Amazon's headline for a customer comment on the CD at hand declares: "The greatest Pastoral performance ever recorded." Part of me immediately reacts with "Nonsense! A great piece of music can't have a ‘definitive' performance — it's all a matter of personal opinion and historically changing tastes." (In fairness to the customer, he does qualify his praise: "the finest performance of this masterpiece I have ever heard.") But another part thinks, "Of course it is! Who could listen to this CD and not agree?"
Leopold Stokowski had already left posterity a version of Beethoven's ‘Pastoral' Symphony on the soundtrack of Fantasia (1940), in experimental stereophonic sound, but heavily cut and perhaps shaped to accommodate the heavily whimsical scenario of the animators. The recording at hand is altogether another matter, though it too is connected to Stokowski's ongoing interest in audio technology. Recorded in March 1954 with Arturo Toscanini's NBC Symphony, one month before the Italian maestro's final concert, the work was issued that same year as one of RCA Victor's "'New Orthophonic' High Fidelity Recordings" (LM-1830), and offered the bonus of a 6-minute talk on the ‘Pastoral' by Stokowski in which actual sounds of a brook, birds and thunder were compared with Beethoven's musical renditions. To my knowledge, RCA never reissued the symphony or its supplement in any format; now the British Cala label, in association with the Leopold Stokowski Society, makes it available.
A comparison with the LP reveals a very faithful rendition of the original mono sound, with perhaps a little extra warmth and clarity — and an important pitch adjustment. I recall a commentary by WFMT-Chicago's Don Tait noting that the RCA pressing was below the proper pitch. Making an A/B comparison of my LP with the CD I found the LP distinctly flat to the CD, not so much in the first movement but by almost a half-tone in the rest, including the "Sounds of Nature" bonus. (I haven't attempted a scientific measurement, and am disappointed that the Cala booklet doesn't contain any information about the remastering.)
In any case, the sound is fine for its day, with the woodwinds miked just closely enough so that they are intensely vivid without dominating over the upper strings, and the cellos and basses having a strong presence as well. The strings overall sound reduced in number for an orchestra of this era playing Beethoven, so that this is a very chamber-like performance, though with plenty of power when needed. One wishes for a bit more dynamic range, as well as stereo, but the splendors of the performance come across clearly. The oboe, upon its first entrance in the "arrival in the countryside," is wonderfully piquant — the ideal of a shepherd's pipe. Cellos and basses suggest a bagpiper's drone at certain moments. The clarinet's arpeggios sound both bell-like and liquid (one can only reach for metaphors) in its solo at the end of the first movement, and its clarion call of gratitude for the calm after the storm is equally memorable, while the French horns' outbursts in the "Peasants' Merrymaking" scherzo are, well, brazen, just short of raucous.
But the brilliance of the individual players and sections is only part of the greatness of the performance. In the first movement, Stokowski's sense of rhythm and phrasing, of anticipation and discovery, keeps the pacing almost breathlessly exciting. During the sequence of steady crescendos in the development section the pulse remains steady but the growing intensity conveys a sense of a faster heartbeat. And in the swelling of sound near the beginning of the coda, there is an emotion beyond the "cheerful feelings" ("heitererGefühle") of the movement's title — it's more of a deep-seated joy.
Stokowski's "Scene by the Brook" will surprise many listeners because of his extremely leisurely tempo (the movement taking almost 17 minutes). Beethoven marked his score Andante molto mosso, so he certainly didn't want it to drag, and some years later gave it a metronome marking of dotted quarter = 50; Stokowski averages closer to eighth note = 100. But surely the essential thing is that the music has its own pulse or surge or flow — that it never drags. It seems ridiculous to argue (as some conductors have) that brooks flow "fast" and therefore Beethoven's music needs to be brisk. (How fast does a brook flow, anyhow, and mightn't Beethoven have imagined himself stretched out on a bank watching the branches gently sway over a trout pool?) Stokowski's brook does indeed swell into a broader stream at times, but everything is in motion, however unrushed. Each new statement of the violins' opening theme—for example, the oboe-and-flute duet and the soaring clarinet solo — rises above the orchestral mass like a climbing vine or a bird in flight, until finally the three upper winds do become birds, when Beethoven has them sing in the stylized voices of nightingale, quail and cuckoo (so labeled in the score). Stokowski's rendition of the movement makes it (as it should be) a profound experience, as one feels after a great performance of a Bruckner or Mahler adagio.
As for the rest of the symphony, surely no one has captured the "Peasants' Merrymaking" with more jubilant rhythmic spring (though it's a shame that the repeat is not taken), or conjured up a stormier storm, with really fierce attacks by the NBC forces, while the Finale moves inexorably toward the symphony's concluding expressions of radiant joy. Whether the notes are heard as "pure" musical pattern or as signposts for a visual or emotional narrative, the symphony and this performance leave the listener not exhausted but deeply fulfilled.
During the recording sessions RCA also recorded the ‘Pastoral' in alternate takes in stereo. In the notes for the Cala release Richard Gate mentions that "regrettably only a seven-minute segment has survived," available on an (out-of-print) RCA release, The Age of Living Stereo: A Tribute to John Pfeiffer (09026-68524-2). But Pfeiffer himself, in his notes for that 1996 release, merely says that Stokowski's unorthodox arrangement of the instruments, all strings on the left and winds on the right, "precluded considering it later for a stereophonic release" (but why?) and adds, "Here's some of the last movement" — more precisely, the first 6'17" of the Finale. In any case, a 14-disc RCA set (also out of print) called Stokowski Stereo Collection is listed as including the Storm movement (or a fragment?) as well as the Finale. On the Pfeiffer Tribute CD the sound is astonishingly good, markedly better than the mono release and comparable to other RCA early stereo releases. However, the reading itself seems more tentative, less intense and rhythmically incisive, at least at the beginning of the movement.
As for the "Sounds of Nature" bonus, I used to enjoy it on the LP for the sheer audacity and fun of taking actual sounds from nature — a brook ("recorded in Labrador" according to the liner notes), some bird calls, and thunder — in each case playing the sound, then Beethoven's musical equivalent, then superimposing them. In later years it was the occasion for hilarity with friends, as a great piece of unconscious camp, especially when an actual thunderclap adds a syncopated beat to a silent moment in Beethoven's score. Nowadays, it seems an excellent educational device for pointing out the difference between natural sound and musical stylization, besides providing a sample of Stokowski's uniquely accented voice, as he makes the point that Beethoven must have "composed these ‘realisms' with an amused smile."
Cala provides a further bonus of another 24 minutes of music: the first three Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies (i.e., the ones numbered 14, 2, and 6 in the original piano versions), recorded in 1955 and originally issued with the two Enesco Romanian Rhapsodies on LM-1878. (The orchestra was still listed as the NBC Symphony on the LP, though it had officially broken up in 1954, with the majority of its members forming the Symphony of the Air, sometimes also dubbed the RCA Victor Symphony Orchestra.)
The rhapsodies are performed with the swagger and panache that one would expect of Stokowski. He recorded No. 2 six times (three with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the ‘20s and ‘30s), and each version I've heard has the same telltale idiosyncratic flourishes, like really stretched-out tenuti, that mark the performance as his. The NBC version does have some felicities of its own, and the sharply etched mono sound is superior to that of the Beethoven symphony; but his spectacular stereo remake of 1960 (currently a "Living Stereo" reissue) with the RCA Symphony trumps it in sound, while the second Philadelphia Orchestra version (Victor 6652; I've heard it on YouTube) is even more outrageously virtuosic. In any case, Stokowski recorded Nos. 1 and 3 only once. No. 1 here sounds a bit glib or superficial compared to my favorite version, a soulful Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra performance once available on mono LP as ML-4132. But No. 3 has all the gypsy flair one could want, with Stokowski using a moody if not downright lugubrious viola in place of the usual clarinet in the extended duet with a cimbalom.