DVD & Blu-ray Reviews

Stokowski Conducts = TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A Major

The great conductor in action with Swiss musicians in 1969.

Published on December 14, 2007

Stokowski Conducts = TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A Major
Stokowski Conducts = TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture; BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 7 in A Major

Performers: Orchestra della Radiotelevisione della Svizzera Italiana (Tchaikovsky)/ Orchestra Internazionale Giovanile (St. Moritz)/ Leopold Stokowski cond.
Studio: VAI DVD 4408 
Video: 4:3  Black and White
Audio: PCM Stereo; (Tchaikovsky:) Mono
Length: 53 minutes
Rating: ****

The great Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) leads two concerts in 1969, including a baton-less Romeo and Juliet with a veteran ensemble from the Swiss Radio, which is no less beautifully choreographed visually, often shooting from behind and through the harp and just left of Stokowski’s podium.  After a slow and meticulous opening in B Minor, the orchestra and Stokowski warm up to the various repetitions of the love theme, the flute and tympani fervently rising to the occasions. The broad cello and horn statements assume that familiar “Stokowski gloss” which defines his distinctive sound, the basses far to the back of the stage to provide a warm bath of strings wrapped around the doomed lovers.  Even at 87, Stokowski can move this music, his left hand at a 90-degree angle from the wrist to cue a subito or quick transition. Beautiful shot right of the podium to capture the conductor’s molding of the farewell figures in cellos and harp, Stokowski always opting for a soft ending to this Shakespearean tale of woe.

The Beethoven is a live concert, not a studio rendition, the debut of the Youth Orchestra of St. Moritz in its premier season. The jabbing sforzati in the Poco sostenuto prove quite intense up to the flute entry, as the orchestral pedal takes hold, the bassoons in fine unison. Stokowski’s right hand gives a nervous suggestion of the rhythmic change as the flute intones the dance, then a pullback shot to the tutti statement of the theme in crescendo. Quiet transitions and graduated string attacks add the requisite color to the transparently feverish progression of this sweeping music, the French horns in full throttle. At two points we see Stokowski turning the score page as a cameraman enters the shot to set up another angle. A distinct “Bravo!” can be heard from an audience member at the last chord of the Vivace.

Bass fiddle at the back of the stage plangently announce the mighty dirge of the Allegretto, what Virgil Thomson called the most tragic music Beethoven ever wrote. The camera positions itself behind the violins and pans right to Stokowski, his arms stretched out to embrace the monumentality of the emotion. Woodwinds enter for the secondary theme, the complement of bassoons and horns made up of intent youngsters whose eyes are no less rapt in Stokowski. Big caesura prior to the restatement of the theme in the winds, strings tripping underneath to the soft fugato entry.  A moderate gallop for the Presto, Stokowski more intent on transparency of sound than sheer motor propulsion. Stokowski gives a twist of the wrist to capture the turns of phrase in the strings. A huge nimbus cloud for the trio, suspended in a droning ether interrupted by a rolling tympani.  Lingering chords prior to the final trump.

Stokowski pulls out the stops for the final movement, asking the youth players to play hard, the dance emphatic as it is obsessed. The cello sound is lush at every cadence; the tutti sweeps us away back into the maelstrom, with the flute‚s holding up the storm for one lyric moment. A pullback shot gives us the whole ensemble led by a passionate old man, the music of Beethoven dancing and threatening in bountiful waves of sound, horns and strings blazing, lifting the audience to an immediate ovation.

– Gary Lemco




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