Stokowski conducts PROKOFIEV = Symphony No. 5 in B-flat Major, Op. 100; Symphony No. 6 in E-flat Minor, Op. 111 – USSR Radio Symphony Orchestra (Op. 100)/New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Pristine Audio PASC 161, 78:51 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:
I recall owning the MK 1551 LP version of this Fifth Symphony (1944), Leopold Stokowski’s only studio recording (from Tchaikovsky Hall, 15 June 1958) of a Prokofiev symphony, despite his having championed the ballet suites from Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella, The Ugly Duckling, the Third Piano Concerto, and a classic recording–with Basil Rathbone–of Peter and the Wolf. There does exist a concert tape of the Fifth Symphony from the American Symphony Orchestra season 1967.
On tour in 1958 Moscow, Stokowski obviously decided to submit a symphonic thaw into the Cold War, directing a vivid and carefully etched performance of the B-flat Symphony, whose first movement Prokofiev once described as celebratory of “the glory of the human spirit.” The USSR brass and percussion sections–tam-tam and strident piano–the low basses, respond with visceral power to Stokowski’s direction in the first movement, a tight sonata-form with startling tremolos and punctuated, albeit lyrical, filigree beset by martial forces. The climactic descent near the end of the first movement has the grueling, pummeling force of a Dantesque vision, a bleak forecast for mankind indeed.
The music rebounds, rather ironically, in the D Minor Allegro marcato movement, a scherzo in smirking triple time. Oboes, bassoon, English horn, and piano collaborate, the strings whistling, and the snare flicking out embers of rhythm. The whirling mass assumes the dexterity of an orchestral toccata, feverish, bold, sarcastic. The middle section achieves some buoyant liberation, rather jazzy in the French mode, as though Prokofiev were hailing Ravel and Gershwin at once with his wood blocks. The segue to the da capo comes abruptly, certainly not dragging its harmonic tonnage by way of Celibidache. The charm having been wound up, Stokowski lets all caution loose for the last pages, a real tour de force for the USSR ensemble. The F Major Adagio alternates between hazy dream and vivid nightmare, often in anguished, chromatic harmony. That marvelous Russian “wind sound” emerges from the USSR strings, perhaps no less indebted to Stokowski’s penchant for free bowing. The middle section plays as a kind of march to Calvary, inexorable and tragic.
Stokowski opens the last movement, Allegro giocoso, with cautionary lyricism; but the superficial jocularity of the rondo kicks in, the strings quite sizzling over the agogic thumps in the bass. Vivid colors from the virtuoso flute and supporting woodwinds, the strings in chorale against the bucolic devotions. When the cellos and basses take up the round, the effect quite lulls, only to find a foil in the upper strings and cacophonous winds. The frenzied momentum to the coda proceeds, ever more manic and convulsive, the dance of death in the background now revealed, so that the final resolution after the passing string quartet rings quite hollow.
Jim Fassett announces the American radio premier of the Sixth Symphony (1947) from Carnegie Hall (4 December 1949), the last of Stokowski‘s four on-air performances for 1949. Rather melancholic, the symphony drew from Prokofiev the epithet “the painful results from war” as its impetus. The sad theme from the English horn might allude to Sibelius’ Tuonela. We seem to passing at some remove over a battlefield after the carnage has wrought its ghosts upon the earthly floor. We can still hear the crackle of the acetates from which this richly detailed performance derives, but our musical attention remains fixated. A sense of persistent Will unfolds, almost a Thomas Hardy notion of Immanent Destiny, as the somber melody gains irony and triumphant force. Even more anguished, the A-flat Largo opens what becomes a dirge-like arch, by the central section a truly ravaged spirit. Clangor and noble reflection compete for primacy, only to yield to a nostalgia carried by celesta and harp. Given the purity of the French horns’ and strings’ lines in the midst of textural complexity, it remains a curiosity that the “modernist” Mitropoulos did not champion this work – though he did the First and Fifth Symphonies.
The Vivace returns to an ostensibly happier key, E-flat Major, but gallows humor permeates its harmonic ambiguities, pounding tympani, piano, and brass nagging at our security. Already F Major competes with D Major in unsavory harmony, a fated collision that will culminate at the finale rife with sounding brass and tinkling cymbal, so as to dispel any false fires of victory. The impetus for self-assertion proves quite strong, almost indomitable, as two themes converge and dissipate, a mournful bassoon and oboe to quash our optimism. The bleak landscape reasserts itself, and tremolando strings and snare usher in a cold and threatening universe, F Major and D Major neutralizing each other – a cosmic cancellation that ends on a high E-flat. Heady resolute music-making of the first order.