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Leopold Stokowski conducts the NBC Symphony Orchestra
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.6 in F major Op.68 Pastoral (1808) [43:39]
Sounds of Nature – illustrated discussion by Leopold Stokowski [5:51]
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Three Hungarian Rhapsodies: No.1 in F minor – orchestrated Doppler and Liszt [8:38]; No.2 in C sharp minor – orchestrated Muller-Berghaus [8:37]; No.3 in D major - orchestrated Doppler and Liszt [7:41]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. Manhattan Center, New York, March 1954 (Beethoven) and January-February 1955 (Liszt)
CALA CACD 0545 [74:28]


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This is the second and last of Stokowski’s commercial recordings of the Pastoral. The earlier traversal was with the New York City Symphony Orchestra in 1945, a recording already reviewed on Musicweb.

I see now I was needlessly brief, though admiring, in that review claiming the Mozart-Beethoven disc was “one in the eye” for those who routinely belittled Stokowski’s handling of these composers. I have to say that, once again, there’s little in this later performance to disappoint and a huge amount to admire. Once again the principal idiosyncrasy is one of tempo relationships. In an interesting temporal shift over nearly a decade Stokowski slowed forty five seconds in the first, second and last movements. The Peasants’ Merrymaking and the Thunderstorm obviously have less room for manoeuvre of this sort but also show subtle shifts.

The ear will be struck by the spacious preparation of phraseology and by the elegance and affection that underlines the reading. The NBC section leaders are all noted in the booklet so we can hear and put a name to some of the stronger contributions. I’m thinking here of clarinettist Arthur Williams in the first movement and the very resonant double bass team led by Philip Sklar whose over recorded trenchancy is a distinctly enlivening part of the proceedings. The brook certainly moves very slowly and limpidly but it’s full of fine wind incident and caressing care. Stokowski unfolds it with loving security and leisurely affection inspiring some hushed violin playing as well as perky bassoon lines. It’s not only the double basses that leap from the sound perspective. The winds in The Peasants’ Merrymaking positively jump out of their seats to attract your attention. Not perhaps quite as earthy and tight as that earlier 1945 recording this is still a reading full of humanity and drive. In fact character and ardour are prime features of the conductor’s way with the Pastoral. Some might demur at the finale’s balancing of first violins and some questions of string weight but the curve of the phrasing, as such, is often delectable. Nothing sounds milked or done for effect. And once more Stokowski proves a highly personalised but very sensitive Beethovenian.

We get a number of bonuses. There’s a talk from the conductor called Sounds of Nature where we find him sporting his fake Polish accent amidst native English vowels. It’s reminiscent of his talks for 78 sets in its almost deliberate naivety, fusing the sound of a running brook with Beethoven’s own depiction of it. And then giving us bird song.

The Liszt Hungarian Rhapsodies make for colourful ballast. The second is richly saucy with more of those deeply etched basses to the fore. In the third there’s an unlikely role for cimbalon and viola - the latter replacing the clarinet – with the string instrument deliberately guilty of some highly facetious camp.

If you only know of Stokowski’s way with the Pastoral through the soundtrack to Fantasia this NBC performance will cement the generally fine interpretative gestures heard both there and in the New York City Symphony performance. Latitude will prove necessary in some respects but those attuned to his sensibility will find him a most humane and generous guide.

Jonathan Woolf 



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