THOMSON: The Mother of US ALL–Suite; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; CHABRIER: Joyeuse Marche – New York Philharmonic/Leopold Stokowski
Pristine Audio PASC215, 57:29 [avail. as different download formats at www.pristine classical.com] ****:
Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) leads a radio broadcast of the New York Philharmonic (2 April 1950), a Sunday concert that includes the debut of Virgil Thomson’s three-movement suite from his opera The Mother of Us All, after a libretto by Gertrude Stein. Thomson’s opera (1947) pays homage to Susan B. Anthony, and the opening Prelude rings with fanfares and celebratory riffs in a blazing American style we know from The Plow That Broke the Plains. A kind of “prairie” doxology infuses the progression of home-spun musical wisdom. Typical of Stokowski, the orchestration allows him the kind of color effect in which he basks, more than once glistening in anticipation of the scores of Alan Hovhaness. Tremolo strings and harp introduce Cold Weather, an interlude that features woodwind, strings, and glazed percussion, Hollywood’s version of winter drifts. A contrabassoon has the last word, along with cymbals. The Political Meeting provides a key highlight in the opera, in which Anthony debates Daniel Webster. Clarion horns and bells announce the town meeting, the snares and trumpets adding a decided militant tang to the confrontation. A sonic eruption at the coda heralds the audience applause for this lively score.
The sunny D Major Symphony of Brahms receives a brisk realization under Stokowski, the flutes and strings rather bright in the foreground, the horns and tympani casting only a hint of shadow across this bucolic landscape. The F-sharp Minor theme flows unsentimentally, given the hurried flamboyance of execution. The flute solo moves perhaps too quickly to be savored, but the general aura is one of pantheistic rapture. Despite the ¾ signature, the martial and even threatening aspects of the writing come across, perhaps all the more in tamed contrast when the cellos break out in song, even in the face of the rolling tympani part. Good French horn–likely James Chambers–work in the late recapitulation for the transition into the coda. The Adagio is rife with harmonic ambiguity, restlessly moving from B Major to D-sharp Minor, and Stokowski relishes the tonal and metric adjustments (hemiola), that urge this often dark music forward. The agitation becomes palpably feverish under Stokowski; no Bruno Walter Vienna charm here; the influence rather tells of Dimitri Mitropoulos. The counterpoint itself becomes inflamed, especially in the heaving punctuations from cellos and upper strings. The last bars are quite literally a dirge.
The recorded sound for the Allegretto grazioso improves considerably, the oboe resonant and the brisk rhythms–waltz and gigue–pungently and lushly articulated. Stokowski scampers through the movement, not particularly interested in milking its romance. The cross between baroque suite and classical serenade seems more to the point. The music remains idyllic but no less nervously manic. Bright splashy colors mark Stokowski’s realization of the last movement, whose tensions between D Major and A Major clash in whirlwind figures in strings and winds. The grip of Stokowski’s momentum proves quite mesmeric, and even the relatively calm episodes seem fraught with explosive power. Some shatter in the upper registers occurs, but the waves of sound quite overwhelm any misgivings we have about the recorded sound in favor of the intense conviction and bravura Stokowski elicits from his virtuoso ensemble. The audience, appropriately, goes mad.
Chabrier’s Joyous March ends this concert somewhat incongruously, but we take what Stokowski rarities as we can get. Chabrier’s boulevardier sensibility finds a sympathetic, albeit inflamed, spirit in Stokowski, and the raucous elements in this acrobat’s march receive their due irreverence.