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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 7 in C, Op. 60 ‘Leningrad’ [72:53]
Radio Introductory commentary [6:41]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. live 13 December 1942, Carnegie Hall, New York
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC527 [79:34]

For devotees of Shostakovich this is a most interesting release. The ‘Leningrad’ symphony attracted enormous interest when first performed in the West after a microfilm of the score had been airlifted out of the warn-torn Soviet Union. Leopold Stokowski was keen to give the US premiere with the NBC Symphony, with which he was closely associated in the early 1940s, but Toscanini applied pressure in the right quarters and secured the important occasion for himself. I’ve read that the Italian maestro didn’t make a good job of the symphony and subsequently he was very dismissive of the score. To the best of my knowledge Toscanini rarely if ever conducted music by Shostakovich so it can hardly have been devotion to the cause that prompted him to intrigue to give the ‘Leningrad’ its first hearing in the USA.

By contrast, Leopold Stokowski was well qualified to do the job. He had already given the US premiere of the First symphony in 1928 with the Philadelphia Orchestra. Two further US premieres followed in Philadelphia: the Third symphony in 1932 – I wonder how that dissonant piece went down in ‘Philly’? – and the Sixth in 1940. In that same year, 1940, he made the first recording of the Sixth; that fine performance is available on a disc that couples his 1939 recording of the Fifth (Dutton CDAX 8017). Previously, in 1933, he’d recorded the First symphony. Stokowski continued to conduct Shostakovich’s music into later life. For example, there’s a live 1964 performance of the Fifth on disc (review). He also performed the Eleventh with the Houston Symphony in 1958 and made a recording of it with the orchestra for EMI. I’ve not heard that recording but it’s relevant to mention the Eleventh here because Pristine’s cover picture shows conductor and composer after a performance of that symphony given by Stokowski while on tour in the USSR in 1958. So, unlike Toscanini, Leopold Stokowski demonstrated a sustained interest in the music of Shostakovich and his support of the Soviet master was acknowledged in a fulsome tribute which Shostakovich paid on the conductor’s 90th birthday and which is reproduced on the Pristine website:

Notwithstanding Stokowski’s very legitimate clams to the work, it was Toscanini who unveiled the ‘Leningrad’ to the American public on 19 July 1942. By the time Stokowski came to give this performance five months later several of the USA’s leading orchestras had played the piece. However, despite the runaway success which the symphony had achieved, its performance history was still being forged. Perhaps in part that accounts for the highly individual nature of this interpretation. Before commenting on the performance, though, I should say something about the recorded sound.

The performance has been issued on CD before on another label, though in reviewing it my colleagues, Rob Barnett and Jonathan Woolf, no doubt relying on the documentation from the Music & Arts label, state that the performance was given in NBC’s infamous Studio 8-H, whereas Pristine unequivocally state that it took place in the much more amenable acoustic of Carnegie Hall. I’ve not heard that Music & Arts transfer but I see that both my colleagues noted that the sound was not ideal, Rob Barnett stating “As an audio document it is flawed, brittle and bristle-brush noisy.” That leads me to conclude that Andrew Rose has had access to better source material and that his transfer, using his XR process, has been more successful – or a combination of both factors. He states on the Pristine Audio website that his source was “a set of acetate discs apparently prepared for South American broadcasters which, by the sound of them, were never actually played”. He’s certainly achieved excellent results and the quality of the sound is such that it’s hard to believe that the performance was given nearly 76 years ago. There’s plenty of detail audible; a good, firm, if occasionally booming bass; and the many big climaxes come over well, without distortion. The one thing that I did notice, however, is the NBC engineers’ tendency to spotlight instruments – rather in the way that one experienced on some CBS commercial recordings in the 1950s and 1960s. A prime example is the repeated theme in the first movement: in its early incarnations the solo instruments that play it sound very close but when the orchestration becomes significantly fuller the focus of the recording is pulled back to accommodate the larger sound. Similarly, the excellently played violin solo that is heard immediately before the side drum begins its repetitive tattoo is very much in close-up. Overall, though, the sound is excellent for its vintage and the transfer has been skilfully managed. Based on my recollection of other recordings that I’ve heard in the past that originated in Studio 8-H, I think Pristine are probably correct in stating that this performance comes from the more spacious Carnegie Hall.

We must be grateful that Stokowski’s reading has been preserved for it’s as fine as it is individual. Looking back through my listening notes I struggle to count the number of times the words “urgent” or “urgency” occur; that’s the chief characteristic of the performance. And I’m not just using these words to describe fast speeds – though there are a few of those; even more, I’m thinking of emotional urgency. No doubt Stokowski and his players were spurred by the times and by what they had heard of the circumstances under which the symphony had been written and there’s a rare electricity to this performance. Stokowski starts the first movement extremely purposefully but then at 2:41 the pace slows for an extensive violin melody. Just listen to the yearning with which Stokey gets his fiddles to voice this tune. In fact, this will be a hallmark of the performance as a whole. There are a good number of occasions when Stokowski inspires his string choir to phrase and play passages with an eloquence that I can’t readily recall in other performances of the symphony that I’ve heard. If I’m honest, there are some instances where I think this effect is overdone and the treatment becomes almost romantic – I’m thinking primarily of an eloquent string passage near the end of the first movement. On the other hand, these instances of excess – if such they be – are part and parcel of an inspired performance caught on the wing. In the first movement Stokowski handles the repetitions of the march theme frankly, building the tension well. When the extended climax arrives (16:53) it’s given very powerful treatment but – and this is of a piece with the urgent approach – the rhetoric is not overdone. That said, in the lengthy recitative-like bassoon solo that follows Stokey does draw out the tempo markedly at times and, I think, rather over plays his hand,

The reading of the slow movement is probably the most committed I have ever heard. Throughout the performance one has the sense of music being forged in a crucible and that’s particularly true here. The strings in particular offer some really passionate playing – near the start of the movement and again from 12:01. The finale opens with great urgency but when the slower music is reached (5:17-11:06) Stokowski gets his players to dig very deep. That level of intensity is maintained when the pace picks up again. A few minutes from the end there’s a striking melody played by the horns in unison (13:14). It’s become fairly customary to broaden the tempo a bit hereabouts but Stokowski presses on. Shortly thereafter he does broaden the tempo somewhat for the final peroration but he’s by no means as broad as some conductors I’ve heard. He makes the ending grand but not grandiose. The audience erupts into an ovation which might be predictable but which is certainly justified. Pristine fade the applause after a few seconds.

This blazing, deeply committed performance is an important element in the recorded history of the ‘Leningrad’ symphony. I’m delighted that it’s now available in such a good transfer: Pristine’s sound does the performance justice.

As a ‘bonus’ we hear the introduction to the symphony which NBC broadcast before the concert. My initial thought was that it was odd to place this after the symphony when listeners at the time would have heard it before the music. On reflection, though, Pristine have made the right decision to place it after the music. It’s interesting to hear the comments, which give a contemporary gloss, but probably not every time. One wouldn’t want to be distracted from the music or the performance itself.

John Quinn



 

 




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