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CD Review

Stokowski Conducts Shostakovich & Vaughan Williams

London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (18 September 1964)
BBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski (15 September 1964)
BBC Legends BBCL4165-2
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This is another welcome issue in the BBC Legends series, and it brings together two works very close to Stokowski's heart. Shostakovich composed his Fifth Symphony in 1937 and it was written as 'A Soviet Artist's Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism' after Stalin severely savaged his opera, 'Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk District' calling it chaos instead of music. Stokowski seemed to have fallen in love with this work as it was the one of the entire Shostakovich canon that he conducted most.

This performance, recorded during the Proms on 17th September 1964 is less personal than other interpretations and Stokowski seems compelled to carefully observe all of the composer's specified tempi. There is much care and devotion here and the moulding of the long melodic lines of the first and third movements is truly masterly. The playing of the London Symphony is first rate, particularly in the Finale where they manage to create a veritable cacophony of joyful sounds.

Stokowski first met Vaughan Williams when he was 13 and at the time he was the youngest student ever admitted to the Royal College of Music. Ever since, both remained dedicated friends and Stokowski was to conduct much of Vaughan Williams' works throughout his career, giving no less than 6 American premières of his symphonies. Vaughan Williams finished composing his Eighth Symphony in early 1955 dedicating it to Sir John Barbirolli who premièred it on 2nd May 1956 in Manchester with the Hallé Orchestra. The Symphony is one of the composer's late masterpieces full of orchestral colour and a large span of instruments, particularly in the percussion section.

Stokowski performed what was to be his last utterance of a Vaughan Williams symphony at the Proms on 15th September 1964. The Maestro gives a truly flowing interpretation, making this pungent music sound as if it were afloat. He also draws some inspired and totally committed playing from the BBC Symphony Orchestra, sending this audience wild with enthusiasm (in the case of both symphonies). The live recordings are vivid and immediate with very good sound, and apart from the usual minor cough, audience intrusion is pretty negligible.

Copyright © 2005, Gerald Fenech