Fikret AMIROV (1922-1984)
Symphonic Suite on Azerbaijan Folk Tunes (1960) [13:57]
Dimitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 10 (1925) [33:38]
Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (1910) [17:14]
Robert KURKA (1921-1957)
Symphonic Epilogue on Shakespeare's Julius Caesar (1955) [8:07]
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra / Leopold Stokowski
rec. March 1960, March 1962 (Kurka), no date (RVW)
GUILD HISTORICAL GHCD2415 [73:06]
I always enjoy these compilations of Leopold Stokowski's recordings and broadcasts, although none of the present performances represents a significant contribution to his discography.
To compare Fikret Amirov's music to Khachaturian's is probably asking for trouble, given the ongoing tensions between Azerbaijanis and Armenians, but you get the idea. Cheery, folk-derived dances are set off by episodes of concentrated introspection -- here, in the Andante sostenuto -- and capped by "barbaric," energetically driving passages: some of the recurrent pounding percussion suggests a Central Asian take on Ginastera. Stokowski gives the dancey bits a buoyant uplift, and allows the inward passages the needed breathing room, though some of the clangour still seems a bit brainless. Incidentally, if I'm reading the booklet note correctly, this is apparently not the same score as Amirov's Symphonic Suite on Azerbaijan Folk Tunes, which the conductor recorded on Everest.
Stokowski also brought the Shostakovich symphony into the studio, with the Symphony of the Air -- the post-Toscanini NBC Symphony -- for the United Artists label, probably at around the same time as this Philharmonic broadcast; he clearly felt an affinity for it. His manner is serious rather than jocular, weightier in the two middle movements than we've come to expect. The climactic passages -- at once festive and edgy, foreshadowing those in the Fifth Symphony -- come off well, as do the broad, pensive solo lines. But the quirky, angular motifs are deadpan; Bernstein (Sony), with the descendants of this same orchestra, captures far more of the music's cheek. Neither is this quite the usual "Stokowski sound." Horn soli are impressive -- focused, smooth, and expressive -- but there's never quite enough of the midrange; the excitable finale takes in a lot of "runny" playing, and an untidy Pił mosso in the home stretch.
The Vaughan Williams Fantasia begins fervently, eventually settling into a pleasing lyrical expansiveness. The Philharmonic strings are impeccably blended and balanced, with the refined tone erupting into intensely passionate climaxes. If Mitropoulos (Sony) offered a mystical view of the piece, Stokowski's is its ecstatic counterpart.
Robert Kurka's piece exemplifies the American post-war symphonic style: it's dissonant in a matter-of-fact way, yet strongly tonal, playing the orchestral choirs against each other in varied textures. It falls easily enough on the ear -- the broad themes near the start sound particularly promising -- but much of the connective tissue is mere sabre-rattling. I don't hear much of Julius Caesar in it, nor do I see myself returning to it any time soon.
The sound is full and rather bright, with a touch of grain and distortion in tutti -- nothing serious. Woodwind colors register with a trenchant crispness, a definite advantage in the Amirov. In the Shostakovich and Vaughan Williams pieces, the bass pizzicatos are boomy.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Previous review: Rob Barnett