Stokowski (1882–1977) enjoyed a recording career spanning
an incredible sixty years, from 1917 until shortly before
his death. Tchaikovsky was clearly his favourite composer – with
a nod towards Bach. He both performed and recorded the
Fifth Symphony more than any other of Tchaikovsky’s works.
I cannot resist, here, wheeling out that celebrated Stokowski
quotation: “After I die, should I get to Heaven, I must
thank Mr. Tchaikovsky for having given us so many wonderful
melodies”. There is no doubting the conductor’s passion
for this composer’s music. It is fascinating – if not especially
relevant – to think that Stokowski was already eleven years
old when Tchaikovsky died.
are available in the catalogue at any one time about half
a dozen Stokowski recordings of the Fifth Symphony. These
span the period from 1934, when he made a famous version
with the Philadelphia Orchestra, to the 1973 recording
made with the International Festival Orchestra when he
was an incredible 91 years old. I cannot claim to have
heard them all, but Stokowski was remarkably consistent
in his interpretations. If you are already a fan, you will
agree that his recordings rarely disappoint. Every record
collector either owns, knows about, or should know about,
his spectacular 1958
of “Francesca da Rimini” with the Stadium
Symphony Orchestra of New York - “the New York Philharmonic
Orchestra in summer drag”, as I have heard it facetiously
described. The present disc cannot measure up to that one
sonically but it is a typically visceral and occasionally
even wilful interpretation which will delight Stokowski’s
this disc, Stokowski conducts the NBC Symphony, the orchestra
especially created for Toscanini. This occurred during
the interim in which the other great maestro was sulking
over a contractual dispute and refusing to return. The
present live, broadcast Tchaikovsky programme, drawn from
the 1942-1943 seasons, holds a special interest because
it includes two items which Stokowski never commercially
recorded. These are “The Storm”, a concert overture, and “The
Tempest”, a “symphonic fantasia”, both relatively early
works (1868 and 1873, respectively).
Of minor historical interest, are the interspersed announcements
in the first concert, including some slightly tendentious
musings by Samuel Chotzinoff (ironically,
Toscanini’s biographer). For obvious historical reasons – remember;
this was 1942 - Chotzinoff seems to be emphasising solidarity
with the Russians by extolling both Russia’s contribution
to Western civilisation and the “humanist and optimistic
point of view” which supposedly inspired Shostakovich.
At the same time he draws artistic comparisons between
Tchaikovsky and Shostakovich which are not entirely to
the latter’s advantage.
Storm”, Tchaikovsky’s first attempt at large-scale orchestral
composition, is his response to a favourite play by Ostrovsky.
It is little more than a promising student’s work. The
hallmarks of Tchaikovsky’s mature style are already in
evidence but it is a rather shapeless, rag-bag of a piece.
Its disconcertingly abrupt mood-changes are more the fault
of the music itself, I think, than Stokowski’s passionate
advocacy. That said, he could have taken a subtler line,
as his energetic approach tends to exaggerate its disjointedness.
The concluding few bars strike an incongruous “Big Country” note,
as if to cap the uncertainty of tone which dogs the piece.
Still, the soaring main theme which enters after a minute
or so is typically tender and Tchaikovsky is already creating
innovative orchestral colours by his use of harps, flutes
and timpani. It is by no means ten minutes of music without
interest, but hardly vintage Tchaikovsky.
so to the Fifth. There is plenty of brooding soul in the
first movement yet the tension never flags; it is truly “allegro
”. Despite the indulgent swoops and swirls
in the brass and strings, there is always a tautness and
tension to Stokowski’s reading. This precludes any sentimentality
and leaves you in no doubt that this is a conductor who
knows exactly what he wants and is getting it. Whether
you want it, is your choice; I certainly do; if you cannot
play Tchaikovsky “romantically” why bother at all? The
frenzied rush to the finishing line serves both to contrast
with the ensuing andante cantabile
but also to illustrate
the virtuoso quality of the NBC Orchestra.
second movement is a miracle of over-arching control, embracing
all the tenderness and despair of a doomed passion. There
is a persistently febrile quality to the playing, which
serves merely to underscore the great, soaring melody and
remind us that fate will soon once again knock on the door
to confirm that all earthly joys are ephemeral.
such profundity, I always find the transition to the famous
Waltz something of a grinding change of gear no matter
who is conducting. Taneyev observed that a symphony assembled
from sketches for operas and ballets poses continuity problems;
Stokowski mostly solves the problem by starting delicately
and quietly, carefully ratcheting up the tension in slow
increments until he can re-establish the fervour which
precedes the recurrence of the Fate motif.
final movement is truly “maestoso”, restrained and under-stated
to counteract any hint of complacency that the switch to
E major might suggest, until that sudden headlong charge
three minutes in at the allegro vivace
fretted that the finale betrayed “something repellent,
something superfluous and insincere” – although he later
revised this judgement. To me, the triumph is so hard won
in the context of the whole symphony that I have no such
qualms that it might come off as hollow or pompous; nor,
it seems, does Stokowski, who steers his orchestra into
the coda and hence triumphantly into port. As was his wont,
he forestalls premature applause by cheekily prolonging
the timpani roll through the six B major chords which form
the false cadence.
though this concert is, it would be idle to pretend that
the sound can do it proper justice or compete with a modern
recording; this despite the excellent re-mastering by Guild.
For that, you need preferably to turn to a later, stereo
Stokowski performance or, to select from a crowded field,
choosing either the classic, mid-price Cleveland CBS recording
with Szell or perhaps Sian Edwards’ version with the LPO
on EMI Eminence - a wholly convincing and unpretentious
Wagnerian sophistication of the opening of “The Tempest” bears
witness to the development in Tchaikovsky’s musical idiom
in the nine years since the composition of “The Storm”.
It also shows the musical influences he had experienced
in the interim; we are now in the sound-world of “The Ring” and
all the better for it. The opening combines a heroic horn
theme with a gradual crescendo betraying the influence
of “Das Rheingold”, but then matters turn more Russian.
Stokowski apparently observes a traditional cut but I have
nothing to compare this version with and can say only that
it seems to work well on its own terms. Stokowski’s judgement
was, like that of another showman, Beecham, often very
sound in such matters. It is another of those Tchaikovsky
works inspired by Shakespeare and is much more cohesive
than “The Storm”. We have storms at sea, depictions of
Caliban and, for Miranda and Ferdinand, a strangely swooning,
Hollywood-movie-style love theme on the strings, which
Stokowski is happy to revel in.
Other Stokowski Tchaikovsky
RSO on Guild