TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6; Romeo and Juliet Fantasy – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio

Leopold Stokowski leads two 1944 NBC Symphony concerts in music of Tchaikovsky, brilliantly and passionately executed.

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathetique”; Romeo and Juliet – Fantasy Overture – NBC Symphony Orchestra/ Leopold Stokowski – Pristine Audio PASC 531, 67:29 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

“After my death, should I go to Heaven, I would like to shake the hand of Mr. Tchaikovsky, to thank him for all of the beautiful melodies he has given us.” These words from Leopold Stokowski testify to the conductor’s lifelong advocacy of Tchaikovsky’s music, presented in Stokowski’s idiosyncratic sound and style.  Andre Rose and Pristine revive a particularly volatile pair of broadcast readings, two weeks of each other, from the NBC Studio at Radio City, 16 January (Romeo) and 30 January (Pathetique) 1944.  Rose himself comments on the “white-hot, whiplash intensity” of this period in the NBC history of broadcasts, when Stokowski and Arturo Toscanini shared duties at the helm of the NBC Symphony.

Stokowski’s rendition of the 1869 Romeo and Juliet Fantasy in B minor comes replete with string portamentos and sighing effects, but these concessions to an anachronistic style of performance in no way detract from the explosive drama and lyrical tenderness of the work. In one sense, my satisfaction with this performance—which opts for the quiet ending of the work rather than the “loud, accentuated chords” of more standard readings—lifts the conception to the same, high artistic level as my preferred readings by Constant Lambert and Guido Cantelli. The NBC woodwinds—note the English horn—and brass section, particularly, enjoy a spectacularly quality of attack, buttressed by the Stokowski magic in the string and harp work. Each successive statement of the love theme gains urgency and dynamic, tragic impact. The innate level of tension—doubtless the abiding resentment of the Montagues and Capulets that results in the deaths of Mercutio, Tybalt, and our eponymous lovers—Stokowski maintains with a taut homogeneity of tone that virtually defines the “Stokowski Sound.”

Tchaikovsky PortraitNo less subjective in conception comes Stokowski’s Pathetique Symphony, whose first movement quickly succumbs to the conductor’s willful manipulation of tempo and dynamics. The arching Adagio melody stretches like voluptuous taffy under Stokowski, wrenched with heartache. The flute and bassoon lift us over pizzicato into a sense of emotional vigor, in spite of the sustained, tragic menace. The music achieves a martial confidence, only to sink into existential resignation once more. That Stokowski can balance his overt sentimentality with a poised, tragic dignity remains his own contribution to the dramatic unity of the occasion, since much of the music derives from appoggiaturas. The explosion that sets off the Allegro non troppo, after having startled us, proceeds to a molten series of layered sounds, the brass and strings in mortal combat. Then, Stokowski must compete in his sense of transition with the great ones—Koussevitzky, Mengelberg, Mravinsky, Mitropoulos, Talich, Matacic, Furtwaengler—and he does so with volatility to burn. A searing heat moves us to the monumental statement of the music’s ennobled pathos, only to crumble into personal, even cosmic resignation.

Stokowski continues his willful manipulation into the Allegro con grazia, a lovely waltz in 5/4 which, when made vulnerable to Stokowski’s swoops and swellings, achieves the sonority of a major ballet scene.  Its middle section now becomes a haunted lament, rife with noble melancholy. Stokowski makes the da capo particularly fatalistic. Vaclav Talich, in his reading with the Czech Philharmonic, managed to convey the cold, disturbed metrics that underlie what appears to be a triumph in the third movement Allegro molto vivace, ostensibly, a confident march that offsets the tensions and turbulence of the former two movements.  Equally vivid in its particulars, Stokowski’s strings and horns bite deeply into the whirling sonorities of this animated march, buttressed by bleak and agonized intervals. The sheer speed of delivery never allows a moment’s release from the literally vicious, hurtling figurations that run rampant in huge, militant gestures. At the last thud of the coda, only sustained awe must have kept the NBC audience form erupting into a frenzied applause.

Finally, the Adagio lamentoso whose placement Mahler found admirable—he programmed the symphony five times as part of his New York Philharmonic tenure—Stokowski’s strings open the series of emotional convulsions in the manner of a surgical scalpel.  The lack of heart or life-energy seems to extend itself by descending paroxysms, with ardent figures in the low winds. The sheer force of the narrative will incur comparisons with Mengelberg, especially given their capacity for orchestral slides. The state of the world of early 1944 could have used some sympathetic sentiment. The NBC low strings literally grind out an elegy for the earth and humankind. The audience need restrain its appreciation no longer.

—Gary Lemco

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