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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, 'Pastoral'
Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
Richard WAGNER (1811- 1883)
Tristan und Isolde: Prelude & Liebstod
Parsifal: Good Friday Spell
Parsifal: Act 3 - Symphonic Synthesis
Collegiate Choir (Parsifal)
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. 1942/43, live broadcast recordings, NBC Studio 8H, Radio City, New York
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC591 [73:10 + 79:27]

This is the third Pristine release of Stokowski’s three seasons with the NBC Symphony Orchestra when he substituted for Toscanini; it will be remembered that Toscanini had serious arguments with the NBC management in mid-1941. Firstly, came a Beethoven “Choral Symphony” recorded live on 11 November 1941 at the Cosmopolitan Opera House, New York (review by Stephen Barber of Pristine PASC541). This is currently available as a free download (24 bit FLAC). Like many, my first exposure to Stokowski in Beethoven, outside “Fantasia”, was his 1969 Decca Phase 4 “Choral Symphony” which I enjoyed more than reviewer Dan Morgan. In April 2020, I had the great pleasure of reviewing a very successful and fully packed disc of French music, recorded in his last New York season. That was on Pristine PASC583. This was music much associated with Stokowski and which he recorded more than once. Meanwhile Toscanini went to Philadelphia and eventually, after many trials and tribulations, RCA released recordings of his time there. Deserving special mention is a 1941 Schubert 9 “Great” C major, first released in 1963. This was more relaxed than his unrelenting if fascinating NBC version.. The Philadelphia version is on RCA and also Guild in a double collection reviewed by Jonathan Woolf and which I’m delighted to own.

Edward Johnson, in his brief but informative notes, points out “that although Stokowski never recorded a complete Beethoven cycle as such, there are records of all but No.1; several of the nine symphonies remained firmly in his repertoire during his long conducting career”. We will come to the “Pastoral” Symphony that for me and for many was an introduction to this life-affirming work through Stokowski’s truncated version for “Fantasia”. Living to the age of 95 and dying in September 1977, Stokowski was able to maintain a conducting career for an almost unparalleled period of time. Johnson states that “he played a Beethoven work for the first time in 1909 when, at the age of 27, he conducted the Cincinnati Orchestra in the 5th Symphony.” With reference to the 7th, Symphony below, he first recorded it in 1927. Sixty-five years later, aged 91, he directed Beethoven's music for the last time when he gave an LSO concert that included the 8th Symphony and the "Eroica", both hailed by one critic for their "striking and imaginative performances." Although, he made many recordings of the works here, and I’ve only heard a few, my impression is that his overall conception of each work didn’t change greatly over the years. Whereas Toscanini and Weingartner before him were being true to the score, as they saw it, Stokowski who made many transcriptions, including Bach and Debussy was quite determined to give his own interpretation which can fascinate and irritate in equal measure.

These Pristine discs are of recordings taken from broadcasts during all three years of Stokowski’s time in New York. The NBC Symphony's players were used to performing Beethoven under Toscanini's direction and after his year's absence, he returned as Stokowski's co-conductor. This arrangement prompted critic David Hall to comment that "the most spectacular combination of performances and programming was the two Toscanini-Stokowski seasons." This included Toscanini’s debut of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad Symphony” in July 1942. "Spectacular" is justifiably a word that can readily be applied to the performances heard here, particularly the Beethoven 5th. Firstly, there’s a very deliberate start with those famous “fate’ motifs much slower than usual; sampling other Stokowski Fifths, this seems a consistent trait. I don’t warm to this affectation but it’s really only a minor irritation. Otherwise, I’m struck by the flexibility, not sloppiness as the movement develops; the Andante is very successful also. The Scherzo/Allegro has a few more mannerisms which won’t appeal to some listeners who prefer a lean and hungry approach, but I find it endearing. Inevitably there are festive coughers, the concert was “Boxing Day” 1943 but the quality of the orchestra shines through triumphantly. The bursting out of the Allegro is one of the most exciting, I have heard and quite belies its nearly 80 years. I recall, first hearing Toscanini’s early 1950s RCA recording over thirty years ago and wondered if I would hear anything as exciting; well this is extremely impressive. It’s a good thing that I have a tolerant wife and distant neighbours as the sound bellows out. If you want evidence that Stokowski was a fine Beethoven interpreter, just play this last movement. It would surely have inspired radio listeners of Christmas 1943, in trepidation of what the coming year was to bring. This puts such performances into context. I’m so pleased that some of the justified enthusiastic applause is retained.

After a commendable interval, follows the "Pastoral" Symphony in a 1942 broadcast that is now the earliest complete Stokowski performance on record; the "Fantasia" soundtrack version having been much abridged. There are later recordings, including with NBC SO, January 1945 (Cala review by Jonathan Woolf) and an NBC SO from 1954 (Cala reviewed by Michael Cookson and Jonathan Woolf). Mr Woolf comments on the talk “Sounds of Nature” in Middle European accent, although Stokowski was born in London and went to the RCM with Vaughan Williams. As in his 1945 recording, which I’ve sampled, I’d agree that “it combines tension with relaxation, and is convincing both in the niceties and subtleties of phrasing and tempo. The first movement, for example, is fleetness itself.” Unfortunately, when we come to the "Scene by the Brook" Mr Woolf states that it will “doubtless antagonise those who don’t relish spending sixteen minutes there”. For myself it’s not the length so much as its total lethargy and feeling of ennui. Beecham took a similar time and I’m looking forward to reviewing his 1951 recording in a 2 CD Beethoven set soon (Pristine PASC593), from my recollection of the Sony reissue, I’d concur with Jonathan Woolf’s positive comments (review). It is certainly idiosyncratic and despite being a deeply held and involving account, which Jonathan admired, I can’t be doing with it in my favourite symphony, which rather spoils my overall enjoyment. The “Peasants Merrymaking” is on the swift side but seems ideal for dancing. I’m aware that Klemperer saw it as a ländler but I do prefer Stokowski here. The “Storm” is beautifully placed. I didn’t feel it was the central point of the performance which always seems a minor problem with Toscanini whose BBC recording is almost an ideal. The hymn of thanksgiving is nigh on perfect both in concept and delivery and the playing is top class. Again, there is brief applause at the end. The sound is remarkable for the period and lends a real tangibility. It’s such a shame about the “Brook” scene - it’s too lethargic for me, others may love it and it certainly couldn’t sound better.

With the advent of electrical recording, he and his Philadelphians made in 1927, the first American 78s of the Seventh Symphony. It’s an exhilarating performance described by Mark Obert-Thorn as "a reading of immense vitality and rhythmic propulsion" (Pristine PASC483). It was reviewed by Rob W Mckenzie who compared the famous Toscanini 1936 recording with that set down by the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York. Rob was listening to a Grammofono 2000 release. I recently reviewed the Pristine PASC575 transfer in Volume 1 of Toscanini’s New York recordings which I’ve loved for over thirty years. These are, for me, unique and obligatory listening for all lovers of Beethoven. There is also a 1958, Cala review by Jonathan Woolf and I have a live BBC Legends from 1963 and 1973 in an invaluable Decca Masters box. As with other works, there are probably other recordings and issues that I’m not aware of. Sadly, this is not one of Stokowski’s triumphs, particularly compared to the very special qualities of the earlier 1936 Toscanini which is, in my opinion one of the greatest performances of all time. The first movement is unmemorable, apart from the skill of the NBC players. Sadly Stokowski doesn’t seem fully engaged. There are also changes of tempo which seem uncalled for. The famous slow movement, used so effectively in the recent film “The King’s Speech” is only adequate and doesn’t grip as, say the 1955 Klemperer and even the Beethoven-disparaging Beecham. As in other recordings, including the BBC in 1963, Stokowski felt that something stated strongly just once could be weakened by repetition, so he followed the precedents set in other Beethoven symphonies by omitting the second appearance of the trio in the third movement. I think that he was wrong and that he diminishes the impact both of the movement and also the overall work. The finale was compared by Beecham to “Yaks dancing”, an image difficult to remove once one pictures it. Stokowski gives a perfectly acceptable performance but the fire and special qualities of such as Colin Davis’s 1962 RPO version are missing. At one stage, I thought strains of the famous Bach Prelude were intruding which Stokowski might have been more at home with. One can’t expect a conductor to be top class at everything and he was so excellent at much else. However it does question whether Beethoven was his ideal kind of composer; certainly not in the different ways he was for Toscanini and Furtwängler.

The second half of the disc is given over to Wagner, whose "Prelude and Liebestod" followed the Beethoven 7th in the 1942 broadcast heard here. Edward Johnson points out that as a one-time church organist, Stokowski clearly enjoyed pulling out all the stops, and these are certainly full-blooded performances. The Tristan pieces are Wagner works that along with the “Siegfried Idyll”, I really enjoy and appreciate. These are very well played and obviously the NBC players knew the work. The sound that Andrew Rose has generated from these 1942 recordings is quite remarkable: some stunning woodwind and grumbling basses. Certainly they compare very favourably with the 1950s Bayreuth releases and far surpass most. Here there is the humanity and intensity that I felt was missing in the Beethoven; the audience are very appreciative also. Apparently, 'Parsifal' was the only Wagner opera that he conducted complete, with a Philadelphia concert presentation in 1933. Stokowski also began making "Symphonic Syntheses" of Wagner's music-dramas and the intense and moving "Good Friday Spell" which I got to know through Bruno Walter, coupled with a unique Dvorak 8, is followed by one of these arrangements. It is music from Act 3 evoking the world of the Knights of the Holy Grail and in this 'live' broadcast, Stokowski brings in a chorus from the opera's final pages. Wagner and Stokowski aficionados will be interested that in the notes, Edward Johnson describes it is a wonderful effect not realised in his three orchestral recordings of the 'Parsifal” "Synthesis" and thus makes this performance unique in his immense discography. The bells are particularly impressive in creating the appropriate atmosphere. I’m far from loving most Wagner except certain instrumental passages but found this very effective and was moved by Stokowski’s sincerity. This is surely mandatory listening for all Wagner lovers, especially those who sometimes have to endure execrable sound.

This has been a fascinating journey through repertoire that in some cases was not associated with Stokowski. Despite reservations, there are fine qualities in the Beethoven Fifth and Sixth and the Wagner seems, to this non-initiate, very special. The transfers are further triumphs for Andrew Rose and I look forward to hearing more of the Stokowski releases.
David R Dunsmore

CD 1 [73:10]
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67
1. 1st mvt. - Allegro con brio [6:33]
2. 2nd mvt. - Andante con moto [11:42]
3. 3rd mvt. - Scherzo. Allegro - Trio [5:36]
4. 4th mvt. - Allegro [8:37]
broadcast 26 December 1943
BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 6 in F major, Op. 68, 'Pastoral'
5. 1st mvt. - Erwachen heiterer Empfindungen bei der Ankunft auf dem Lande. Allegro ma non troppo [8:53]
6. 2nd mvt. - Scene am Bach. Andante molto moto [15:49]
7. 3rd mvt. - Lustiges Zusammensein der Landleute. Allegro [2:44]
8. 4th mvt. - Gewitter. Sturm. Allegro [3:15]
9. 5th mvt. - Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem Sturm. Allegretto [10:00]
broadcast 24 March 1942

CD 2 [79:27]

BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 7 in A major, Op. 92
1. 1st mvt. - Poco sostenuto - Vivace [11:37]
2. 2nd mvt. - Allegretto [10:13]
3. 3rd mvt. - Presto [4:53]
4. 4th mvt. - Allegro con brio [7:07]
broadcast 22 November 1942
5. WAGNER Tristan und Isolde - Prelude and Liebestod [17:16]
broadcast of 22 November 1942
WAGNER Parsifal
6. Good Friday Spell [11:31]
7. Act 3: Symphonic Synthesis (arr. Stokowski) [16:51]
Collegiate Choir
broadcast of 31 March 1942
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
XR re-mastered by Andrew Rose
Live broadcast recordings from NBC Studio 8H, Radio City, New York
Cover artwork based on a photograph of Leopold Stokowski

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