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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor (1937) [46:17]
Symphony No. 6 in B minor (1939) [33:18]
Symphony No. 7 in C, Leningrad (1941) [73:26]
Philadelphia Orchestra, NBC Symphony Orchestra (No. 7)/Leopold Stokowski
rec. April 1939 (No.5), and December 1940 (No.6), Academy of Music, Philadelphia; December 1942 (No.7) in NBC Studio 8-H, NYC
MUSIC & ARTS CD1232 [79:40 + 73:26]

Experience Classicsonline


I don’t think it’s very well known these days just how pioneering a Shostakovich proponent was Leopold Stokowski. If you survey his discography it emerges that there are no fewer than fifteen extant performances of the Fifth Symphony though many of them, it’s true, have never been released to the public. I waded through the list, from this pioneering 1939 commercial Philadelphia recording, to take in - big breath - three LSOs, two more Philys, a Gewandhaus, a Houston, one Czech Phil, a NYP, two American Symphonies, and two Bostons. If you’re counting and have come to the conclusion I’m one short, you need to add the stereo LP he made with the New York Phil in 1958 which, by general consent, was not as visceral or as arresting a performance as this 1939 one. I also seem to remember that Stokowski was not best pleased by that 1958 recorded set up - but that’s another story.
 
It’s a mark of the impression made by the Fifth that record collectors had three strong performances from which to choose in the early days; this one, the Cleveland/Rodzinski and the Leningrad/Mravinsky, which was widely available as an import. The Stokowski still held its head high, and does so still. It’s a powerful reading, strong, sinewy and heavy in places but with a deeply rooted lyric core. It’s excellently played and in this respect it’s certainly of note to point out that the selected matrices were almost all first takes. What will be of keen interest to listeners is the lavish portamento Stokowski reserves for the slow movement, which he clearly locates in the lineage of Russian symphonism, and the intense phrasing he coaxes from his orchestra - tremendous sonority, richly layered dynamics. This is a touching and multi-faceted reading with a strong control of the symphony’s narrative. Instrumental corporate strength supports such a viewpoint. The surge and holding back of his rubati attest to his identification with the music-making. These devices may seem overdone to contemporary ears, perhaps, but they are part of the expressive armoury that makes Stokowski’s performance so personal and so powerful.
 
The Sixth Symphony featured far, far less in his programming and indeed recording. This December 1940 78 set was followed by the commercial Chicago reading now on RCA/BMG, but there was also a so-far unissued 1968 NYP traversal. Let’s hope this and the other unpublished items from his extensive Shostakovich discography gradually see the light of aural day. A collector in the 1940s faced the dilemma of this recording or Reiner’s Pittsburgh set. Not an easy choice to be sure but Stokowski surely reveals his acuity as an adherent of this music in this 1940 reading. The brooding intensity he generates in the opening Largo, the lonesome cries of the winds and flurrying terseness of the lower strings, are all remarkably evocative and incident-generating. But they are part of the narrative, not incidental features of it. The orchestral canvas remains vivid and immediate. Snappy rhythms vitalise the finale along with a fine violin solo and a highly effective contribution from the principal clarinet. As with the Fifth Stokowski was pretty quick after the premiere performances - this one followed a year or so after the Russian premiere.
 
The exchange of letters between Stokowski and Toscanini over the honour of the first American performance of the Seventh is well known by now. Toscanini doesn’t emerge with much credit. It was the Italian who eventually gave the local premiere in July 1942; this Stokowski performance - off-air and not commercial - was given with the NBC Symphony, of which Toscanini was effectively artistic director, in December 1942.
 
N N and Kit Higginson have done the best they can to aerate the rather muffled sonics of 9-H but it inevitably sounds constricted set against the commercial inscriptions. That however must be accounted a secondary matter, because this performance is a tour de force of Stokowskian drama and drive, replete with a raft of expressive devices that deepen the argument still further. From the deep, dank bass line to the ethereal solo violin, from the percussion to the sharply etched rhythmic attacks, this is a performance that incrementally builds tension, that relaxes it (sometimes, it’s true capriciously) but then redoubles the pressure still further. As ever Stokowski asks for, and gets, some quite lavish portamenti. His can be tense but always follows a powerful legato intent - as he invariably does in Shostakovich. It is indeed a performance that marries virile drive with a huge concentration on singing line.
 
The Fifth Symphony has been out on Dutton CDAX8017 and also on Pearl CDS9044. This latter also contained the Sixth and both were transferred by Mark Obert-Thorn who reprises his work, even more successfully, for Music & Arts.
 
Essential for Stokowskians: underline the essential.
 
Jonathan Woolf

see also review by Rob Barnett 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 


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