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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Hamlet Fantasy Overture, Op. 67 [16:49]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus [14:07]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 47 [43:46]
Leopold Stokowski (conductor)
London Symphony Orchestra (Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich); CBS Radio Orchestra (Vaughan Williams)
rec. live, Royal Festival Hall, London, 30 June 1959 (Tchaikovsky); New York, 7 February 1954 (Vaughan Williams); Edinburgh Festival, 22 August 1961 (Shostakovich)

Although not one of his most popular works, Tchaikovsky’s Hamlet convincingly evokes the passion, violence and intrigue of Shakespeare’s play. This is portrayed in the dramatic music which occupies most of the piece. This element is played to the hilt by Stokowski - the greater the contrast, therefore, when we reach the subdued, mournful ending, inspired by the final scene of the play, where most of the protagonists are dead or dying. The London Symphony Orchestra (then at one of its post-war peaks) responds with virtuosity. This performance is at least as good as the conductor’s celebrated Everest recording with the Stadium Symphony Orchestra of New York, but the sound quality is not, as I shall explain below.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was one of the great masters of string music and although the Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus, scored for strings and harp, is not as well-known as the Tallis Fantasia, it is glorious music. The piece is based on an old English folk carol which took as its text the parable of the rich man and the poor man from St Luke’s Gospel. Stokowski secures playing of wonderful warmth and flexibility from an orchestra of undisclosed provenance, although the quality of the playing suggests that its members were drawn from the two main New York ensembles of the time – the Philharmonic-Symphony and NBC Symphony Orchestras.

For the benefit of some of my readers, and at the risk of trying the patience of others, I’ll briefly outline the genesis of Dmitri Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. In 1936, after his opera Lady MacBeth of the Mtensk District had been denounced in Pravda, the composer hastily withdrew the work and later did the same with his Fourth Symphony, while it was in rehearsal. The following year, he published his Fifth Symphony which, to the composer’s relief, was warmly received by the cultural authorities and the musical public alike, although for different reasons. The authorities heard in it the optimistic, accessible ‘people’s music’ they demanded and had found sorely lacking in Lady MacBeth and other Shostakovich works of the period. An anonymous but dutiful commentator went so far as to dub it “A Soviet Artist’s Practical Creative Reply to Just Criticism”. In contrast, it seems that the public appreciated it as a reflection of the terrible times through which they were living.

In his reading, Stokowski strongly projects the anger and drama which dominates much of the first movement but he appropriately relaxes the tension for the consolatory theme at the conclusion. The short Allegretto has a certain Mahlerian bitterness and irony which plays to the conductor’s strengths as an interpreter of that composer’s music. In the third movement’s Largo, there are long periods of quiet music, often with wind solos discreetly backed by other instruments. This performance conveys the feeling of utter desolation which Shostakovich surely intended. It is said that the audience at the premiere, mindful of the state of their society, wept openly on hearing this music. The finale, Allegro non troppo, is where the differences of perception were sharpest. Is it triumphant, at least on the surface? That is how the authorities must have regarded it. Others, however, perceived a degree of bombast, a parody of a triumphant ending. Composer and conductor leave it to the listener to decide.

As a comparison, I listened to Ormandy’s Sony recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra. This production dates from his American Columbia period, before his post-1968 switch to the RCA stable where some of his performances seemed disappointingly under-characterised. There are no such problems here. He is more direct and less moulded in his approach than Stokowski but still powerful. Both orchestras play superbly. Stokowski’s greater flexibility makes his performance more expressive in what is, after all, an emotional work … and I prefer it. There is no doubt, however, that Ormandy’s superb analogue stereo sound easily outstrips Stokowski’s ‘live’ mono engineering.

Stokowski’s Guild disc has solid mid-frequency sound and an adequate bass which imparts a necessary solidity and warmth to these three works. However, the upper frequencies are somewhat attenuated which results in a boxy, constricted feel. Alas, this is not the high fidelity sound these colourful works require. With better sound, these performances would have been library choices. Still, this recording is recommended to all lovers of this repertoire who can hear past the sonic imperfections.

Rob W McKenzie



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