Leopold Stokowski = Works of Shostakovich, Vaughan Williams, Amirov, Kurka – New York Philharmonic – Guild

Leopold Stokowski = AMIROV: Symphonic Suite on Azerbaijan Tunes; SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 1 in F Major, Op. 10; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis; KURKA: Symphonic Epilogue on Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” – New York Philharmonic Orch./ Leopold Stokowski – Guild GHCD 2415, 73:08 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

This important album demonstrates once more the extraordinary range of Leopold Stokowski. Dominated by two works from the mainstream repertory of the last century, by Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams, whose music Stokowski consistently championed – he made the first recordings of the Shostakovich Symphony and of Vaughan Williams’ Sixth Symphony – Guild couples these two mature performances with premiere recordings of music by two lesser-known composers, Fikret Amirov’s 1950 colorful Suite on Azerbaijan Folk Tunes (which Stokowski also recorded for Everest) and the 1955 Symphonic Epilogue on Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar,’ of which Stokowski gave the world premiere a few years before the gifted composer’s tragically early death.

Fikret Amirov (1922-1984) inherited a vast folk idiom indebted to his father’s khanande mugam singing style, ground in the tunes of his native Azerbaijan. In 1959 Stokowski premiered his four-movement suite in Houston, though European performances with Hermann Abendroth exist. This music, intensely colorful and rhythmic, cries for a virtuoso ensemble, and certainly the New York Philharmonic – directed at the time by Dimitri Mitropoulos – fulfills that function. This performance (5 March 1960) represents the first American broadcast. The Andantino sostenuto second movement merits special attention, although Stokowski openly avowed his preference for the “brutally” brilliant third movement, Allegretto. The Mesto fourth movement pageant seems to take its first impulse from Rimsky-Korsakov, but it then assumes a more hectic, fluid exoticism close in spirit to illuminated Khachaturian.

The 1926 Shostakovich First Symphony, composed by an eighteen-year-old enfant terrible, contains the hallmarks of the composer’s idiosyncratic style: wit, biting irony, heartfelt romanticism, and an assured sense of musical means. Stokowski has the woodwind section of the New York Philharmonic (rec. 5 March 1960) well in hand for the first movement, which often discourses militantly then lyrically in bassoon, flute, and trumpet, with moody, low strings and snare drum. Every so often a balletic effect from Tchaikovsky rears up in a moment of dry humor.

Likely in mockery of Beethoven’s Ninth, the Scherzo follows – with piano obbligato – with raucous energy but interrupted by a ghostly trio section. Drum rolls collide with sliding strings and piano runs in a zany mix that suggests the Shostakovich days at a movie house pianola. Stokowski’s oboe sets the plaintive tone of the Lento, a powerful song of melodic significance. The NYPO strings, brass, and tympani certainly equal the tonal vibrancy Stokowski had achieved for this work in Philadelphia. The Lento – Allegro molto finale allows both the composer and Stokowski their natural, virtuosic flamboyance. The crash of snare and tympani sets the tone for an intricate romp rife with swift mood and tempo adjustments.  In the midst of controlled turmoil and explosive outbursts, the solo tympani responds to an orchestral tutti with a kind of cadenza that acquires the voice of the cello, then the trumpet. The series of rising figures to the coda simply overwhelm an appreciative audience.

Stokowski always had a warm place for the music of Vaughan Williams, and his free-bowing style suited the seamless melodic tissue of the 1910 Tallis Fantasia (rec. 3 March 1962) beautifully. Stokowski’s performance moves in slow, broad strokes, a far cry from the urgent, searing CBS inscription  of the Philharmonic with its past master Mitropoulos.

Stokowski concludes with a piece by Robert Kurka (1921-1957), Symphonic Epilogue on Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar,” Op. 28 which had been commissioned by the San Diego Symphony. Kurka considered his eight-minute work a “commentary” on the Shakespeare tragedy, emphasizing “the various public and political patterns that range through the play.” A militant energy erupts, countered by a solemnly melodious and transparent episode, perhaps a sympathetic strain for the noble Brutus’ good intentions. The scoring proves colossal and relentlessly muscular, a fine testament to a composer of whose gifts we were deprived too soon.

—Gary Lemco

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