Stokowski Conducts Brahms Symphonies 3 & 4 – NBC Symphony Orchestra – Pristine Audio

by | Aug 24, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

BRAHMS: Symphony No. 3 in F Major, Op. 90; Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98 – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 602, 74:58 [] *****: 

The Third Symphony of Johannes Brahms (1882) tries hard to fall into F minor – involving a constant tension between A and A-flat in the course of the motto theme’s “Free but Happy”/”Free but Lonely” dichotomy – but the spirit of reluctant optimism manages to hold forth.  Leopold Stokowski, in his first season as chief conductor of the NBC Symphony, addresses the Third Symphony – which he describes in his brief introductory remarks as a work of “fiery agitation, melancholy, tranquility, childlike simplicity” – with firm but rhapsodic intensity, delivering a performance noted for its speed, considering the much broader tempos that mark his 1959 reading in Houston (on Everest EVC 9016).  

Stokowski’s performance at the Cosmopolitan Opera House (4 November 1941) enjoys a thrilling resonance, courtesy of Andrew Rose and his patented XR restoration engineering. The immediate tensions of the opening movement emerge in sensitive colors, especially in the NBC clarinet. Clara Schumann saw in the opening Allegro con brio rays of sunshine. Elgar found the entire work the very model of the symphony as he would conceive it. Stokowski omits the repeat and takes the development section at a robust pace, managing the cross-rhythms with eclat.  The broad treatment of the motto phrase in the French horn and surrounding winds ushers in the recapitulation in wind-swept terms. A suggestion of the waltz characterizes the dreamy secondary motive, of which some commentators note a similarity to the chorus of women’s voices in the Venusberg scene in Wagner’s Tannhauser. The last pages only reinforce Stokowski’s tendency for rapid changes in tempo, which the NBC players execute deftly.

The two interior movements, Andante and Poco allegretto, respectively, emphasize the Brahms capacity for autumnal lyricism, the Andante’s having the quality of a chorale and rhapsody, at once.  While moments of ominous menace cloud the passing tissue of the progression, the impression of “an idyll in a forest shrine” in Clara Schumann’s estimation prevails. Stokowski imbues its more fervent passages with a manic rapture, even marked by the Beethoven “fate motif.” Clara Schumann called the third movement “a grey pearl dipped in a tear of woe.” The cellos and violins announce the warm romance of the third movement, whose mysteries informed the film Undercurrent with Robert Mitchum and Katherine Hepburn. Stokowski pushes and pulls the tempo in his own notion of rubato, much in the Mengelberg manner. The Trio section plays in the manner of one of the Brahms serenades. With a vibrant surge, the last movement Allegro sallies forth in the minor mode of F, soon to announce its kinship with Beethoven overtly.  Only at the end of a potent struggle does the major transformation reign victorious, what Clara Schumann reveled in as “the final transfiguration that begins with such beauty in the development motif that words fail me.”  Stokowski, who likes to subdue the final apotheosis of a work – refer to his preferred end to Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet – brings the various, even explosive, impulses of the muscular, cyclical movement to a hushed close, much to the appreciation of a rapt audience.

Portrait Johannes Brahms, 1889, by C Brasch

Portrait Johannes Brahms, 1889
by C Brasch

The 1885 Fourth Symphony (rec. 18 November 1941 at the Cosmopolitan Opera House) receives a driven performance, in keeping with Stokowski’s appraisal of the work as “rich and deep and dark,” and the first movement’s Allegro non troppo’s “fiery impetuosity.”  Conceived in a series of long-lined phrases of rising and falling thirds, the sighing of the first movement reveals a melancholy symmetry, forceful and resigned to an ineluctable fate. Stokowski likes to emphasize the aspect of the dialogue between competing phrases. A degree of portamento sneaks into the line at the recapitulation, dramatic and effective. Even the “tango” rhythm Brahms invokes assumes a pungent flair, incisive and heartfelt, respectively. The collision of impulses moves in stretto to the dynamic coda, one of the more hectically controlled realizations one might experience, powerful enough to evoke hearty, sustained applause from the audience. 

The E Major horn-phrased, Phrygian progression that announces the Andante moderato plays as an emotional anodyne to the furies of the first movement. After the staccato gestures dissipate, the Brahms predilection for warm consolation bursts forth in the Stokowski-string-sound manner. A veiled mystery descends upon the procession, with hints of spirituality and possible transfiguration. The cross-rhythms in strings and winds, over a rolled tympani, convey a valediction forbidding mourning.  This impulse becomes heroic in its counterpoint, and Stokowski realizes an epic sonority through his players.  

Suddenly, a moment of the rough humor in Brahms breaks out in a rare form of the Scherzo.  This performance hustles, bustles, and trips lightly, much in the manner of the Academic Festival Overture.  A pizzicato thump announces the heraldic Trio section, with some fine color in oboe and horns.  The whole proceeds as a virtuoso etude for the NBC Symphony, a demonstration of superb ensemble, though its apparent joviality and assertion merely serves to preface one of the more dire finales – Allegro energico – in symphonic literature.  The chorale theme – from Bach’s Cantata No. 150 “Nach dir, Herr, verlanget mich” translates to “I long to be near you, Lord,” In eight measures inviting an archaic passacaglia.  The 32 variations that follow explore both musicality and character, particularly in the flute variation.  A combination of resolve and mystical dread permeates the dirge, though its moments of rebellion lift our spirits. The pungent horns of the NBS renew their strident attacks, the pedal stringendo occurs forcefully as it had in the first movement.  The music descends, like Dante, into the depths only to rise again in polyphonic and syncopated – triumph – or maybe not, perhaps, to quote Yeats, vehement, “passionate intensity.” The audience has been receptively spellbound throughout.

—Gary Lemco 

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