Symphony No.6 in F, Op.68 (Pastoral) [Plus Sounds of Nature an illustrated discussion by Leopold Stokowski]
Hungarian Rhapsodies No.1 in F minor [orch. Doppler and Liszt]; No.2 in C sharp minor [orch. Müller-Berghaus]; No.3 in D [orch. Doppler and Liszt]
NBC Symphony Orchestra
All recorded in Manhattan Center, New York Beethoven on 18 & 19 March 1954; Liszt between 13 January and 10 February 1955
Reviewed by: Colin Clarke
Reviewed: February 2007
CD No: CALA CACD0545
Duration: 75 minutes
Leopold Stokowski is not a conductor one immediately associates with Beethoven. Yet if there were to be one Beethoven symphony he should show an affinity with, it would be the ‘Pastoral’, with its proto-Romantic extra-musical references. Indeed, the maestro deemed it worthy for inclusion in the Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”.
Recorded in 1954 and released in the UK in 1957, this is a remarkable and individual take on the ‘Pastoral’ (it is Stokowski’s second and last recorded version – there is a 1945 recording also). The first movement is characterised by a smoothness of approach that makes the string portamentos, when they come, completely unsurprising. They would also, if it weren’t Stokowski at the helm, be completely unforgivable, but as it stands they are merely a reflection of the conductor’s larger-than-life persona. The slow tempo for the second movement is not, perhaps surprisingly, indicative of a comatose approach. The string trills that can zoom in at the listener would preclude sleep, anyway. What is not up for discussion is the dedication of the NBC musicians, each of them seem to lavish all the affection they can muster on the various lines.
Of course the ‘Storm’ and its aftermath are going to be graphically invoked. This is Stokowski territory. Only some distortion (around 2’26”, into the fourth movement) detracts from this very visceral experience. I remain unconvinced of just how happy and thankful the post-storm feelings were on the basis of this performance – it is in this finale that Stokowski is at his most lacklustre. Repeats omitted in the first and third movements.
The illustrated talk, “Sounds of Nature”, finds Stokowski illustrating Beethoven with real sounds – of running brooks and birdsong. It acts as an interesting diversion (mercifully only just under six minutes’ duration) between the Beethoven and the three Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies. All three are outrageous in the best way possible. Stokowski unashamedly milks them for all they are worth (especially the cimbalom and solo viola – replacing the solo clarinet – of No.3). Taken on their own terms they are quite simply delicious.