TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36; SCRIABIN: Reverie, Op. 24; PROKOFIEV: Symphony No. 1 in D Major, Op. 25 “Classical” – Philharmonia Orchestra/ Thomas Schippers (Tchaikovsky)/ Sir Eugene Goossens (Scriabin)/ The Pro Arte Orch./ Sir Eugene Goossens – First Hand Records FHR16, 64:25 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] ****:
The legacy of American conductor Thomas Schippers (1930-1977) receives a major addition by way of the (debut) stereo version of his Tchaikovsky Fourth (rec. 27-28 May 1957) with the Philharmonia Orchestra of London, from sessions in Kingsway Hall. I had the pleasure of having seen and heard Schippers lead the New York Philharmonic at the relatively new Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, where he conducted the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 in D Major as well as Barber’s Second Essay. Lean and athletic, Schippers left me with an impression of a sturdy enthusiastic leader; only later would I come to recognize his especial powers in the operatic realm.
Typical of the Philharmonia Orchestra readings of the period, the woodwind and horn work proves exemplary: clean, articulate, and sober, particularly in those interchanges with the gorgeous strings marked Moderato con anima in the first movement, played for its “fateful” expansiveness. Lyrical without meandering into bathos, the more intensely passionate aspects of the first movement gain rhetorical fervor by way of relative restraint on Schippers’ part, still allowing the fertile brass work full scope. Precision and internal nuance prove more the rule than Herculean gestures in this Schippers reading, so the cult of Koussevitzky and Mravinsky feels no rivalry. The Andantino in modo di canzona proves the heart of this interpretation, literally a showpiece for Walter Legge’s Philharmonia strings and woodwinds. Schippers urges a thoroughly vocal response from his players, much like the Ormandy reading, in which each choir indulges in instrumental ariosi. Engineering balances by Robert Gooch well capture the alternate separation and blending of the individual color lines. Brisk and eminently colorful, the Scherzo’s pizzicati and flute/brass aerial acrobatics emerge seamlessly. The contingent of Russian folksongs that inhabit the Finale: Allegro con fuoco achieve a streamlined measure of volatility, though perhaps without the savage abandon and hysteria in resistance of a relentless destiny we know from Mengelberg, Mravinsky, and Koussevitzky.
Sir Eugene Goossens (1893-1962) made the British debut recording of Scriabin’s 1898 Reverie (15 February 1956), a five-and-one-half minute tone-poem of yearning and eroticism that constitutes the composer’s first essay in orchestration. The Philharmonia low strings intone deeply while the upper strings mark the kind of spatial trajectory that marks Scriabin’s efforts to attain the mystical in a post-Wagnerian universe. Rather than issued in stereo, this recording comes to us in monaural, since the stereo tapes appear to have been lost or bungled. [Few labels recorded in stereo until 1958, when the stereodisc first came on the scene…Ed.]
Goossens recorded Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (25 April 1958) for the Pye label, favoring fast tempos which the hand-picked Pro Arte Orchestra of London (1953-1970) supplies readily, here issued in its stereo debut. The nuanced crescendo of the Larghetto movement warrants the price of admission. The plucked strings, tympani, and bassoon work remain priceless. The ensuing Gavotte casts a lithe, sturdy irony that we recall from its later use in Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet. A series of rapid whirlwinds define the Finale: Molto vivace, with the flute’s bristling and bustling along with the Pro Arte strings and tympani in wild after-drive. As a mere toccata for strings and winds, this virtuoso performance remains a special testament to orchestral discipline.
Historic renderings of music from France