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The Stokowski touch -- and the records that recall it

Two centenaries have passed this spring and summer that deserve mention. Igor Stravinsky will be discussed in a later column. Here, though, are a few words about Leopold Stokowski.

Stokowski lived to see the advent of full stereophonic sound in the recording medium. He would have been delighted with the potential of digital sound (the new, computerized method of making records), especially as it will eventually be produced in small (five-inch diameter) disks containing an hour's worth of computerized digital ''information'' which translates into dazzling stereo sound , without hiss or surface noise. More than any other maestro, Stokowski cared about electronic reproduction, and he explored with sound engineers countless ways to expand the capacity of playback to create a unique listening experience.

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Today, Herbert von Karajan is the only conductor who so conscientiously and methodically immerses himself in current trends in electronic reproduction. Stokowski was in on it from the beginning.

He began recording in the days when whole orchestras crammed into a tiny studio and blasted noise into a horn. But with the advent of electricity and the microphone, Stokowski was among the first to realize its staggering potential of recordings. In his now-classic series of recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra - made available now and then (mostly then) by RCA Records - he charmed his engineers into trusting his inner ear, and the result is a series nothing short of astonishing, in light of the fact that most of it was committed to disk before 1930.

Incidentally, the term ''electric'' comes not from the microphone that captured the sound but from the way the needle etching the master disk was moved. In the early days, sound went from the horn right to the needle. When the vacuum-tube amplifier came along, electricity could animate the needle, allowing for a startling upgrading in the amount and quality of information that needle could put on the master shellac.

Bell Telephone Laboratories made available a recording a few years back of experiments in stereophonic sound (your local public library might have a copy). Nothing startling in that, of course - until you look at the date of these experiments: 1931 and '32! The orchestra, of course, is the Philadelphia, under the direction of Stokowski.

As technology advanced, Stokowski found more ways to work his sound wizardry. With the full advent of stereo, he became more daring. In the series of recordings he made for London Records under the Phase-Four label, he reached the peak of his aural powers. His performance of Rimsky-Korsakov's ''Scheherazade'' is not only a sumptuous tonal feast - a classic recording (London 21005) in every sense of the word - but a thrilling performance as well.

Stokowski's name was so often in the society columns that one might be tempted to dismiss him as a musician. His interpretations were often quirky. He was not above altering orchestrations to suit his needs or just to ''improve'' on composers. Yet he introduced lots of new music in the course of his tenure with the Philadelphia.

It was Stokowski who conducted the US premieres of such works as Schonberg's ''Gurre-Lieder,'' Mahler's Eighth Symphony, and Berg's ''Wozzeck,'' just to mention three. His recordings of the Stravinsky ballets - ''Le Sacre du Printemps'' and the ''Firebird'' and ''Petrouchka'' suites - were issued as a premium by the Philadelphia Orchestra for its 1982 radio marathon ($55 for a year's membership in the Philadelphia Orchestra Association gets you the double album), and Stokowski brings passion to the performances and a superb feeling for sonorities.

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The New York Philharmonic also issued a two-record marathon of live performances by Stokowski and the orchestra (a limited number of sets remain for work than studio recordings. The Philharmonic plays handsomely through the four sides, and the repertoire chosen is unusual, with a sampling of his own Bach transcriptions which became so popular in the '30s. Wanda Landowska is the harpsichordist in a Handel concerto. There is an intriguing performance of Falla's ''Nights in a Garden in Spain,'' with the gifted young American piano virtuoso William Kapell (who was killed at his peak in an airplane crash). It adds to the slender repertoire of Kapell on records, and the accompaniment Stokowski gives him is as atmospheric as could be imagined.

There is an ominous Prokofiev Sixth (US premiere performance) to remind us of how Stokowski loved and championed Prokofiev, Shostakovich, and many other 20 th-century Russian composers. Virgil Thomson's suite from his opera ''The Mother of Us All'' reminds us that new American music was taken more seriously then than it is today.

Stokowski went on recording right up to the end. Of the dizzying array of Stokowski recordings once and currently available, a few I recommend include a sensitive Rachmaninoff Third Symphony (Desmar 1007G) - a haunting, autumnal account of an underrated work. Equally beguiling is a fine recording (Desmar 1011G) devoted to Vaughan Williams's ''Thomas Tallis Fantasia'' and the E-major Dvorak Serenade. Both performances are fine samples of the closing years of Stokowski's career.

And blazing on both sides is an RCA record (LSC - 3067) of the trashy but fun Khachaturian Third Symphony and a stunning ''Russian Festival Overture'' (Rimsky-Korsakov). There is a Tchaikovsky Fourth (Vanguard 10095), with the American Symphony he founded and headed for 10 years, that is a document of how wayward and willful Stokowski could be, and perversely fascinating for that reason. And his interpretation of the legendary Charles Ives Fourth Symphony (Columpzxhs:4 3;;+Kc gain with the American Symphony, may never be bettered, let alone equaled.

There is so much more. I never even touched on ''Fantasia.'' The sound track for this famous Disney-Stokowski collaboration only now is being scuttled for a new digital recording that will never be able to capture the mood, tension, and power of those Stokowski originals. Can there be any finer testament to a true original?

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