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Stokowski conducts British Music at the NBC, 1943-44 = HOLST: The Planets, Op. 32; BUTTERWORTH: A Shropshire Lad; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Fantasia on Christmas Carols – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 546, 71:28 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:


Leopold Stokowski leads a wartime performance (14 February 1943) of Gustav Holst’s seven-movement suite The Planets from Radio City Music Hall, featuring the NBC Symphony and Women’s Chorus.  Typically, we can savor the “Stokowski Sound” as it applies to the musical imaging, particularly in Stokowski’s insistence on free-bowing to produce an uninterrupted melodic string line. His sense of transparent texture reigns supreme in Mercury – The Winged Messenger and in the final movement, Neptune – The Mystic. The opening, militant force of Mars – The Bringer of War has the propulsion we know from the conductor’s 1956 commercial recording with the Los Angeles Philharmonic.  The NBC brass and battery sections perform with palpably alert attacks and slashing rhythmic force.  The Jupiter – The Bringer of Jollity enjoys a nobly mounted middle section, so often utilized in British boys’ schools as a conveyor of national pride. The NBC Symphony’s capacities for unfettered brilliance and luminous virtuosity have an optimal vehicle in this suite, selected for Stokowski’s allegiance to British music, especially during the crisis years of mutual involvement against the powers of fascism.

The performance of George Butterworth’s 1912 A Shropshire Lad – An Orchestral Rhapsody (13 February 1944) preserves Stokowski’s only rendition of this lovely piece, which exploits the superb gifts of the NBC woodwind players. The music has a melancholy beauty, in keeping with the lyrics by A.E. Housman, whose theme ponders the value of life in the face of impending mortality. Stokowski elicits marvelous euphony from the ensemble of English horn, French horns, trombones, harp, and tympani that comprise but a part of the fanciful scoring that sets this piece as a tribute to a gifted composer destroyed by WW I.

Ralph Vaughan Williams recast his Fantasia on Christmas Carols – originally for baritone, choir, and orchestra – as a purely orchestral work, much in the style of his Serenade to Music. While we can easily identify the passing parade of carols for this Stokowski Christmas concert (14 December 1943), the real “find” lies in the “Venetian” or “Gabrieli” sound Stokowski raises from his brass members, as though he were exploiting the “ancient music” he often liked to feature on his commercial records. The restored sound, courtesy of Andrew Rose and his XR process, proves singularly “present.

—Gary Lemco