Friday, September 12, 2014

Comparing Stokowski - Acoustic and Electric

Leopold Stokowski was one of those artists, like his contemporary, Duke Ellington, who understood the
recording studio early on. Most musicians in the early days of the record business were pretty much at the mercy of the recording engineers in terns of how their recordings sounded, but Stokowski and Ellington knew what they wanted the finished products to sound like, and knew how to achieve those results. At evey stage of his recording career, Stokowski was a pioneer. He rearranged the Philadelphia Orchestra on stage and in the studio for better balance (and later for better stereo separation). When electric recording became standard, he used the mixing board as well as the baton to achieve the dynamics he wanted from his musicians.

Stokowski's early acoustic recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra represent the state of the art of the period, but he wasn't satisfied with them - and no wonder. The acoustic recording process could only
capture a fragment of the timbral and dynamic richness of an orchestra, and he was forced to use a reduced version of the orchestra, since the acoustic recording horn couldn't handle a full symphony orchestra. Stokowski really came into his own in the studio with the advent of the microphone. Recording on the stage of the Philadelphia Academy of Music with the full orchestra, his early electric recordings were revelatory at the time, and still sound impressive today.

Here are two Stokowski/Philadelphia recordings of the same piece, "March of the Caucasian Chief" by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov. The earlier version was made at Victor's Camden, New Jersey studio on April 29, 1922. The second recording was cut in Philadelphia on October 11, 1927. It's an interesting contrast, and reveals much about the differences between the acoustic and electric recording processes.

March of the Caucasian Chief, 1922

March of the Caucasian Chief, 1927

1 comment:

  1. A great study in contrasts! The 1927 recording was made in the Philadelphia Orchestra's home, the Academy of Music (which still exists, though now the orchestra performs at the Kimmel Center, one block south.) Years ago I was told that the miking for these '26-8 session was back about Row 23, to capture the orchestra sound as well as the atmosphere of the Academy. By '29 Victor began miking much closer, and lost some of the ambience. Years later, Mercury Living Presence records created an ideal balance between hall presence and clarity. Stokowski was fascinated by recorded sound technology, and constantly looked for ways to capture the orchestra's sound as realistically as possible.