Stokowski Conducts Russian Music — NBC Symphony Orchestra — Pristine Audio

by | Jul 9, 2020 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F minor, Op. 36; Symphony No. 5 in E minor, Op. 64;
RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36; Capriccio espagnole, Op. 34; STRAVINSKY: Firebird Suite; Petrushka Suite – Nicola Moscona, bass/ Eduard Steuermann, piano/ NBC Symphony/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 596 (2 CDS) 79:00; 73:06 [] *****:  

I well recall my 78 rpm recording of the Tchaikovsky Fourth Symphony with Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony, a performance he committed to record two days after the broadcast featured here, 25 November 1941, from the Cosmopolitan Opera House, New York.  Despite  a few minor cuts in the score, the recorded performance had a willful intensity that prepared me for similar treatments from Koussevitzky and Mravinsky, the three conductors having set for me the standard of excellence in this “fateful” score.  Later in my listening experience, the addition of Mitropoulos and Furtwaengler to this select pantheon of interpretation would expand my notions of the music’s possibilities.

This Stokowski Russian collection opens with the conductor’s brief description of Stravinsky’s The Firebird (7 April 1942), crediting the folk element in the six-movement suite to Stravinsky’s original creation.  The fluttering of the Firebird’s wings, in slides and tremolo, has a palpable sensuousness. Stokowski’s devotion to this ballet has testimony in the eight recordings he left, beginning in the acoustic era.  The flute, trumpet, and battery work reveals a glistening polish on a par with the other masterful readings of this score, as from Ansermet and Monteux. The dramatic impact of the grotesque King Kashchei strikes us immediately: jarring and bombastic rhythmic urgency, percussive and raucous sonic clusters that adumbrate several of the effects – like the amazing, triple-tongued trumpet work – Stravinsky will perfect in Le Sacre du Printemps.  “Kashchei” literally explodes into blazing fragments – including tubular bells – that dissipate into the misty “Lullaby” whose song pulsates in winds, strings, and harp. If ever the NBC in Studio 8-H could be said to rival the burnished sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra, we have it here, especially in the patented XR remastering from Andrew Rose. The “Finale” movement, whose theme may well owe debts to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Op. 31 Sinfonietta, swells to a potent apotheosis that shimmers with raw energy. 

Ironically, I had only just  auditioned a particularly rousing performance of Stravinsky’s Petrushka Suite from Romania, 19 June 1967, with Stokowski’s leading the Romanian Radio National Orchestra (on Yves St-Laurent YSL T-611), with an unnamed pianist, when I heard the present performance from 20 February 1944, with distinguished pianist and composer Eduard Steuermann (1892-1964).  The two realizations, some 23 years apart, remain incredibly consistent for phrasing, attack, and infectious energy. The NBC trumpet work – likely Harry Glantz – excels in brilliant passages requiring rapid shifts of register and dynamics. The finale section, the Shrovetide Fair, literally resonates with nervous excitement to which the Studio 8-H audience responds with abundant applause.

Stokowski announces the Tchaikovsky Fourth – a work “from the heart, direct, simple, like that of a child.”  Stokowski praises its architectonics, music “that. . .like a tree, unfolds itself organically.” Besides the apparent innocence of this score, Stokowski does not stint on its occasional mania, its driven, martial propulsion.  Here, in the first movement, we note the excellent work from bassoon principal, Leonard Sharrow.  The coda exhibits the same volcanic fury that Koussevitzky elicits in Boston, and the NBC audience acknowledges the divine spasm of energy. The Andantino in modo di Canzona indeed proceeds as deeply intoned Russian hymn, a song of high optimism. Nothing dainty in the speedy execution of the stunning of the Scherzo, a real tour de force of orchestral discipline, with wonderful ensemble Pizzicato ostinato among the woodwinds. Stokowski, somehow, has been holding his true demonism for the Finale: Allegro con fuoco, which he unleashes, but not before his appreciative audience reacts to the wild third movement. This last movement pits the cruel Fate motif against chorales and hymns of the Russian people; and, despite a clear note of tragic melancholy, the popular notions of happiness and comradeship prevail.

Annotator Edward Johnson informs us that Stokowski recorded the Russian Easter Overture for shellacs in 1929, turning to the score again here, 31 March 1942 and replacing the middle section trombone part with Nicola Moscona to preserve, in Stokowski’s own words,  the feeling “of a mosaic of the Russian church. . .the rising of Christ from death into eternal life.” His recording for RCA Victor in New York (LM 1816) would repeat this procedure, with improved sonic detail. The rendition, nevertheless, proves unceasingly visceral, another virtuoso coup for the NBC and their passionate conductor. 

The appearance of the Capriccio Espagnol (20 February 1944) makes a rarity in the Stokowski canon, since he did not record it for Decca until 1973.  True to form, Stokowski provides a glamorous, gypsy treatment of the colors, even invoking the sound of balalaikas in the Alborada.  The passions soar, enough for us to recall the Hemingway romance For Whom the Bell Tolls with Gary Cooper and Ingrid Bergman.  The languor of the colors often invokes the feeling we have of an Iberian Scheherazade! The whiplash Fandango asturiano sends the audience into the stratosphere. 

The Tchaikovsky Fifth (29 November 1942) presents another Fate symphony, even more saturated with determinism – and portatmento – than had been the Fourth Symphony, although this E minor’s means seem more obsessively balletic. Despite the tiny cut in the Allegro vivace of the last movement – certainly not so glaring an omission as we bear from Mengelberg and Sargent – this performance urges a conviction and deep lyricism worthy of the ennobled readings of the work in its entirety by Koussevitzky and Mravinsky.  What was it Stokowski said of Tchakovsky: “If I get to Heaven, I must shake Mr. Tchaikovsky’s hand and thank him for all those wonderful melodies!”

—Gary Lemco