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Leopold Stokowski

Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937) [40:51]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)

Symphony No. 8 in D minor (1953-5) [30:15]
London Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
Rec. live, Royal Albert Hall, London, 15 (8) 17 (4) September 1964.
BBC LEGENDS BBCL 4165-2 [71:40]

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There is a picture in biographies of Vaughan Williams (and reproduced in this CD’s booklet), of Stokowski studying a score with the composer. It was taken at the composer’s London home a year or so before RVW’s death. The score might well have been of Vaughan Williams’s Eighth Symphony recorded here at a September 1964 London Prom performance. Of that performance, The Times reported, amusingly yet astutely, "The composer was in his 84th year when he threw aside all past restraint and flirted shamelessly with instrumental colour in his Eighth Symphony. Mr Stokowski is only in his 83rd year but he could meet the composer on common ground because all his life he himself has made sonority one of his big loves."

Yes, indeed, for this irresistible, hedonistic youthful symphony, brightly coloured with, unusually dominant treble percussion is thrust forward with typical spontaneous Stokowskian raw energy. The bells, xylophone and celesta are to the fore. There is zest, rhythmic bite, baleful humour and thundering yeoman defiance. This is balanced by fond nostalgic backward glances in the opening movement and sparkling jubilation in the finale. The shrill grotesqueries in the brief Scherzo seem to carry over some of the ‘hell’s kitchen’ material from RVW’s Sixth Symphony. Contrastingly Stokowski’s realisation of the Cavatina, third movement, written for strings only, is touching warm tenderness. Stokowski makes one sense a subtle coalescence of ‘Tallis’, ‘Lark’ and ‘Pilgrim’.

On his 90th birthday, Maestro Stokowski received a touching tribute from Dmitri Shostakovich, one of very many on that day but none more heartfelt. Stokowski had been one of the Russian composer’s earliest and most ardent advocates. He had conducted no fewer than four US premieres of Shostakovich’s symphonies over three decades. The Fifth Symphony was arguably Stokowski’s favourite and he conducted the London Symphony Orchestra every time he performed it in the UK. This 1964 Prom performance was the last occasion.

Stokowski delivers a blisteringly powerful reading with growling bear-like brass and plangent strings. Those crushing inhuman chords of the outer movements, here speak only too eloquently of the iron authoritarianism of the Soviet State that impelled Shostakovich to write this symphony as "a practical creative reply to just criticism." Stokowski invests the short Allegretto movement with penetrating irony, his dance is iron, the impish fiddle solo bitingly sardonic. The lovely Largo is touchingly, almost painfully poignant reaching a most anguished climax.

A blisteringly powerful Shostakovich Five and a zestful reading of RVW’s youthful Eighth Symphony make this a compelling disc that will appeal to all Stokowski fans and admirers of both composers.

Ian Lace

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