Reviews

GHCD 2361 – Stokowski – NBC Pops, 1942-1944

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Leopold Stokowski – conductor

To the CD in our Shop


Fanfare Magazine May / June 2011

In 1941, Leopold Stokowski replaced Arturo Toscanini as conductor of the NBC Symphony Orchestra. This came about because of the Tatter’s discovery that he had been misled into believing that the orchestra was exclusively his when he was actually sharing it with staff conductors. Yielding to NBC’s pleas, Toscanini returned and shared the following two seasons with Stokowski, then took over when Stokowski was not invited back, partly because of Toscanini’s personal dislike and NBC’s dislike for his programming (too much “modern” stuff). Although Stokowski supposedly got NBC to modify studio 8H to improve its acoustics, what I hear on these selections seems to be the old familiar dead sound that I’m used to. As you can see, while the contents of this CD may qualify as light music or, if you insist, “pops” music, it isn’t what one would call standard pops material.
A charter member of the NBC Symphony, Carlton Cooley shared the first viola chair with William Primrose before eventually leading the section until the orchestra’s demise, after which he ended up occupying the same position in the Philadelphia Orchestra. Not surprisingly, his Promenade, a highly chromatic piece before it settles down, makes me curious about the entire piece, a curiosity that will, I suspect, never be satisfied. He did get to record his Air and Dance with Ormandy and the orchestra.
Paul Lavalle was a clarinetist in the NBC Symphony Orchestra and played in this performance of his Symphonic Rhumba. He’s the same Paul Lavalle who led the Band of America on the air for several years. I wonder if the piece was originally written for band. In any event, it’s what it claims to be-nothing less, nothing more.
M. Camargo Guarnieri’s older brothers were named Belline, Rossine, and Verdi. The initial “M” in his name standards for “Mozart.” Wishing to avoid unwelcome comparisons, he preferred to use his middle name. He was a prolific composer but most people outside of Brazil will know him only by the Dansa brasileira, a lively, tuneful miniature that some other conductors have recorded. Of the other two pieces, Flôr de Tremembe occasionally suggests his countryman Villa-Lobos, and Dansa selvagem, with its churning rhythms, evokes the jungle. All three are flavored by spicy dissonance. Also in the vein of jungle evocations is Oscar Lorenzo Fernández’s Batuque, which is probably his calling card outside of his native Brazil.
Roy Harris’s Folk Rhythms of Today (if Stokowski did the whole piece) moves along in mostly march time. During the 1930s, around the time that Copland was embracing his version of “socialist realism,” Harris entered an extended self-consciously “national” period in which he evoked patriotic or folksy American themes. Although he was productive enough to have written 18 symphonies, in his own country he is in danger of becoming a one-work composer, known only for the third of them.
Unlike the other selections on this collection, the performance of Robert Kelly’s Sunset Reflections from his Adirondack Suite is apparently taken from a studio recording that was never issued until the CD era. It was recorded not in studio 8H, but at a venue called the “Cosmopolitan Opera House,” a place unfamiliar to me. Stokowski describe the piece as “lyrical and poetic, with quick vibrating rhythm like the pulsations of light.” It reminds me of the kind of pretty, functional music one might hear supporting a documentary on “the scenic Adirondacks,” which doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t be interested in hearing the larger work it’s taken from.
The dozen pieces of Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil were originally written for piano solo, then orchestrated by the composer. Most of them are named after neighborhoods in Rio de Janeiro, as are the four chosen by Stokowski. They are mostly polytonal, “wrong note” modernism set to a Latin beat-spicy and somewhat seductive, though they lack the splashy colors that someone like Villa-Lobos might have brought to them.
The Vaughan Williams Fantasia on Christmas Carols presents his take on some (mostly) familiar carols. Originally written to include a chorus, it was apparently arranged as a straight orchestra piece by the composer and this may have been its first performance. I actually couldn’t find this arrangement in his list of works but it sounds authentic and appealing enough to be a seasonal warhorse.
Efrem Zimbalist, once a celebrated violinist from the school that included Elman, Heifetz, Milstein, and Shumsky, became better-known in some circles as the father of a TV star of the same name. He taught at the Curtis Institute but found time to compose. I had never heard his American Rhapsody (“his best-known orchestral work,” according to the profuse annotations that accompany the CD), which was first heard in 1936 and then revised shortly before Stokowski’s 1944 broadcast performance. It makes generous use of O Susannah! and Turkey in the Straw.
Morton Gould wrote a lot of clever pieces that would fit comfortably in this collection. Stokowski’s performance of the third movement (“Guaracha”) of the Latin-American Symphonette made me wish that he had recorded the whole thing, while I was left puzzled by the venue of the broadcast being noted as “Radio City” when everything but the Kelly selection is identified as originating in good old studio 8H.
As I have suggested, Guild has provided annotations worthy of the project and, for what they are, the transfers are fine.
James Miller

International Record Review October 2010

There’s more Americana on a disc of Stokowski NBC SO broadcasts from the 1940s. Carlton Cooley was famous as Toscanini’s principal viola in the NBC orchestra but he also composed agreeable light orchestral pieces. The `Promenade’ from Eastbourne Sketches is an undemanding opener to this disc. Another member of the NBC SO, clarinettist Paul Lavalle, wrote his Symphonic Rhumba in 1939 – a Cuban-inspired extravaganza. Next come two gifted Brazilian composers: Guarnieri’s Three Brazilian Dances are followed by a stunning account of Fernández’s Batuque.
Roy Harris wrote Folk Rhythms of Today during the war – an easygoing piece for strings and percussion. A movement (`Sunset Reflections’) from the Adirondack Suite by Robert Kelly is followed by four of Milhaud’s Saudades do Brasil; Efrem Zimbalist’s American Rhapsody seems tame by comparison. The disc ends with the `Guaracha’ from Morton Gould’s Latin-American Symphonette. The Fantasia on Christmas Carols by Vaughan Williams comes in a curious version for orchestra alone – but hearing Stokowski conducting Vaughan Williams’s music is always a treat. As well as a being a vastly entertaining programme, the sound of this Guild reissue is far superior to earlier transfers of these
broadcasts

MusicWeb International Monday 06.09 2010

There’s much to enjoy
Guild has a very interesting series of re–issues of light music as a continuing project – and most fascinating it is. This disk makes a delightful complement, and companion, to that series, straddling both Guild’s Historical and Light Music series. The selection is unashamedly enjoyable, with Stokowski letting his hair down, and indulging in pleasure and, at times, downright fun. Almost every track is a winner and even though most will be unknown they almost all entertain in the best way – through delightful personality and sheer entertaining qualities.
Cooley’s Promenade starts in a most uncompromising manner, before settling down into a nice jaunty string piece. It’s the kind of thing one might expect from someone like Trevor Duncan. The Symphonic Rhumba is a real symphonic work, with a full working out of the material, and a sprightly step throughout. It’s a classier version of the kind of dance music found in 1930s and 1940s film musicals, and has a nice sting in the tail.
Guarnieri was given the first name Mozart – he had brothers named Rossine, a Portuguese misspelling of Rossini, and Verdi – but thinking it pretentious took his mother’s maiden name as his first name. These three dances are great fun – the first is a kind of relentless chatter, the second a sort of fantasia on a dance and the last, whose title translates as Savage Dance, although it dispalys gestures obviously derived from early Stravinsky, is about as savage as a Cozido, but it’s equally as tasty! Batuque will be familiar to many from Bernstein’s 1960s recording. It’s another dance, but one which transcends its origins – which are too involved to be repeated here – and makes for a fine showpiece.
Then comes a real rarity. Roy Harris’s Folk Rhythms of Today. Although the music obviously has a serious intent, it fits perfectly into this programme because of its rhythmic impulse and generally sunny demeanour, despite relying, rather too heavily, on reminiscences of the Third Symphony. The Sunset Reflections described in Robert Kelly’s piece are a strange lot, sometimes dark and dour, at others Hollywood bright. I am not convinced by it as a composition but, perhaps, when heard within the Adirondack Suite it makes more sense. Darius Milhaud told his pupil, Burt Bacharach, “Don’t be afraid of writing something people can remember and whistle. Don’t ever feel discomfited by a melody”. Milhaud was never discomfited by a melody and his suite Saudades do Brasil is brim full of them, and good dance rhythms as well.
Then comes a most intriguing morsel. Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols is a delightful concoction, bringing together several Carols and creating a quodlibet of some distinction. However, this orchestral edition is an oddity, to say the least. The booklet notes tell us that the orchestral version is rarely heard, I’ll say it is, and this may have been its première. It’s a truncated variant of the well known choral work, and the performance sounds to be under-rehearsed with the playing lacklustre. As an orchestral piece it’s a bit of a damp squib and, perhaps, best left as little known.
Efrem Zimbalist was one of the great Russian violinists of the last century. He wrote a few pieces including a Violin Sonata, a Violin Concerto and a tone poem Daphnis and Chloe amongst other pieces. This American Rhapsody is his best known work, and makes great play on Stephen Foster’s Oh! Susanna and the folksong Turkey in the Straw. At 10 minutes it overstays its welcome but nevertheless it’s cheerful and pleasant. It is interesting to note that his son Efrem Zimbalist Jr, as well as being a well known actor, also wrote a Violin Sonata. To end, the third movement from Morton Gould’s marvellous Latin–American Symphonette – oh, for a complete recording of this piece by Stokowski, he did it so well – another dance, a Guaracha, and its cheeky insouciance is perfectly caught in this performance.
Like Beecham, Stokowski had the ability to turn base metal into gold, and now there’s no base metal here, but plenty of gold. Well, perhaps some of the works are gold-plated. This is a most enjoyable, and fascinating, collection and shows the lighter side of the great man. The sound is good, dated, of course, and obviously from transcription discs which have been used, but they have been well restored and once the ear adjusts there’s much to enjoy. The notes, by Bob Matthew-Walker are excellent.
Bob Briggs

Gramophone October 2010

Guild of masters and a master pianist

Stokowski revels in the light while Richter explores the dark

Speaking of the classics meeting jazz, both genres turn up, in varying degrees, on a fascinating Guild CD of wartime live recordings by the NBC Symphony under Leopold Stokowski. For my taste the Latin dance element is rather too prominent: aside from Fernández’s popular Batuque (thrillingly performed), there’s a trio of dances by Carmargo Guarnieri, four  of Darius Millhaud’s Saudades do Brasil and the “Guaracha” from Morton Gould’s catchy Latin-American Symphonette, all enjoyable but fairly similar to each other. More interesting bay far is Stoki’s luscious treatment of Vaughan Williams’s Fantasia on Christmas Carols which won’t please readers who thought that American broadcast recordings of the Tallis Fantasia under Toscanini, Reiner and Monteux sported too much in the way of expressive portamento. I loved it myself, and the unexpectedly Scriabinesque American Rhapsody by Efrem Zimbalist, both works providing Stokowski with precisely the sort of colour-drenched material that most suited him. I also enjoyed Robert Kelly’s “Sunset Reflections” an a Coatesian “Promenade” from the Eastbourne Suite by the NBC lead viola player Carlton Cooley.

Also from Guild Comes what I can only describe as the “dream” historic Reger coupling, namely 1950s Deutsche Grammophon Berlin Philharmonic recording of the Hiller Variations under Paul van Kempen, which have been issued on CD before, certainly not internationally, and Karl Böhm’s Mozart Variations, which have at least twice. Both works are masterpieces, with van Kempen offering the more tapered, refined performance, fabulously well played, dramatic, too, whereas the more stately Böhm reading doesn’t quite displace “one he did earlier” in Dresden for German EMI.

Audiophile Audition Friday June 11, 2010

The ever-versatile colorist Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) here finds representation “in the lighter vein” (to paraphrase one of his RCA Victor LPs), 1941-1944, as he leads the NBC Symphony in ethnic and dance pieces popular to audiences of wartime America. The range of composers themselves proves rather eclectic, opening with a work by NBC violist Carlton Cooley (1898-1981), his recollection the southern coast of England, his Promenade (24 March 1942), which calls for some sea-breeze aeronautics and dervish motives from the NBC strings over plucked chords in the basses. Paul Lavalle (aka Joseph Usifer) served as a clarinetist with the NBC Symphony; his Cuban-style Symphonic Rhumba (1939) receives its world premier (6 December 1942) and the grand treatment–including exotic bird calls and glissandi a la Xavier Cugat–in this inscription.
Stokowski leads the Three Brazilian Dances (1941) of Camargo Guarneri (9 January 1944), the composer’s popular calling-card, the colors a mixture of Brazilian rhythms blended with orchestration Guarnieri absorbed from French impressionist Charles Koechlin. The  individual woodwinds flutter, shimmy, and soar in aerial dynamics that well insinuate the tropical birds of the region. The second dance, Flor de Tremembe, utilizes a fugal opening to capture our sense of the panoply of national colors in his palette. The Dansa selvagem emanates those primitive and feral elements we associate with head hunters in movies like James Whale’s Green Hell.  From the same concert we hear the Batuque from the opera Malazarte by Oscar Lorenzo Fernandez. A savage pulsating ostinato rips through this visceral dance, its African roots strong despite the Brazilian colors.
Roy Harris often evinced string sympathies for American folk music, and his 1942 Rhythms of Today (rec. 19 December 1943) alternately put on war paint and banjos in spirited colors, the NBC brass and battery quite busy. We can hear Mischa Mischakoff’s plaintive violin in the midst of “prairie music,” the softer riffs reminiscent of Virgil Thomson’s film scores. Robert Kelly (1916-2007) rarely finds himself on concert programs, but his Sunset Reflections from Op. 1 Adirondack Suite (18 November 1941) give us the only pre-WW II moment of bucolic innocence on this disc, the moment recorded at Cosmopolitan Opera New York.  Darius Milhaud, the consummate collector of dance and jazz rhythms, created his Nostalgic Reminiscences of Brazil in 1917, and Stokowski selected four of them for his concert 14 April 1942. Botafago sounds like a feria dance or drunken song. Copacabana elicits tropical breezes and unsteady dancers. 
Ipanema frolics for less than minute but bubbles with Rio de Janeiro gaiety. Gavea gives us fort-five seconds of village flutes and exotic colors.
Stokowski and Ralph Vaughan Williams remained  devoted friends, and this world premier (19 December 1943) of the Fantasia on Christmas Carols oozes with devotions of the season, and maybe a nod or two to Tiny Tim. Let nothing you dismay. Virtuoso Russian violinist Efrem Zimbalist (1889-1985) concocted his jingoistic American Rhapsody (1936; rev. 1943), rippling with lush variants of “O Susannah!” and “Turkey in the Straw.” Stokowski (16 January 1944) leads a performance whose date comes soon upon Zimbalist’s premier of the Martinu Concerto with Koussevitzky in Boston on 1 January 1944. The bucolic coloration strongly resembles music by Delius, if we did not know better.
Last, the 15 November 1942 broadcast performance from Radio City of Morton Gould’s Guaracha from his 1941 Latin-American Symphonette, a Cuban dance which likely inspired Bernstein’s dances from West Side Story. It ends with a rhumba in an impish mood.
Gary Lemco