Stokowski = HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 1, “Exile Symphony”; MILHAUD: Symphony No. 1; COPLAND: Symphony No. 2 “Short Symphony”; SEREBRIER: Symphony No. 1 – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Houston Symphony Orchestra (Serebrier)/Leopold Stokowski – Guild

by | Jun 24, 2009 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Stokowski Conducts = HOVHANESS: Symphony No. 1, Op. 1, No. 2 “Exile Symphony”; MILHAUD: Symphony No. 1, Op. 210; COPLAND: Symphony No. 2 “Short Symphony”; SEREBRIER: Symphony No. 1 – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Houston Symphony Orchestra (Serebrier)/Leopold Stokowski

Guild GHCD 2347. 72:51 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

This album should have borne the rubric “Stokowski Firsts,” since every performance of “first” symphonies (excepting the Copland) marks a World, United States, or New York premier. The old joke used to be that Stokowski “led more first performances and fewer second performances” than any other conductor. The music embraces the years 1932-1957, their commonality in Stokowski, who took “foreign” nationals’ works and gave them their first realizations in the “melting pot” of the U.S.

The exotic sounds of Armenian-American Alan Hovhaness are well familiar to lovers of his Mysterious Mountain or his several “whale” pieces. His 1936 Symphony No. 1 (6 December 1942) had been premiered in England in 1939 under Leslie Heward, who called the work “a powerful, virile score.”  In three “programmatic” movements entitled Lament, Conflict, and Triumph, perhaps reflective of the troubled times of its origin. Bass clarinet and harp dominate the languorous first movement, which occasionally breaks out in violent spasms. Four brass chords mark the Conflict movement, the tympani rushing at us in powerful rolls. A kind of animal, jungle energy chugs along, with twittering flute and more, ominous tympani rolls. The so-called Triumph endures several trials to achieve its glorious moment. What does emerge is the Hovhaness gift for diaphanously contrapuntal textures and hymnal, chorale themes that connect Eastern and Western modes and doxologies. The brass and battery sections of the NBC have their field day, and all concerned have enjoyed this American premier with a brio and sonic panache we call the “Stokowski sound.”

Darius Milhaud’s 1939 First Symphony came from a commission from the Chicago Symphony and Desiree Defauw, and Milhaud’s journey to the U.S. saved his life from Nazi aggression. The music opens (21 March 1943) with an airy Pastoral that does move to dark places as the evolving spirit loses its innocence. Moving with a kind of idee fixe–in the manner of Berlioz–the dominant motif refuses to succumb totally to the disturbing forces around it. Having ended on an uneasy F Major, the shattering metrics of the ensuing Tres vif A-flat Minor second movement hardly come as a surprise. Fierce, demonic energies vie for dominance, the various choirs of the orchestra in concert or antagonistic to each other, a sort of Parisian Le Sacre du Printemps with the gloves off. The Tres modere slow movement breathes a darkly hued chorale, a long melismatic affair dominated by the clarinet. The sheer number of colors would have immediately appealed to Stokowski: harp, gong, cellos in four parts, tympani, pizzicato double-basses–it often sounds like a Villa-Lobos lament for the Amazon. Chorale and savage dance merge for the Final: Anime, almost a Dies Irae cross fertilized by an eccentric, English jig in 12/8. The rugged dance eventually wins the tug of war, much to the bemused delight of the Studio 8-H audience.

Copland’s “official” 1933 Second Symphony makes considerable demands on the technical proficiency of its executants. Here (9 January 1944, a broadcast performance), its semi-serial procedures find the requisite bravura and enthusiasm in Stokowski and the NBC players, who handle the intricate rhythmic shifts with smooth but tense efficiency. The stark, often “wasteland” sensibility of the music makes it a perfect counterpart for a bleak poem by T.S. Eliot.  A clarinet takes us to the last movement: Fast: a driven, manic music that, in spite of the fractious, Stravinsky influence, still alludes to El Salon Mexico.

The scene switches to Houston, 4 November 1957, and Stokowski gives the world premier of the first symphony by the seventeen-year-old, Uraguayan composer Jose Sere brier (b. 1938), now famous himself as a conductor directly in the Stokowski stamp. A through-composed, one-movement work, the Symphony establishes a moody, gloomy bass line that serves as a passacaglia or ricercare, while a motif in ¾ acts as a dance-like countermelody. Given its similarity to a Rondo, the work might be a distant cousin of Debussy’s Jeux. Serebrier excels in polyrhythmic writing for the woodwinds, and his battery section bursts out flamboyantly, like a monstrous South American macaw. A decidedly lyric element, rather melancholy, persists, so the work “belongs” to the Villa-Lobos “school” as well, despite the sojourns into Webern and serialism. Given the precocity of the piece, we must liken Serebrier to the Mendelssohn example of a fully formed mastery at seventeen. That Stokowski provides every form of musical and artistic stimulus is now ancient history.

–Gary Lemco


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