[Classical Music] Classical excess

Rebel conductor reconfigures Wagner

K.W. Jeter

There’s really no point in being moderate about bombast. If you like it, there’s no such thing as too much; why hold back when the whole point is to pile it on? It’d be like having a Wheat Thin and a diet soda for Thanksgiving dinner.

In the classical-music world, nobody symbolized excess to the same degree as Leopold Stokowski, at least not until the late Luciano Pavarotti came along. Whether toodling around town in his Buckminster Fuller-designed Dymaxion car or bedding Gloria Swanson (among others), with his shock of snow-white mad-scientist hair, Stokie was pretty much the public’s notion of wigged-out symphony orchestra conductor—even before he reached down from the podium and shook hands with Mickey Mouse in the original version of Disney’s Fantasia.

Cartoon cameos were just part of Stokowski’s ability to tweak poker-up-the-butt classical snobs. The worst hair-shirt excesses of the “original instruments” movement might be behind us, but it’s still possible to raise the hackles of purists by announcing one’s liking for Stokowski’s non-P.C. orchestral transcriptions of Bach organ pieces. (His version of the Bach Toccata and Fugue in D minor showed up in Fantasia as well.) But then, that just adds to the fun, like splicing Link Wray’s “Rumble” into the tinkly background music for your sister’s wedding reception.

Stoke-ing up Bach is one thing, but the notion of applying the same process to the music of Richard Wagner initially seems a little redundant. There’s a reason that Wagner is the preferred off-duty indulgence of metalheads around the world, and not just the ones who take a photo of der Führer under the covers when they go to bed at night. In the bleeding chunks regularly extracted from Wagner’s marathon-length operas, you get all the tectonic-shift bass lines and pedal-to-the-metal orchestral crescendos you could want. Hard to imagine what Stokowski, even at his most over-caffeinated, could add to all that.

The answer, surprisingly, is less rather than more—at least as represented on a new CD of Stokowski’s “musical syntheses” (his term) of some of Wagner’s greatest hits. And less is not necessarily a bad thing.

For a lot of people, opera—especially in its Teutonic mode—seems like a lot of good music interrupted by disagreeable people screeching at length, mercifully terminated when they stick a shiv between each other’s shoulder blades. (Actually, it’s better than that, but it admittedly can be an acquired taste.) A big feature of Stokowski’s Wagner reworkings is the simple handing off of the vocal lines to either solo instruments or sections of the orchestra. In the selections from Wagner’s erotically heated Tristan und Isolde, the tenor’s line is taken by the cellos, while the violins get the soprano’s tunes. In the other selections, such as the synthesis of the third act of Wagner’s Parsifal, the vocal lines get dropped altogether, letting out all the good and interesting stuff happening inside the orchestra to be heard.

Revealing the inner machinery of Wagner’s orchestra is pretty much the raison d’etre of Stokowski’s reworkings. And as conductor José Serebrier describes it in his liner notes for the new CD, Stokowski had a whole arsenal of “tricks” for accomplishing that, such as having the piccolos double the violin section in Die Walküre’s “Ride of the Valkyries” (an audience fave long before going toe-to-toe with The Doors in Apocalypse Now), letting them cut through the surrounding Wagnerian murk with laser-like brilliance. (Stokowski was always something of a wind-section advocate, though, frequently shifting his orchestras’ seating around to bring those too-often-buried elements to the fore.) It’s still Wagner, but just attractively tweaked a bit, as though there were some gym-buffed hard-body behind Brunnhilde’s brass chest-plates, rather than the usual clichéd 300-pound soprano.

Serebrier is one of those reliable workmen of the international conducting scene, nearly always turning in better performances than some of his more high-profile colleagues. He drives England’s Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra along at a fast clip, easing off the accelerator for the creamy sonic indulgences of the Tristan and Parsifal transcriptions. At the Naxos label’s bargain price, this is a painless way to enjoy yourself and horrify the stuck-up old guard at the same time. Isn’t that what punk rock is supposed to be all about?

Symphonic Syntheses


Richard Wagner, Leopold Stokowski

Naxos, $9.98

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