display similarly theatrical qualities. The Toccata and Fugue in D minor—easily the best known of Stokowki’s Bach transcriptions—is very well done, well balanced between the drive and snap of his recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra and his later, more indulgent efforts for Decca. The Bourée from English Suite No. 2 is both graceful and muscular, and Stokowski’s practice of alternating the wind and string sections is used quite nicely. It’s also worth noting that the anonymous “Symphony Orchestra” is consistently very good, sounding impressively mature for what was probably just a pick up group. But then, Stokowski could do that.

The recorded sound is very clear and full, yielding very little to more modern technology. The bonus DVD includes an atmospheric performance of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, but frankly, it’s the blatant amount of previews for EMI’s other DVDs that make the extra disc worthwhile.

So, go ahead. Get the album, annoy your “historically informed” friends, and let the grand old wizard work his magic. It’s an utterly and supremely entertaining approach to music—there’s nothing quite like it.

Rating: A

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Puccini: Tosca - Callas/Stefano/Gobbi/Sabata

To be published next week in the Elmhurst College Leader.


Album: Puccini: Tosca
Artist(s): Maria Callas, Giuseppe Di Stefano, Tito Gobbi, Victor De Sabata, Orchestra e Coro del Teatro alla Scala, Milano

Music critics have long been fond of drolly referring to Tosca as a “shabby little shocker” and then misattributing the comment to George Bernard Shaw. No small wonder, then, that this Tosca has long been hailed as the “greatest” opera recording of the last century, even before such milestones as the Solti Ring and the Giulini Don Giovanni.

But are such superlatives justified? There have been many fine recordings of Tosca in the 50 years since this one, most with better recorded sound and many of them boasting excellent casts. Are they so clearly second-rate?

The truth is, it depends on how you think of opera. If perfect vocalism is your standard, this performance will not be a first choice. As adored singer Floria Tosca, Callas’ striking-but-not-beautiful voice is somewhat paradoxical, occasionally sacrificing legato for the sake of some dramatic effect or another. Similarly, Giuseppe Di Stefano’s golden, lyric tenor voice sounds hollow and pressed on top, most noticeably in the heroic Vittoria! of Act 2. And Gobbi’s voice is typically venomous, lacking any real heft or depth. Those seeking consistently beautiful, secure singing from beginning to end would do well to acquire the excellent sets of Tebaldi or Caballé, the latter featuring a young José Carreras in particularly fine voice.

Dramatically, however, this recording is likely unequalled, which is saying a lot in a story driven by murder, torture, attempted rape, and suicide. Callas plays Tosca as ideally as one could hope for—a hotheaded, passionate woman subject to conflicting fits of suspicion, vanity, vulnerability, white-hot anger, and the most deeply felt compassion. For example, her jealous outburst in Act 1, “Lo Neghi?” (“You deny it?), is just short of shrill and is most convincingly pissy. Conversely, Vissa d’arte is beautiful and perfectly paced—a masterful depiction of suffering, in which the cry to God at the end of the aria is a fearful but reverent plea for mercy. But perhaps most striking is the moment when Tosca stabs and then hisses at the dying Scarpia, “Muori! Muori! Muori!” (Die! Die! Die!), delivered so viciously you can almost see the blood on her hands.

Cavaradossi is always less important in this opera, but Giuseppe Di Stefano makes a good case for him. What Stefano’s Cavaradossi lacks in heroism he makes up for in beauty—with Stefano, we never forget that Cavaradossi is a lovesick artist. His two arias come off with great sentimentality and his Act III duet with Tosca, O dolci mani, displays some of the most ardent and beautiful singing ever recorded.

But Callas and Stefano are more than matched in the Baron Scarpia of Tito Gobbi. His trademark snarl is used to great effect, capable of both stentorian authority and warm, honeyed manipulation. This is the definitive Scarpia—a vile, slithering, sadistic animal in an aristocrat’s coat, who makes Darth Vader look kind of like a sissy. At the end of Act 1, Gobbi’s Te Deum is the most gripping in the catalogue, illustrating both his declamatory style and the thoughtfulness of his interpretation. To extract an example: Scarpia’s high note in the last phrase, “Tosca, mi fai dimenticare Iddio!” (“Tosca you make me forget God!), usually milked for melodrama, is here underplayed. Why? Because for Scarpia, this isn’t a fervent confession of evil; it’s just a statement, and it’s hardly a turning point for a villain so foul. In truth, Gobbi’s Scarpia sounds most fervent when he’s torturing Cavaradossi, where his gleeful snarling conveys the Baron’s sadism perfectly. But, almost as important, he also dies very well, shouting furiously and choking on his own blood in a pleasingly graphic way.

Victor De Sabata leads the orchestra in a reading of blistering, Italianate intensity. Every line of the score is sharply defined without ever sacrificing weight or visceral impact. Furthermore, everything is paced to create the most excruciating tension possible—when else has the orchestra so perfectly conveyed the desperation of Tosca’s confrontation with Scarpia? And when else has the ending of Tosca felt so physically, mercilessly traumatic? In Sabata’s hands, the orchestra does a most marvelous thing: it becomes another voice, telling the story as clearly as any one of the characters.

In all, this is a superb achievement that admirably lives up to its reputation. If you’ve never experienced opera as drama, this is the place to start.

Highly recommended.

Grade: A+


NOTE: Be sure to get this 1997 Callas Edition (still in print and readily available), rather than one of the subsequent poor remasterings.