Reviews

GHCD 2379/80 – Stokowski – Stravinsky, Hanson, Harris…

NBC Symphony Orchestra, Symphony of the air, WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln, Saint Louis Symphony Orchestra; Leopold Stokowski (conductor)

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American Record Guide – September/October 2012

This is a very felicitous Stokowski release. The conductor, ever a champion of novelty, was in a particularly experimental humor in the 1940s and 50s, a time when symphonic composition itself was unfolding in unexpected ways. We begin with Stravinsky’s backwards-looking, neoclassical Symphony in C, given a distinctly cool response by the NBC studio audience, pass on to the Sibelius and Shostakovich-inflected symphonies by Hanson and Harris, and from thence to Hindemith, figuring as the herald of minimalism, the surrealist landscape of Hartmann’s adagio, and conclude with the then-outrageously ethnic third symphony of Alan Hovhaness. Quite a range!
Stokowski could have had but an imperfect understanding of where all of this was tending. Retrospectively considered, the symphonies of Hanson, Harris, and Hartmann seem like period pieces compared to the pregnant innovations of the Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Hovhaness works. Stokowski’s performances are exploratory, seeking out new aural effects while imparting to each symphony his familiar mannerisms. The result is a riot of color, rhythm, and physical excitement that is a joy to hear. What in lesser hands might come across as mere modernist bombast is rendered persuasive: fast and loud, beautiful and sublime. The Hindemith, of all things, is singularly effective given Stokowski’s ability to project a wealth of detail in a very busy score. The Hovhaness, in its comparative simplicity, benefits as well: not much happens dramatically in these symphonies—it all turns on texture, of which Stokowski was the great master.
While the quality of the recorded sound varies in these broadcast recordings—not much can be done with material emanating from the infamous Studio 8-H—the restoration is done well. The 1943 spoken introductions to the NBC performances of Stravinsky, Hanson, and Hindemith, very political and over-wrought, serve to put the whole business in a proper historical frame. In that fearful and exciting time symphonies and new music occupied a space in public life long since lost, but Stokowski’s fraught performances convey it with thrilling immediacy.
RADCLIFFE

Audiophile Audition November 2011

We could designate this compilation “Stravinsky and the 5-H Club,” and not be so far off the mark. I held off reviewing this set, released around September, 2011, because errors in the accompanying booklet mis-label the arrangement of the works presented. The Guild set restores live performances, 1943-1956, with Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977), of then contemporary music, when controversy and animated discussion surrounded each of these pieces and composers. The NBC Stravinsky, Hindemith, and Hanson broadcasts have the added incentive of commentary by Samuel Chotzinoff and Ben Grauer.
Despite the well-known acoustical defects of NBC Studio 8-H, the 21 February 1943 performance of the neo-Classic 1940 Stravinsky Symphony has great effect, the energy and precise intonation of the players a decisive factor in the sonorous patina of the whole. Whatever rhythmic knots the work presents, Stokowski and his energized ensemble dispense with stylistic gusto and plastic continuity. The last movement exalts the NBC wind section in a manner reminiscent of the composer’s symphonies for wind instruments, and the wit and pungency of effect did not fall on deaf ears, the audience spontaneously ardent in its appreciation.
The elegiac Symphony No. 4 by Howard Hanson (2 January 1944) is dedicated “To the Memory of my Father,” and features movements named from the Requiem Mass: Kyrie, Requiescat, Dies Irae, and Lux aeterna. Hanson himself had conducted the premier only months before, and the music conveyed a kinship to Britten’s Sinfonia da Requiem of 1940, which Barbirolli had debuted in New York. The string and brass choirs convey a nobly valedictory atmosphere in the opening Kyrie (Andante inquieto), epic in stature. The string pizzicato and wind coloring that open the Largo seem drawn directly from the Sibelius D Major Symphony and share its virile melodic contour. The brief Dies Irae (Presto) carries a war-dance effect, the battery and col legno strings pungently active. The stormy relation to a Danse Macabre, Saint-Saens notwithstanding, seizes us momentarily and then relents. A sumptuous study in C Major, the Lux aeterna (Largo pastorale) enjoys the benefit of the NBC strings in their most glowing layered persona. Horns and tympani complete the sense of the colossal impact this rendition communicates even after 67 years.
On tour with the St. Louis Symphony, Stokowski performs (9 January 1955) from the Kiel Opera House the original version of the Roy Harris Symphony No. 7, dedicated to the memory of Serge and Natalie Koussevitzky. The work received its premier in Chicago under Rafael Kubelik. Anguished strings, winds, and tympani dominate the first section of this one-movement work. A trenchant somber march for most of the first third of this twenty minute work, the tympani suddenly invokes a warlike riff, and the music continues in broken metrics reminiscent of Villa-Lobos or Carlos Chavez. The force of the playing gains a kind of layered incandescence, and funereal bells enter in relation to snare drums and swirling string riffs. A tympanic cadenza with tolling bell announces a new dance-figure, more optimistic in tone, suggestive of a brightly colored highland reel. The final pages assume a rustic air in American hues, earthy and assertive, virtuosic and shimmering, hortatory, and finally self-emergent in Whitman’s determined spirit.
The Hindemith E-flat Symphony (1940) finds a sympathetic reading in its first radio broadcast under Stokowski (28 February 1943), the work’s having been given its American premier under Mitropoulos in Minneapolis, 1941. Percussive and militantly aggressive, the opening Sehr lebhaft does, halfway through the first movement, engage in some “smaller” dialogues among the instruments, only to explode once more, tutti, in swirling furies. The solo oboe combines with the cello section for some intimacy in the extended Sehr langsam movement; the strings, brass and tympani then mount a colossal wall of sound that quickly dissipates into a song over an ostinato dirge. Later, the solo flute has a lyric that plays against other winds and ostinato strings, the tension’s rising again to agonized heights that threaten to overwhelm us. The scherzo (Lebhaft) third movement charges forward in moto perpetuo fashion, thumping, churning, and warbling at once in the manner of some pagan color festival. There might be a family resemblance to the Scherzo in Bruckner’s D Minor Symphony. The trio section relaxes into a slightly tipsy laendler, rustic or bucolic in an academic sense. The last movement indicates “Medium fast in cut time,” music moves once more with inexorable force and brassy textures. When the music thins out, a perky wind serenade and string appears, reminiscent of the chirping moments in Bartok’ Concerto for Orchestra. The thunder returns, but now academic in the form of a fugue. The motto of fate reveals itself, but the tenor of the music becomes darkly meditative; inexorably, the horns and low strings build the wall of sound up, the winds now swirling at the top, a monolith whose sullen grandeur at the coda Stokowski has under total wild control.
The appearance of the 1946 Adagio Symphony by Karl Amadeus Hartmann (25 May 1955) with Stokowski and the St. Louis Symphony is explained by the conductor’s delight in presenting a “local” work whenever he went on tour, here in Cologne. Rich in colors and gloomy melancholy, the piece demands exact entries and intensely etched sonorities from the various orchestral choirs. The harmonies become “exotic” by way of pentatonic scales and woodwinds that imitate timbres from Le Sacre du Printemps. The explosion of tympani, battery and brass proves the “Adagio” epithet inadequate to the vehemence of the emotions wrought, suddenly apocalyptic and then receding into a neo-romantic haze. The fires not quite extinguished, bursts of color cells appear while the strings play a melodic epilogue that invokes a horn solo and the recurrence of “broken glass” sounds. The cellos and low strings intone the last dying phrases.
The music of Alan Hovhaness (1911-2000) has always combined his Armenian ethnic background with canny orchestral timbres and diverse instrumental combinations. The Symphony No. 3 (14 October 1956) in its world premier from Carnegie Hall with the re-named NBC Symphony as “Symphony of the Air,” begins in the manner of languorous film-score music, Andante maestoso–Presto. Whirling strings and dominant tympani keep the energies in constant “oriental” motion. The essential classicism of the work finds the second movement Andante in adjusted rondo form buttressed on either side by sonata-form movements. Diaphanous sounds collide with thicker textures to produce a sonically captivating progression, much in the same exotic spirit as his most popular Mysterious Mountain Symphony No. 2. The Allegro molto last movement in Cecil B. DeMille spectacle exploits Hovhaness’ fascination with prime number metric units, measures in 5, 7, and 11 in canonic figures that make demands upon performers and listeners alike. Muezzins and dancing girls seem to cavort and bump into each other, the low strings in wonderfully panoramic counterpoint. The dervish-dance gains the usual Stokowski momentum in flamboyant counterpoint, the drums’ invoking a hero who combines Sabu with Douglas Fairbanks, and the audience eats it up.
Gary Lemco

MusicWeb International – October 2011

This collection of radio transcriptions is for Stokowskians or fans of the music of these composers. The mono sound is very respectable, clean and by no means primitive but it cannot hope to match modern commercial recordings and there is some distortion at times.
The pulsating acidic Stravinsky symphony suffers some roughness but is in miraculous sound for 1943. The grunt at the start of the Allegretto is startlingly strong and secure. The Hanson dates from 1944 and has the slow-swelling stubborn romanticism typical of this fine composer. That said it is without the overwhelmingly fresh invention of the first two symphonies and the Sixth. This is however a most atmospheric interpretation and although again suffering some sound fragility is very impressive. Stokowski’s Dies Irae is driven on with a flaming sjambok – picking up on the Stravinskian echoes. The Harris Seventh Symphony is well worth your attention and study time. Stokowski paces it with slow blooming evolution. This is a splendid performance and can be placed alongside the CBS mono of Ormandy conducting the Philadelphia (now on Albany). For me this symphony, heard in its single movement first version, stands above even the Sibelian First (1933) and the ubiquitous Third. Glorious! The second disc launches with Hindemith’s Symphony in E flat written while he was a refugee from Nazi Germany in 1939. He had been a professor at Yale for two years at the time he wrote this and had wholeheartedly adopted his new homeland. This NBC recording is from 1943. The recording is in very good stead indeed whether in exhausting rhetoric or in rolling grand tragedy.
The Hartmann Adagio Symphony (No. 2) is in a single impressive and anxiety-disseminating arch of 20 minutes. Here is one of Henze’s exemplars. This is an avant-garde work yet one concerned with the long line rather than a dazzle of mosaic shards and incidents. 

Stokowski championed Hovhaness’s music for much of his active concert life. Although it was Reiner and the Chicagoans who made the premiere recording of Symphony No. 2 Mysterious Mountain it was Stokowski and the Houston Orchestra who commissioned and premiered it in 1955. Previously he had premiered Hovhaness’s First Symphony The Exile with the NBC SO in 1942 – to be heard on GHCD2347 with firsts by Serebrier and Milhaud. The Third Symphony has not otherwise been recorded. Its style, across three movements and almost 26 minutes, is rhythmically incisive, Armenian national, groaningly majestic and mysterious. Sample this work in the Andante. It then flares with muscularity in the Allegro Molto finale. Flames and seismic impacts alternate with delicate dances and finely limned unison writing for the violin benches. To think that even now we lack recordings of many of his sixty-seven symphonies! This is very attractive music.

Some of these performances are preceded by radio announcements and followed by applause from studio or hall audiences and radio commentator ‘tailing’.

Each of these live historic recordings brims with ardent power and fantasy.
Rob Barnett