Stokowski: Wartime NBC Performances = COPLAND: Short Symphony; MOHAUPT: Concerto for Orchestra; LAVALLE: Symphonic Rhumba; HANSON: Symphony No. 4 “Requiem,” Op. 34; AMFITHEATROF: De profundi climavi; ANTHEIL: Symphony No. 4 “1942”; SCHOENBERG: Piano Concerto, Op. 42 – Eduard Steuemann, piano/ NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 536 (2 CDs) TT: 2:16:23 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Andrew Rose luminously restores a series of performances by the NBC Symphony, 1942-1944, under the leadership of Leopold Stokowski, who relished the idea of “first performances” and “debuts.” Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 2 “Short Symphony” (1933) tends to formalism and abstract gestures, much in the manner of Stravinsky. Stokowski (9 January 1944) gives its rhythmically intricate vitality a broad range of expression, within a lean, acerbically jarring series of gestures, especially in the outer movements. Stokowski had wanted to premiere the work earlier, after its debut under Carlos Chavez in Mexico, but the virtuosity required by the piece demanded excessive rehearsal time. Despite its imposing complexity, the scoring remains rather transparent, with no tuba, trombones, or percussion. The second movement projects a grudging lyricism. The last movement has hints of El Salon Mexico. Copland felt unhappy about this performance, which he labeled “inadequate.” You need not agree.
Richard Mohaupt (1904-1957) had to emigrate from Germany to America in 1939 to avoid Nazi persecution, since they had already outlawed his work. He wrote the three-movement Concerto for Orchestra (On Red Army Songs) in 1943, a piece that surely would have fallen into what the Nazis had labeled “Music Bolshevism.” This world premiere performance under Stokowski (19 December 1943) reveals a moody, polyphonic work, much in the Hindemith syntax, although with a more spontaneous lyrical element. The Red Army Songs pay tribute to the music that accompanied the 1917 Revolutionary period. The second movement, Largo, features a duet between oboe and clarinet over a pedal point. The flute takes up the melodic contour, which soon fills out rather sentimentally but dramatically, perhaps in a “Hollywood” vein. The last movement Vivace displays a decided gift for counterpoint and swaggering syncopation. The clamor and resolve of the last pages has something of Respighi’s grandiosity.
Paul Lavalle (1908-1997) gleaned considerable prestige as a clarinetist in the NBC Symphony as well arranging scores and conducting a wide variety of ensembles. His work in Cuba gave birth to his 1939 Symphonic Rhumba, here performed by Stokowski (6 December 1942) in its world premiere. The mesmerizing textures of this effective piece keep our feet tapping and ears scintillated. The concertante piano apart contributes as much as the rest of the NBC battery to the tropical flavors of this piece. When the clarinet shines through, it’s the composer himself at the licorice.
Howard Hanson’s 1943 Fourth Symphony memorializes his father, and it received a Pulitzer Prize in 1944. Each of the four movements bears the title of a section of the requiem mass. Stokowski (2 January 1944) and the NBC deliver a decided gravitas to the occasion. Hanson develops the Kyrie first movement’s octave horn-leap and the succeeding theme for the cello so as to make a convincing statement. The slow movement (Requiescat) that follows utilizes the two themes of the first movement, but proceeds through impressive, organic growth. The thickly textured lyricism has something of Shostakovich in its power. The Dies Irae (Presto) movement combines the structural forms of the two preceding movements in a persuasive evocation of the cruelty of death, via Saint-Saens crossed fertilized by Orff and Stravinsky. The last movement (Lux aeterna: Largo pastorale) achieves a sense of consolation and a degree of mysticism through a synthesis of the preceding material.
Daniele Amfitheatrof (1901-1983), noted for film scores, wrote De profundis clamavi (perf. 20 February 1944, in its world premiere) as a tribute to those who had lost their lives across the seas in Europe. Both highly dramatic and lyrically anguished, the score gathers a tremendous sonority from Stokowski, a real sense of poignant Romanticism. The latter page reveals a militancy that clearly invokes the Fascist menace. We might recall that for two months Amfitheatrof served with Dimitri Mitropoulos at the Minneapolis Symphony, and that Mitropoulos had conducted American Panorama in Turin in 1937.
George Antheil (1900-1959), once known as an enfant terrible in music, maintains his reputation via one major work, his Ballet Micanique (1926), that established his relationship with “futurism.” The Symphony No. 4 “1942” grew out of his career as a war correspondent for the Los Angeles Daily News, especially with his visions of Stalingrad, Lidice, Africa, the Pacific’s Wake Island, and other theaters of war. The last movement means to express some jubilation in Allied victory. The performance (13 February 1944) by Stokowski provides another world premiere, opening with a motto theme that proves through-composed, despite its protean character, which includes four changes of tempo in its exposition. The NBC piccolo intones over a martial theme, rather a call to arms. The latter pages of the Moderato – Allegro include woodblock punctuations, and triplets in the contrabassoons and basses.
The NBC violins take up the Allegro second movement, and the cellos intone a series of edgy 16ths. The texture thins out energetically, with some tricky trumpet riffs, only to lead to a melody Antheil himself labels “tragic.” Its development displays Antheil’s real penchant for song, if he so chooses. The introduction to the first movement reappears prior to a compressed recapitulation. The Scherzo – Presto embraces a martial, fugal figure much in the Shostakovich mode, the “joke’s” being the horror of war. The last movement, Allegro non troppo, has a frenetic, potpourri character of juxtaposed effects, alternately grim and triumphant. Throughout the restless energy occur any number of tempo changes, quite a demonstration of Stokowski and the NBC’s sheer musical versatility.
The Schoenberg one-movement Piano Concerto (1942) represents an anomaly in the serial composer’s output, since it “violates” several of his own procedures for 12-tone music by repeating notes and often “wandering” into tonal harmony. If anything, Schoenberg assumes a more “relaxed” mode for this composition, which meanders in its strictness to the very forms the composer established. With pianist Eduard Steuermann (1892-1964)—notorious for his stage fright—Stokowski delivers the world premiere (6 February 1944). While the “academics” of the score can be imposing, the waltz-like character of the opening Andante belies the tone-row construction that the composer subjects to divisions in tri-chords and hexa-chords. At times, the startling richness of the textures recalls Brahms, especially since the Concerto sub-divides its one movement into four sections; so, additionally, besides the Brahms B-flat Concerto, the Liszt A Major Concerto might be a near cousin. The Adagio movement projects a solemn, melancholy character. The Giocoso several times repeats the F-sharp, another of Liszt’s favorite keys. Virgil Thomson called the work “poetic and reflective,” and Stokowski, in his brief announcement states, “it is one of the landmarks of musical history.”