Stokowski conducts 20th Century American Music = STRINGFIELD: A Symphonic Patrol; GOULD: Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra; CRESTON: Chant for 1942; SCHUMAN: Prayer, 1943; KELLY: Broke the Plains; COOLEY: Eastbourne Sketches – Promenade; HARRIS: Folk Rhythms of Today – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 625, 79:38 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Andrew Rose and Pristine Audio celebrate the immemorial bond between conductor Leopold Stokowski and his championship of American musical composition, here leading the NBC Symphony broadcasts in the World War II years, 1941-1944. The first four selections -by respectively, Stringfield, Gould, Creston, and Schuman – deal expressly with aspects of the WW II sensibility and the anxiety of the times. The initial work (rec. 7 April 1942), by North Carolina composer Lamar Stringfield (1897-1959), his 1931 A Symphonic Patrol, rather martially depicts an approaching band, possibly a slaves’ march, in a Southern town. The central section conveys a Gospel hymn that rises from the depths of their rigors.
Morton Gould (1913-1996) composed his Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra in 1941. Like the piece by Stringfield, Spirituals addresses aspects of Afro-American life. Gould’s devotion to African-American music results in his free application of jazz and boogie-woogie riffs, loaded with percussive effects. No less prevalent are the deeply intoned aspects of Negro church life; and the string choir means to provide declamations, tearful and joyful, of suffering and the faith to overcome travails. So, Stokowski (rec. 15 November 1942) will realize five distinctive moods, contrasted in feeling. “Proclamation” projects a sense of resolve, with an introspective middle section in which the NBC cellos emote. Some hint of blues infiltrates the folkish “Sermon” episode, a narrative of cosmic consolation for the strings alone. An impish humor pervades “A Little Bit of Sin,” that parodies “Shortnin’ Bread” in the course of some explicitly percussive blues patterns. Unforgiving dissonance marks the next section, “Protest,” a grim realization of America’s failure to live up to her creed of freedom for all men. Brass and strings combine in a defiant march whose last, unresolved, dissonant chord leads to a contrasting festive piece, “Jubilee,” a village dance whose sheer energy in sliding and syncopated strings testifies to an unconquerable spirit.
Stokowski gives the radio premiere of Paul Creston’s ten-minute Chant of 1942 (rec. 26 December 1943), what Creston (1906-1985) describes as his “personal reaction to the tragic events of that year.” We might consider the impact of the Shostakovich Leningrad Symphony – given its premiere in the USA by Toscanini and the NBC – upon Creston. Creston obviously despairs in thoughts of Pearl Harbor, Poland, Lidice in Czechoslovakia, and the state of affairs in Greece. A piano obbligato and dark tones in the woodwinds set the grim tone for this haunted, grinding piece, whose strings counter whatever consolation the flute and clarinet provide. The last pages resemble a throbbing heart ready to burst from anguish into furor of resistance.
Referred to as Prayer in Time of War – less as a programmatic work than as “some indication of the feeling that went into the composition.” A congenital muscular problem had kept Schuman from military service at a time when his patriotic feeling ran high. Fritz Reiner premiered the work in Pittsburgh 26 February 1943 and subsequently toured the piece. This performance (12 December 1943) has the distinction of Stokowski’s having ceded the podium to composer Schuman to address a tempo problem March in rehearsal. After Schumann led the NBC players, Stokowski returned from the control booth to lead the work without flaws. The music itself, an imposing work rather sectionalized, possesses an aggressive tenor, with moments of studied reflection. The NBC horn section distinguishes itself throughout.
Robert Kelly (1916-2007), a former composition major at the Curtis Institute, has a premiere from Stokowski (18 November 1941) in a movement from his Adirondack Suite. Generously scored, “Sunset Reflections” enjoys a pulsing, vibrating sense of light’s diffusing among the peaks. Some impressive brass work emerges from the shimmering strings, maybe a hint of Richard Strauss.
Many collectors know Virgil Thomson’s 1936 film score The Plow that Broke the Plains from Stokowski’s recording for Vanguard from 1961. The film provides in documentary form the motives behind Steinbeck’s having to write The Grapes of Wrath. Stokowski would record the suite first with the Hollywood Bowl in 1946. In six movements, the music provides a social landscape for the unfortunate agricultural practices that led to our creating The Dust Bowl. In this rendition (16 January 1944). The highly responsive NBC proves acerbically bitter, nostalgic, bleakly dissonant, and frothily folkish, as required. Thomson’s mixture of folk impulses, religious doxology, and blues elements from jazz achieves an archetype of its kind, to which Stokowski applies his own stylistic magic.
Carlton Cooley (1898-1981) retains his great fame as Principal Violist of the NBC Symphony, his having assumed the post in 1937. A 1924 vacation to England’s resort town at Eastbourne, especially its Grand Hotel, resulted in his Suite, from which the “Promenade” is performed here, 24 March 1942. The orchestration from Cooley, lush and harmonically interesting, has suave sense of sophistication, reminiscent of music by Constant Lambert.
Lastly, Stokowski and the NBC play Roy Harris’ Folk Rhythms of Today (rec. 19 December 1943). Harris (1898-1979) had a proven track record as a symphonist whose work Serge Koussevitzky and Leonard Bernstein championed. This music proves as restless as had been the composer himself. In six minutes, the orchestra undergoes a series of metric transformations and various textures, resulting in a strident but effective musical document in imaginative color effects in brass, strings, and percussion.
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