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Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor (1958) [38:58]
Wallingford RIEGGER (1885-1961)
New Dance, Op.18b [5:55]
Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
The Mysterious Mountain (Symphony No. 2), Op. 132 (1955) [18:49]
Paul CRESTON (1906-1985)
Toccata (1957) [12:34]
Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York, September 1958
CALA CACD0539 [73:17]

Audio samples available

Aside from this program's sheer documentary importance all these works are worth hearing, especially as they benefit from the conductor's distinctive "take".

Aside from this program's sheer documentary importance - the concert marked the Ninth Symphony's U.S. premiere - all these works are worth hearing, especially as they benefit from the conductor's distinctive "take."
Stokowski was an ardent, committed performer of Vaughan Williams, as evidenced by further such offerings in Cala's catalogue. But don't expect his Ninth to share the restrained demeanor of such British interpreters and fellow-travelers as Boult (Everest, EMI) and Previn (RCA). Stokowski's manner here, as with everything he conducted, is larger than life - in the wake of recent sports scandals Stateside, the adjective "steroidal" comes to mind. In the first movement, the brasses at the opening are weighty and ominous - and, owing to close miking, a bit overbearing. The saxophone flourishes, both oilier and more focused in tone than one expects, sustain the threatening atmosphere. There's an anxious undercurrent to the clarinet's spacious second theme.
So it goes throughout the symphony: Stokowski heightens the orchestral colors, pumps up the intensity, episode by episode. The Andante sostenuto begins with a bit of an edge; its second, lyrical theme, pulsing vibrantly, rises to impassioned peaks that might seem very un-"English." The saxophones get a full workout in the Scherzo, as soloists, launching a fugato, or as a homophonic choir; Stokowski once again stresses their quirky color for effects both jaunty and menacing. In the dramatic finale, there's an organ-like richness to the brass chorale at 0:58, and a lovely rocking quality when the strings take over the second theme at 1:22. The horns and trumpets calling out to each other over rolling timpani, beginning at 4:55, have never sounded so lonely. This may all be a bit too much for the music's own good, especially if you're unfamiliar with the score - Previn, for example, who makes less of the individual episodes, gives a clearer picture of the music's overall progress - but Stokowski's involvement certainly holds attention.
The remaining, perhaps less historically "significant" works on the program, nonetheless merit similar affection and care from the conductor. This was my first encounter with Wallingford Riegger's music, and I'm not sure what to make of his New Dance. The title suggests a light, Pops-type piece; so does the main theme bouncing over an infectious, Spanish-inflected accompaniment. But its progress is repeatedly interrupted by brief outbursts, usually involving the brass, which instruments have, by the final episode at 4:51, infiltrated themselves into the texture of the accompaniment. The overall effect is peculiar - both grim and catchy.
For all Alan Hovhaness's compositional fecundity, I've never really taken to his music. The folk-like Central Asian flavor of his themes doesn't jibe with his taste for relatively sparse, unfilled textures; too frequently the results sound threadbare, as if emulating all the wrong features of Aram Khachaturian's writing. The sonorities of The Mysterious Mountain, however, are more conventional and better fleshed-out, making it easier to like - Stokowski commissioned the score during his Houston tenure, so perhaps Hovhaness tailored it to the conductor's unique gifts for orchestral sound.
Based on this performance, the piece couldn't have had a more persuasive advocate. The strings everywhere are rich and (again) vibrant, yet the textures remain translucent even at the peaks - none of the heavy-syrup mode the conductor sometimes favored. The booklet note cites "Oriental influences," but Stoky's inflection of the broad modal melodies brings Vaughan Williams to mind more than once. At the peak of the second movement, horns and trumpets call across the strings' busywork to stirring effect - another reminder of the symphony heard earlier - and the third movement's closing string chorale winds things up with grandeur and weight. Collectors will find this a nice complement to Reiner's dignified, economical, and, in its way, equally expressive RCA studio recording.
Predictably, the outer sections of Paul Creston's Toccata are dominated by elements of flashy display - I particularly enjoyed the closing section, whose lively triple meter keeps it buoyant even as the brass are fanfaring away. But the composer wisely doesn't attempt to sustain that manner unvaried for twelve minutes, offsetting the biggest passages with more lightly scored ones, along with a lovely, extended lyrical episode at 5:03 led off by the solo oboe. Stokowski's rhythmically astute performance is most persuasive, even if the string accompaniment in that lyric episode is a bit loud and thick.
For a 1958 concert recording, the sound is surprisingly good stereo, vivid and "present." The close, dry perspective, however, combined with a subtle but distinct timbral distortion, becomes aurally fatiguing over the program's duration, especially at higher volume levels.
Stephen Francis Vasta

see also reviews by Rob Barnett and Jonathan Woolf



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