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CD Review

Stokowski and the NBC Symphony

Guild 2335

Live Recordings 1941-1943

Frances Nash, piano
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Guild GHCD2335 74m ADD
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It could be argued that this release demonstrates Stokowski's commitment to contemporary music. Stokowski was 11 when Brahms died.

To get to the bottom line first, I strongly recommend this disc and not just to fans of the Old Magician (or My-sterioso as Bernstein called him). Stokowski inherited the NBC Symphony Orchestra after Toscanini had a kerfuffle with the management and they hired Stokowski as a way of getting even with him. While some may consider this conjecture it is certainly a valid one. Stokowski immediately set about changing the acoustics in the notoriously DRY Studio 8H and introduced music that Toscanini would likely avoid (except, of course, for the Brahms).

The Prokofieff (recorded 18 November 1941 at the Cosmopolitan Opera House) blew me away. Or as a jazz friend of mine put it, "It kicked my shit!" I was so impressed with it that I searched to see what other recordings I had of the piece only to discover I had only the March from the commercial recording Stokowski made of it on 27 November (released on CALA CD0505…I wish they had released the whole suite, which was issued on 78s but they "couldn't get all the Oranges" on to the disc because of playing time…with thanks to Ed Johnson for the line). In fact the March is taken even faster from this live performance than in his recorded rendition. The mechanistic approach to the first movement is visceral; the strings weave a spinning swirl that is truly an inferno. As was the norm for the day, (?) Stokowski made opening comments before the broadcast.

My only cavil with the MacDowell (recorded 7 April 1942 in Studio 8H) is that only the first two movements were included in the broadcast. Frances Nash does an excellent job. Stokowski apparently liked the piece and performed it 5 times in his career. The piece reminds me of Rachmaninoff's or Tchaikovsky's 1st piano concertos.

The Brahms (also recorded 18 November 1941) is the only piece with which we have some comparisons. Stokowski's recordings of the Brahms 4th varied considerably. The 1933 Philadelphia and 1940 All-American Youth Orchestra recordings are more genial, in the Bruno Walter vein. This recording, as his last in England, is energetic, almost visceral. It certainly doesn't sound like it came from the pen of a dying composer but rather from a younger Brahms.

To be honest, I didn't realize that Deems Taylor (recorded 26 December 1943 in Studio 8H) was a composer until a few years ago when I heard another Stokowski performance of one of his compositions. I knew him only as the man who introduced the music in the Disney/Stokowski collaboration "Fantasia". Its eight minutes is good but not memorable.

Sound throughout is good. By the time Stokowski got around to the other pieces in here he had managed to transform Studio 8H into a different sound world.

Copyright © 2008, Robert Stumpf II

Trumpet