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CD Review

Leopold Stokowski

Conducts the NBC Symphony

NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
From broadcasts on 14 March 1943 (Vaughan Williams) and 13 February 1944
Cala CACD0528
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The "theme" behind this disc is that Stokowski conducted each piece only once in his career (which was, for all practical purposes, his whole life). Frankly I am glad to have it regardless of the "theme". The main epistemological reason for the disc is to listen to and study how two different works attempt to capture a similar essence and how one works and the other doesn't. The Vaughan Williams Symphony was thought to be a "war symphony," and Antheil made it explicit that his was.

The Vaughan Williams is worth the price of the whole disc. For reference, I listened to the famed Mitropoulos recording with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in 1956. From the outset, Stokowski is infinitely more intense, the attacks are sharper. The sound is a tad thinner, but given the source it is good and there is more detail than in the Mitropoulos. The NBC Symphony Orchestra was Toscanini's child and certainly superior to the New York Philharmonic then or even later. It was a virtuoso of orchestras and Stokowski, even more than Toscanini, used that to the fullest. It is not just a matter of intensity, however, the whole thing is more emotional. Listen to the strings at around 8:00 into the first movement as they yearn for something lost. (Mitropoulos, for what it is worth, is finished with the movement by this time. Stokowski takes almost a minute and a half longer. Did someone omit a repeat? Stokowski sounds faster.) In short, Stokowski's is the finest performance I know of this piece of music* and any serious collector of classical recordings ought to hear it.

Try to imagine what it must be like to look at black dots and lines on white paper and be able to "hear" it. This is what Stokowski had to do when reading a new score. It is possible that he had heard the Vaughan Williams before studying the score. Whether that is true or not, Stokowski certainly had not "heard" the Antheil before and so had to "hear" it in his mind before anyone else did. Then he had to work through rehearsals leading up to a realization. All along the way he had to be 'listening' to the black dots and lines, but listening as they were actualized. Every time I think about this whole process I think about infinity, too.

Now, I will be point-blank honest. I don't care for Antheil's Symphony. I have tried to like it. When I read that he was the "bad boy of music" I had hopes. I always like the black sheep. What I hear, however, is something that might euphemistically be called eclectic. You hear Shostakovich in the main, but also Prokofieff, Sibelius and movie music. The seams are about as noticeable as those on Frankenstein's face. The music does not flow from one idea to another: it jumps. I don't want to go on. I did try to like it and even listened to recent recordings on Naxos and CPO (the latter which received several good reviews) to see if it was just Stokowski. Nope, in fact Stokowski makes more of a symphonic argument for the music than do those recordings. Now, I hope I don't turn you off from the record because of my caustic remarks about Antheil's work. On the contrary, you ought to listen to both pieces of music so that you can study the symphony as ideas flow from one to another in Vaughan Williams but jump about in some quark like state in Antheil.

The Butterworth is a nice lagniappe, but the main course is also the main reason for stopping by. I must make sure I make it clear, my objections to the Antheil need to be considered in light of other facts. First, you may have a completely different reaction to his music. Though they were likely somewhat different, the audiences reacted more enthusiastically to the Antheil than the Vaughan Williams. Second, it is the best performance I have heard of the piece. Finally, as a pedagogical device, the disc can't be beat. Learning is always better than the alternative. Also, if you like the Vaughan Williams you simply must listen to this.

Post Script: This Stokowski disc also was a catalyst towards learning more about Antheil. I got copies of the Fourth Symphony on Naxos (8.559033) with Theodore Kuchar conducting the National Symphony Orchestra of Ukraine, and on CPO (8492) where the Radio-Sinfonie-Orchester Frankfort is led by Hugh Wolff. Those discs are coupled with other symphonies and works by the composer. I learned more about Antheil's life, too. So, my experience was very educational. Recommended.

* I did listen to two other recordings, Previn on RCA and Davis on Teldec. I didn't discuss them because their vintage, etc. Are so different as to make comparison moot.

Copyright © 2001, Robert Stumpf II