Reviews

GHCD 2334 – Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) – All Tchaikovsky – 1942/1943

NBC Symphony Orchestera, Leopold Stokowski – conducto

To the CD in our Shop


Fanfare Magazin September /  Oktober 2009

Here’s a logical but also odd pairing: the principal work on the CD is a symphony that was a regular part of Stokowski’s repertoire, and of which he made four official recordings (assuming the one with some Outfit called the “International Youth Festival Orchestra” is official), supplemented by several unofficial ones recorded at concerts; filling out the CD, if we can believe the annotator, are his only performances of the other two Tchaikovsky pieces, the tone poems The Storm and The Tempest. Although it comes with the deceptively late opus number 76, The Storm is a student work, composed in 1864. It was inspired by Alexander Ostrovsky’s play of the Same name, which deals with a merchant family in some Obsture town along the Volga River. The heroine, Katerina, bullied by her mother-in-law, unhappily married, and consumed with guilt about a sexual affair, eventually drowns herself. Janäcek used the play as the Basis for his Opera, Katya Kabanova. It’s minor Tchaikovsky, but receives an occasional hearing if only because of who wrote it. Stokowski zips through it very quickly, and the NBC Symphony Orchestra does well merely to keep up with him. He dispatches The Tempest (based on the play by you-know-whom) rather briskly, too, also making a substantial cut about 10 minutes into the performance. The annotator acknowledges this, describing it as “traditional,” but none of the other recordings I checked (Abbado, Dorati, Inbal, Pletnev, Samosud) observes it. At the time of the cut, he was already running way ahead of Dorati, the next fastest one, finishing at 14:01 to Dorati’s 19:22. The Best of the Tempest recordings I auditioned was Abbado’s, but Tchaikovsky’s Second Symphony comes along with it, and you may not be looking for a recording of that. At least the Dorati and Inbal come with other Tchaikovsky tone poems; Pletnev’s is a filier for his Manfred Symphony.

According to the annotator, the 1942 performance of the Fifth Symphony was the firnt time the NBC orchestra had played the piece. This is plausible, for Toscanini had no use for it and guest conductors may have not programmed it either. What a way for the orchestra to be introduced to the Symphony! This is a performance that rivals his live Detroit one (Fanfare 30:5) for sheer all-stops­out eccentricity. There really was no one like him, and the world of music would have been a duller place without him. It’s fun (at least for me) to hear a piece of Standard repertoire and wonder what’s going to happen next, but this should not be anyone’s only recording of the piece. For all its wacky charms, it should be approached with caution. Even back in 1942, he was making the samre weird, inexplicable excisions in the finale’s coda that can be heard on his subsequent Fifths. The broadcast sound is quite respectable if, as you might suspect, lacking in high frequencies and a bit constricted. You can do better with any of these pieces, but his only performances of the two tone poems impart a certain interest to the CD.
James Miller


BBC Music magazine march 2009

Composer and conductor were made for each other, though this live Fifth Symphony, with recessed Sound, can’t replace Stokowski’s Studio recordings. The other pieces are his only versions, and Show complete musical and emotional involvement

PERFORMANCE

RECORDING

Martin Coaon

The Tempest

This notable Stokowski issue Supplements a radio concert of 29 November 1942 with a third Tchaikovsky work, The Tempest, broadcast 7 March 1943. The two tone poems are rarities; apparently Stokowski performed them only on these occasions. They Set the tone for a sturm­und-drang rendering of the Fifth Symphony. The Storm is Tchaikovsky juvenilia and not compelling; The Tempest is better known. Stokowski layers its soundscape in an attractive, Wagnerian sort of way, adding the requisite rumble from below. The Symphony is the grand item-selected, one may suppose, to capture the spirit of the times in the dark days of the war. The first movement is absolutely furious; II and III, if more conventional, make few concessions to sentimentality. The final movement begins more broadly, accelerates, and then Cracks the whip in a glorious finale. It is amusing to hear Toscanini’s orchestra struggling to keep up when Stokowski applies the spurs. If this hard-edged ensemble was less than ideal for his way of making music, on this Occasion he plays to its strengths; even the ugly NBC sonics seem appropriate to the Overall effect. The producers have wisely included the announcer’s commentary comparing Tchaikovsky to Shostakovich, implicitly suggesting the significance of the Russian context for this very dramatic war-time concert.
RADCLIFFE

Sunday April 26th 2009 Stokowski Fans in Y Music

Then there were six.  If the 5th by Tchaikovsky wasn’t Stokowski’s favourite I would be surprised.  In the collection I have this makes the sixth live performance.  In addition to this newcomer is the NDR Symphony (1951) the Radio-Sinfonieorchester Stuttgart (1953) the experimental stereo Detroit Symphony recording (1952, Music and Arts 1190) the American Symphony Orchestra (1967, Music & Arts 944) and my personal favourite the 1973 International Festival Orchestra (Cameo Classics).  Phew!

So, does this NBCSO performance offer anything new or different?  I can say that the sound of this orchestra has never been better.  Guild has done a wonderful job of making the studio 8-H acoustics reverberant and full.  Then there’s the fact that the NBCSO was arguably the finest in the US at that time, with soloists like Bob Bloom on oboe to mention but one.  It is certainly dramatic and the playing is virtuosic, probably second best of those I know.

The main attraction here is undoubtedly the additional pieces.  As pointed out in the notes, this is the only time that Stokowski performed them.   I’d not heard either piece before.  The Storm starts out peacefully but soon acquires the recognizable Tchaikovsky sound familiar in works like Francesca da Rimini. The Tempest certainly sounds like one in Stokowski’s hands and the orchestra is once again precise and dramatic.

In short, certainly a musthave for Stokowski aficionados.
Robert Stumpf II


MusicWeb International Friday April 03 2009

Admirers of Stokowski’s Tchaikovsky 5 will know that he left behind quite a few examples of his way with it. Real collectors will probably be able to recite the rosary of recordings – the fabled acoustic second movement (only) from 1923 in Philadelphia, followed by the complete symphony a decade later. Then there were the cinematic forays – One Hundred Men and A Girl which gave us the fourth movement and the 1947 film Carnegie Hall which offered an abridgement of the slow movement. I’ve always been intrigued by the unpublished 1946 Hollywood Bowl – maybe it will appear – as well as the unpublished 1949 New York Philharmonic traversal. In the 50s there were the NDR, on CD a few times now, the Detroit from the same year, a Victor set with ‘his’ Symphony Orchestra, the 1955 SDR. In England he recorded it with the New Philharmonia in 1966, then the following year with the American Symphony. Theo van der Burg has put the International Youth Festival performance from 1973 on CD. So he had a certain, if inconsistent, track record, some being truncations. But Stokowski playing Tchaikovsky is never going to be a problem, only a blessing. The only question is; how many blessings do you need in your collection?

Recorded in Studio 8H this NBC performance is full of Stokowski’s never exaggerated Slavonic expressivity. There is freedom but it’s couched within architectural parameters, and there is assuredly a confluence of legato lyricism and dramatic, theatrical tension. The NBC’s well-established section principals are on hand to support Stokowski, who took the Slavonic end of the repertoire whilst Toscanini reserved things such as Brahms for himself. The horn, clarinet and bassoon are eloquent in the slow movement. In the finale there is renewed drama and a surge-wave of volatile dynamism.

It’s not in fact the symphony that illustrates the chiaroscuro element of the conductor’s way with Tchaikovsky so much as the 1943 recording of the Tempest. This was performed a year later than the symphony. The skirling strings and taut horns, the strong bass line, are all grist to Stoky’s mill but even so little prepares one for the stunning appearance (around 7:00) of the most succulent and curvaceous legato imaginable, all the while lapped and flickered by gorgeously wicked portamenti. Seldom did Stokowski flirt with kitsch phrasing more than here and it’s a question of taste as to how far one follows him. For Dionysians though this is the alpha and omega of such things; the musical equivalent of a vat of Belgian chocolate. Me – well, I love chocolate.

At the same concert that produced the symphony Stokowski also unveiled The Storm a relatively youthful effort that reveals its structural looseness rather too often. Stokowski returned neither to this, nor perhaps surprisingly to The Tempest so it is hugely valuable to have them here coupled with the performance of the symphony. There is also an interesting sideline in the shape of Samuel Chotzinoff’s radio introduction in which he runs some dubious thoughts regarding Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich up the flagpole of popular opinion.

Since I make no great secret of my admiration of Stokowski, nor of such important restorations as this, I can only add that the sound, given the early 1940s Studio 8H provenance, is perfectly serviceable.
Jonathan Woolf


Audiophile Audition Thursday December 25, 2008

Live recordings from the 1942-1943 NBC Symphony seasons, featuring the inimitable Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) in the music of his favorite Tchaikovsky, of whom he once wrote: “After I die, should I get to Heaven, I must thank Mr. Tchaikovsky for having given us so many wonderful melodies.” The introductory remarks from the first broadcast (29 November 1942) are provided by Samuel Chotzinoff, noted Toscanini biographer; and at the time, apologist for the sympathy Americans felt for the Soviets, given the heated atmosphere of WW II. Chotzinoff spends some moments musing on whether the recent Shostakovich Seventh Symphony merits artistic comparison with the most popular works of the archetypal Russian composer, Tchaikovsky.

The music to Ostrovsky’s The Storm (1864) is a relatively early Tchaikovsky opus, never commercially recorded by Stokowski. Despite a rather undistinguished ten minutes of music, Stokowski bestows his usual, colorful energies upon it. The forever “fateful” Fifth Symphony (1888) enjoys Stokowski’s expansive treatment, lingering over the initial motifs, drawing somber power from the underlying basses and celli. The martial waltz-tune accepts some “swooping” effects from Stokowski, then unleashes a fury of brass and string declamations of the theme to the first period. Sentimental, yes, but rendered with uncompromising conviction, easily comparable to the best of Koussevitzky. String portamenti notwithstanding, the emotional ferocity of the first movement remains taut, and this despite pulls and tugs at the music’s internal pulse. The transition to the recap even indulges in several yawning wails from the NBC brass before the sliding march theme recurs. “The swelling act of the imperial theme,” a Macbeth motif, applies well to the rhetoric Stokowski commands in this thrilling movement, lovingly, impetuously–the coda proves quite wild–and monumentally rendered.

As per expectation, Stokowski lavishes all sorts of tendresses on the famous Andante cantabile, molding the arched phrases with restrained, though febrile, attention. French horn segues to clarinet and oboe, the wind trio’s rising even as the four-note fate motif sounds below. The full string announcement becomes the Romeo and Juliet love scene, tragic glory. The drama plays out in heated, throbbing terms, building to another series of brass-studded and whirling-string climaxes. The last, full statement of the theme, tympani and brass triumphant, must have had hankies and libidos in abundance. The last pages sigh in the manner of Francesca da Rimini, Tchaikovsky’s answer to Tristan. A studied Valse, weepy and litled, ensues. Stokowski milks the individual wind parts against the string pizzicati to produce a musical kin to Sleeping Beauty. The last movement opens with heroic presentiments, the fate motif churning and grumbling with dire portents. For such a smooth, glossy performance, we find it hard to fathom that the NBC had been quite unfamiliar with the score, since Toscanini loathed it. But once the action starts, Stokowski and the NBC work up an impressive momentum, again on the level of Koussevitzky’s thunders in Boston. Great triplets from the NBC brass! The first period ends in a convulsive rush, a descent into the maelstrom. Then, once more into the breach. The stretti become hysterical, diffused sparks, Apocalypse, the end of the world. Without any pregnant pause, the heroic march breaks out, a paean to the life force in the face of (political) annihilation. The coda gives Beethoven’s Fifth a run for its money, all right! Just ask the screaming audience.

We conclude with Tchaikovsky’s overtly Wagnerian treatment of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1873) from the concert 7 March 1943. The sonorities splice aspects of Forest Murmurs to the directives of The Mighty Five for Russian soul. Several of the virtuosic woodwind effects point to the later Manfred Symphony. The tympani part alone warrants the price of admission. The love theme, too, looks forward, to Eugen Onegin. Again, this piece is new to the Stokowski discography, and so worthy of immediate consumption. O Brave New World, that had such musicians in it! Gary Lemco