Stokowski in New York 3

0 of 5 stars

Vaughan Williams
Symphony No.6 in E minor (Original Version)
Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture after Shakespeare
Symphony No.35 in D, K385 (Haffner) *
From the Sacred Harp *
Schwanda the Bagpiper – Polka and Fugue *

New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Leopold Stokowski

Recorded 1949 in New York – 30th Street Studios, and * live in Carnegie Hall

Reviewed by: Timothy Ball

Reviewed: May 2004
Duration: 79 minutes

Leopold Stokowski’s recording of the Vaughan Williams, besides being its premiere recording, was also the first of any Vaughan Williams symphony not to originate in England. Adrian Boult and John Barbirolli were invariably the first conductors to commit Vaughan Williams’s symphonies to disc, since between them they were responsible for the majority of the first concert performances.

In fact, Stokowski beat Boult to No.6 by a hairsbreadth, since Sir Adrian recorded his version (the first of three) only a day or two after Stokowski. They are also directly comparable in one other significant way, since both recorded the composer’s original version. Later, Vaughan Williams revised the scherzo and Boult and the LSO were summoned back to the studios to re-record it. Dutton has released Boult’s fine performance, with both versions of the scherzo, on CDBP 9703.

Listeners familiar with British recordings of VW6 will not, perhaps, be too surprised to learn that Stokowski’s approach is rather different. The reading as a whole is notable for its sense of urgency, reiterating its proximity to war-time (the first performance was in 1948, under Boult), and whilst the composer was at pains to deny any programmatic content or war-connection, the sense of turbulence and disaster is never far away from the surface of the music.

Stokowski launches into the first movement with fire and vigour. Strings and woodwinds tumble about desperately, whilst brass and timpani snap angrily. There is considerable vehemence in this reading and certainly no lingering, even in the more lyrical passages, which Stokowski shapes affectionately, but without over-indulgence. The contrast between the more aggressive and gentler music is well pointed up, and when the ‘big tune’ finally dominates, cantabile on strings, it is all the more effective for its initial statement being given with restraint. This can be an awkward moment, as the theme itself derives from a film score, and so can ‘stand out’ in the wrong way. Stokowski manages the none-too-easy task of ensuring that it is integrated to the fabric of the movement as a whole.

The most controversial aspect of Stokowski’s interpretation is probably the second movement, where the basic tempo is significantly faster than normal. But Stokowski is actually much closer to the metronome mark than other performances including Boult’s, who must have had the benefit of the composer’s presence and, presumably, approval. But Stokowski still conveys menace at this brisker speed, and the nervy rhythm that permeates this movement has an appropriately insinuating effect, the climax inevitable and relentless. The third movement is also fast – a true Allegro vivace. Here, an almost manic quality pre-dominates. This was the movement Vaughan Williams revised – primarily some re-scoring and additional brass counter-melody. In any event, taken on its own terms, Stokowski’s reading is extremely effective. One curious addition, which is not in either the score or Boult’s first recording, is the doubling of the bass clarinet’s rhythm in the last few bars by the timpani. One must assume this is Stokowski’s own invention. The finale again moves on in a rather more flowing tempo than is customary, but there is still the hushed, unearthly quality the Vaughan Williams surely intended, even if the players do not always observe the sempre pp e senza crescendo instruction, which the composer repeatedly writes.

In fact, the music sounds edgy and restless, and remarkably akin to the eerie first movement of Bartók’s Music for strings, percussion and celesta. So, in many ways, an unorthodox reading of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth, but not one to be ignored. It was previously available on Sony Classical with a blistering account of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth, under Dimitri Mitropoulos, but Cala has ‘cleaned up’ the sound considerably, and although a little boomy at times, there are no impediments to appreciating Stokowski’s interpretation, or the responsive New York playing.

Stokowski recorded Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet on a number of occasions. This 1949 studio recording is a fine one, comparatively free of the conductor’s interventions, which affect some of the later readings, although Stokowski insists on using a ‘quiet’ ending, for which the conductor cites the composer’s brother as authority. Actually, the coda is arguably the more effective with this restraint, following on more naturally from the tender, elegiac string music, which is very lovely in this performance, but whether or not the composer actually intended his overture to end in this way is a moot point. In the main body of the work, the various episodes are supremely well characterised, whether in the cut and thrust of the fight music, or in the emotion of the love theme.

Mozart and Stokowski may seem a most unlikely pairing. Indeed, this Cala issue is the first time a Stokowski-led Mozart symphony has been made available commercially. It is, overall, a bracing reading, with alert tempos and scrupulous instrumental articulation. It is certainly not anaemic Mozart; a full string body is used, but the effect is not at all heavy, and the strings’ scale-like passages in the first movement are quite invigorating, as are the finale’s rapid figurations. A gentle Andante and bracing Minuet ensure that the whole reading, which many will consider ‘unfashionable’, has its own integrity.

Thomas Jefferson Scott (1912-1961) introduces his short orchestral piece, From the Sacred Harp, with a short speech commencing, “Hi fellas, this is Tom Scott…” addressed to US servicemen overseas. The music itself has a folk-like quality – indeed not at all dissimilar to Vaughan Williams in ‘pastoral’ mode, with solo cor anglais and, later, solo violin – and utilises two Southern American hymns. The sound is a little restricted, but the piece itself comes over effectively enough. This was the only time Stokowski conducted it.

It would appear that the 16th January, 1949 concert in Carnegie Hall was also the only time Stokowski conducted any music by Jaromir Weinberger, whose Polka and Fugue from the opera Schwanda the Bagpiper was once a favourite encore. It is a delightful seven-minutes’ worth of infectious music, with memorable melodies and inventive orchestration. Stokowski brings out the latter – the chromatic inner parts are heard to decidedly cheeky effect in the polka – whilst the fugal entries all remain clear and build to an impressive climax, and although the sound is again comparably restricted, it makes a rousing conclusion to another excellent release in Cala’s Stokowski series.

  • Some CD machines have encountered skipping problems with track 12 (Weinberger). The CD has been re-pressed. Anyone wanting a replacement should send their faulty copy back (in its case with the booklet) to Paul Sarcich, Cala Records, 17 Shakespeare Gardens, East Finchley, London N2 9LJ
  • Volumes 1 & 2
  • Cala
  • Stokowski Society

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