Leopold Stokowski = TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64; The Storm–Overture, Op. 76; The Tempest, Op. 18 – NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Guild GHCD 2334. 73:41 [Distrib. by Albany] ****:
Live recordings from the 1942-1943 NBC Symphony seasons, featuring the inimitable Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) in the music of his favorite Tchaikovsky, of whom he once wrote: “After I die, should I get to Heaven, I must thank Mr. Tchaikovsky for having given us so many wonderful melodies.” The introductory remarks from the first broadcast (29 November 1942) are provided by Samuel Chotzinoff, noted Toscanini biographer; and at the time, apologist for the sympathy Americans felt for the Soviets, given the heated atmosphere of WW II. Chotzinoff spends some moments musing on whether the recent Shostakovich Seventh Symphony merits artistic comparison with the most popular works of the archetypal Russian composer, Tchaikovsky.
The music to Ostrovsky’s The Storm (1864) is a relatively early Tchaikovsky opus, never commercially recorded by Stokowski. Despite a rather undistinguished ten minutes of music, Stokowski bestows his usual, colorful energies upon it. The forever “fateful” Fifth Symphony (1888) enjoys Stokowski’s expansive treatment, lingering over the initial motifs, drawing somber power from the underlying basses and celli. The martial waltz-tune accepts some “swooping” effects from Stokowski, then unleashes a fury of brass and string declamations of the theme to the first period. Sentimental, yes, but rendered with uncompromising conviction, easily comparable to the best of Koussevitzky. String portamenti notwithstanding, the emotional ferocity of the first movement remains taut, and this despite pulls and tugs at the music’s internal pulse. The transition to the recap even indulges in several yawning wails from the NBC brass before the sliding march theme recurs. “The swelling act of the imperial theme,” a Macbeth motif, applies well to the rhetoric Stokowski commands in this thrilling movement, lovingly, impetuously–the coda proves quite wild–and monumentally rendered.
As per expectation, Stokowski lavishes all sorts of tendresses on the famous Andante cantabile, molding the arched phrases with restrained, though febrile, attention. French horn segues to clarinet and oboe, the wind trio’s rising even as the four-note fate motif sounds below. The full string announcement becomes the Romeo and Juliet love scene, tragic glory. The drama plays out in heated, throbbing terms, building to another series of brass-studded and whirling-string climaxes. The last, full statement of the theme, tympani and brass triumphant, must have had hankies and libidos in abundance. The last pages sigh in the manner of Francesca da Rimini, Tchaikovsky’s answer to Tristan. A studied Valse, weepy and litled, ensues. Stokowski milks the individual wind parts against the string pizzicati to produce a musical kin to Sleeping Beauty. The last movement opens with heroic presentiments, the fate motif churning and grumbling with dire portents. For such a smooth, glossy performance, we find it hard to fathom that the NBC had been quite unfamiliar with the score, since Toscanini loathed it. But once the action starts, Stokowski and the NBC work up an impressive momentum, again on the level of Koussevitzky’s thunders in Boston. Great triplets from the NBC brass! The first period ends in a convulsive rush, a descent into the maelstrom. Then, once more into the breach. The stretti become hysterical, diffused sparks, Apocalypse, the end of the world. Without any pregnant pause, the heroic march breaks out, a paean to the life force in the face of (political) annihilation. The coda gives Beethoven’s Fifth a run for its money, all right! Just ask the screaming audience.
We conclude with Tchaikovsky’s overtly Wagnerian treatment of Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1873) from the concert 7 March 1943. The sonorities splice aspects of Forest Murmurs to the directives of The Mighty Five for Russian soul. Several of the virtuosic woodwind effects point to the later Manfred Symphony. The tympani part alone warrants the price of admission. The love theme, too, looks forward, to Eugen Onegin. Again, this piece is new to the Stokowski discography, and so worthy of immediate consumption. O Brave New World, that had such musicians in it!