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CD Review

Stokowski Conducts

London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (18 September 1964)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (15 September 1964)
BBC Legends BBCL4165-2
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Both of these recordings have been previously released. Carlton Classics issued some BBC 'Radio Classics' in 1995 (Vaughan Williams) and 1996 (Shostakovich) on two separate discs. Prior to that they were issued on two separate Music and Arts discs. Now we can get both on a single disc in much, much better sound.

The evening this disc arrived I put on the Shostakovich, planning to listen for just a little bit to get some feel for the sound. Comparison of the sound is one of the first things I dip into. There are times like this one, however, when you are so sucked into the performance that you can't stop listening. This was the experience I had when I put this on. I sat there transfixed through the whole thing. By the time it was over I listened to nothing else that night so that the symphony could ripple through my brain like a stream carrying silt.

There is something about the first movement of Shostakovich's 5th. It is something that broods in your mind, somewhere between a dream and a nightmare. It haunts your memory and lingers there, echoing. Once heard, it becomes an earworm. This performance is simply the finest I know by anyone and I have a stock of recordings to prove it if you want to tangle. Around 10 minutes into it there is one of those defining moments for me. Here I am listening for something not just to it. There should be a tension as the music begins to wind towards the end of the movement. Stokowski pulls the music so taut that when it let's loose your shoulders relax. Whoever the pianist is in this performance should have been noted.

As for The Stokowski Sound, the strings with the seamless quality brought about by free bowing and the rich bass line certainly do Shostakovich no harm at all. In fact it helps create the eerie, questioning atmosphere of the first movement. What it brings to the others is equally at the cause of the music. The notes in this release refer to the fact that the performance was praised for its lack of eccentricity.

Some conductors fare better in live performances than in recordings. Furtwängler was one. For Stokowski, however, it seemed that he could carry his magnetic music-making anywhere, just as he could infinitely create The Stokowski Sound from and orchestra. I must say, however, that this Shostakovich 5th is superior to his two recorded performances. The Philadelphia recording is a must because the performance has a seat-of-the-pants quality to it. It is as though they are discovering the music as they are playing it. The Everest recording is good, and may get better if they give us an SACD production, but it hasn't near the tension heard here.

Stokowski, more than Boult, manages to bring to the music of Vaughan Williams an enigmatic feel. In the very opening, Stokowski brings his magic to convey this feeling of vague uncertainty. Something is happening but you don't know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones? For some strange reason the 7th Symphony comes to mind. Stokowski also elicits a feeling of melancholy, like someone looking over a past. His past. Stokowski keeps a tension flowing through all of it, something that Boult fails to do for me. The violin solo in the third movement, provided by the concertmaster Hugh Maguire, flows from the orchestra with the grace and beauty of a lark ascending. His is deeper than usual providing an earthy feel to it than do many violins. The whole thing is simply moving. I almost have tears in my eyes as I listen to the third movement. Then comes the Toccata. Frankly I am at a loss for words here because we have returned to that same uneasy enigmatic feeling in the opening but from an entirely different perspective, as different as the Ying and Yang but part of the whole. If this all sounds like I have experienced a journey through a plethora of feelings then I have conveyed what I am trying to. This is simply the best 8th I have heard.

(I checked and, sure enough, I said the same damn thing about the Shostakovich performance above. Both performances were, you will notice, just two days apart during a guest-conducting tour of England. Apparently it was a success. I wonder if the others from that year are hanging around?)

You know, I often write my reviews assuming that my readers have already got copies of the recordings. If you have the previous incarnations mentioned you must replace them. The sound here is so significantly better that it changes the whole listening experience. It is fuller, more detailed and there is more air around the music. If you don't have them you also must get this disc. It is not just for Stokowski fans, they are performances that belong in the collection of any collector of classical music.

Post Script: The solo violinist in the Shostakovich is Erich Gruenburg. A few days after this concert, he accompanied Stokowski in the London Symphony recording of Schéhérazade.

As for the other items in these concerts Ed Johnson was kind enough to save me the time and provided the following. Other items from that 1964 season are "still hanging around". The VW8 started the first of his two Proms concerts and then came "Love the Magician" (BBC Legends BBCL4005-2) which was taken at a hell of a lick because Stokowski was concerned about the length of the program and worried about it being too long for the audience. After the interval came the Sibelius 2nd (BBCL4115-2).

The Shostakovich 5th was in the second half of a concert which started with Night on a Bare Mountain (Music and Arts CD-765). Then came the Novacek Perpetuum Mobile and Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini, neither of which has ever been released commercially though both survive in the BBC vaults. The Shostakovich 5th, after the interval, brought the house down so he encored the last couple of minutes of it, then said "You have been listening to great Slavic music…would you like to hear some great English music?"… The whole Albert Hall roared "Yes" whereupon Stokowski played Vaughan Williams' Greensleeves. This, most regrettably, was not recorded by the BBC so won't ever appear on CD.

Copyright © 2005, Robert Stumpf II