Symphony No.9 in E minor
New Dance, Op.18b
Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No.2), Op.132
Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra
Recorded live on 25 September 1958 in Carnegie Hall, New York
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: November 2004
CD No: CALA CACD0539
Duration: 73 minutes
This release preserves not only a Contemporary Music Society concert marking Stokowski’s 50th year as a conductor (actually, as Edward Johnson points out in his booklet note, one year too soon, as Stokowski’s official debut was in Paris in 1909), but the US première of Vaughan Williams’s final symphony. This was, in fact, substituted for Shostakovich’s Eleventh, as a tribute following Vaughan Williams’s recent death.
Whilst the programme as a whole is undoubtedly of interest, I suspect it will be this Vaughan Williams performance in particular which will arouse curiosity.
Cala has already released Stokowski-led recordings of Vaughan Williams’s Fourth and Sixth symphonies. Thus Stokowski was well-versed in Vaughan Williams’s style. Co-incidentally, composer and conductor were fellow-students at the Royal College of Music in 1896.
One of the things that has always struck me as interesting about Stokowski’s approach to this – and other English – repertoire, has been the, paradoxically, ‘non-English’ way he has approached the scores. In any event, he seems to have perceived this music rather differently from his contemporary English conductor colleagues. Barbirolli and Boult, between them, had the lion’s share of Vaughan Williams’s symphonic premières, though it was Sir Malcolm Sargent who had led the Ninth’s first performance (in London) a few months before Stokowski’s.
Cala apologises for “slight tape damage” during the first two minutes of the first movement, but this does not at all detract from the start of a performance which is consistently compelling. Stokowski imparts a welcome sense of urgency to this music which can feel as if it is meandering, of which there is no sense from Stokowski and his orchestra of hand-picked players. One might carp that there are passages – this opening included – which are actually rather on the loud side for the written p and ppmarkings though this may, of course, be due to the recording rather than the performance itself.
Vaughan Williams includes some ‘extra’ instruments in his Ninth Symphony – a trio of saxophones and a flugelhorn. In this performance, their contributions are especially noticeable even in heavily scored passages. The saxophones’ distinctive timbre is particularly telling. They have a tangy tone, with quite a quick vibrato. Quite different from what is heard on other recorded performances, which tend to be rather smooth and homogenised. Not, interestingly enough, in the Sargent première performance (which was re-broadcast on BBC Radio 3 in 2001), where the saxophones sound similar to those to be heard in New York.
Stokowski’s reading of the first movement is imbued with a mysterious, brooding quality, though he does not allow textures and tempos to become too moribund. He is also adept in ensuring that the many doublings of lines do not lead to a lack of clarity. In fact, I was surprised at how much inner-part writing Stokowski enables to be heard; detail which is often submerged in performances where a glutinous generality of sound can lead the music to take on a monotonous quality.
Stokowski shows similar perceptions in the remaining movements, with a consistent refusal to deny the music its requisite animation. In the second movement – which has at the root of its inspiration Thomas Hardy’s “Tess of the d’Urbervilles” – Stokowski delineates the two opposing musics; the one lyrical, reflective, the other more dramatic, menacing even. The opening flugelhorn solo is most expressively played – indeed its poignancy is touching – even if the player does not entirely observe that the passage should be delivered ‘senza vibrato’. This is matched by quite pointed articulation of the march-like material, which builds threateningly as the movement progresses.
The third movement scherzo is a much less amiable affair than in some other hands. There seem to be some malevolent goblins around, rather than friendly elves. Once again the saxophones are on prominent show, and the section where they play a ‘choral’, answered by spiky comments from the rest of the orchestra, is uncommonly well realised. The sense in which the music for this movement fizzles out is discomfiting in this performance.
By keeping things on the move, Stokowski prevents the finale from sounding direction-less. This is not to say that he hassles the music; rather, he allows it to have its natural momentum, and there really is a sense of impending culmination. The big E major chords at the work’s close really do sound as if they have been striven for – not only throughout the finale, but right from the start of the symphony’s dark E minor tonality.
Any performance which causes one to re-asses one’s views of a work or modifies one’s response to it is worthy of commendation and attention. Stokowski’s performance of Vaughan Williams’s Ninth Symphony is such a performance, and this Cala disc is welcome on account of this reading alone.
The Contemporary Music Society might well have considered it apt to mark Stokowski’s career with a Carnegie Hall concert, since the conductor did so much for the contemporary music of his time; a fact that is often overlooked in favour of a preference to focus on Stokowski’s flamboyant persona.
The remaining pieces on the programme – all recorded at the same concert – attest to this commitment.
The pithy New Dance by Wallingford Riegger (1885-1961) might well have served as a model for some current contemporary American composers, with its edgy, nervy rhythms, and a sassy saxophone about three-quarters of the way through its five-minutes’ duration. A lively and enjoyable piece, Stokowski and his players audibly enjoy themselves.
More substantial fare is found in Alan Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain Symphony, at the outset of which the fabled Stokowski string sound may be sampled. The work was a commission for Stokowski’s first concert with the Houston Symphony in 1955 and, curiously, has similarities to Vaughan Williams, especially in terms of harmonic writing. Its three movements are well contrasted, however, and some of the touches of orchestration, with plaintive winds set against some harp and celeste figuration are both evocative and effective.
Paul Creston’s vigorous Toccata, with more than a hint of Waltonian élan, and a most infections rhythmic drive and energy, makes for a satisfying and exhilarating conclusion to the CD (I believe the Vaughan Williams actually occupied the concert’s second half) and is another highly desirable release in Cala’s invaluable series devoted to preserving Stokowski’s recorded heritage. Links to various reviews below