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Jonathan Woolf
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Stokowski conducts Twentieth Century American Composers
Lamar STRINGFIELD (1897-1959)
A Symphonic Patrol (1931) [8:38]
Morton GOULD (1913-1996)
Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra (1941) [16:33]
Paul CRESTON (1906-1985)
Chant for 1942 (1942) [9:53]
William SCHUMAN (1910-1992)
Prayer, 1943 (1943) [13:26]
Robert KELLY (1916-2007)
Adirondack Suite – ‘Sunset Reflections’ (1941) [5:28]
Virgil THOMSON (1896-1989)
The Plow That Broke the Plains, Suite (1936) [25:14]
Carlton COOLEY (1898-1981)
Eastbourne Sketches – ‘Promenade’ (1924) [4:18]
Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Folk Rhythms of Today (1942) [6:08]
NBC Symphony Orchestra
rec. broadcasts 1941-44

One way to deal with Stokowski’s extensive broadcast legacy is to structure it thematically and that’s the approach that has been taken to this slice of his NBC repertoire from 1941-44. Stoky was always keenly attuned to the music of contemporary composers and in this case American composers, and his dedication to the cause can be followed in a disc lasting almost 80 minutes, to which XR has been applied.

Well-known names sit alongside those who have been largely forgotten. Lamar Stringfield falls into the latter category though he had a fine reputation at the time and Stokowski plays his 1931 A Symphonic Patrol with the same kind of trenchant commitment to which he brought to the masterpieces of the repertoire. Stringfield’s piece occasionally seems to encode reminiscences of La Valse in its rhythm though it’s driven forward by Gospel calls – the patrol is one of slaves – and tensile drive. Stringfield had a long interest in Appalachian music, an interest that predated Copland’s, and in Black music too, something he shared with Gershwin.

By a piece of knowing programming this is followed by Morton Gould’s Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra that offers five taut movements that cover the emotive bases with crisp precision; a curt Proclamation, an expressive legato for the Sermon, a sardonic scherzo (A Little Bit of Sin is its unanswerable title), the cutting abrasion of Protest and a Jubilee finale driven by a Boogie bass line with a Spiritual evocation in the upper strings that generates sheer heat.

Two big hitters writing on a compact scale follow. Creston’s Chant for 1942, performed at the end of that year, has a slightly Stravinskian opening, though its gripping, implacable drive – along with moments of selective lyricism – also seem to owe something to Ravel. Though it may sound like it from its title Schuman’s Prayer, 1943 is non-programmatic. It was later to re-appear under a new title in 1955, Prayer in Time of War. Schuman calibrates his incremental intensity to such fine effect that as the music winds down, it is seemingly exhausted by its own vehemence. No such feeling attends the premiere performance of Robert Kelly’s Sunset Reflections, the evocative central movement of his Adirondack Suite complete with liquid clarinet arabesques and a Sibelius-like ear for topography.

Much better known, in fact the best-known of the items here, is Virgil Thomson’s music for the film The Plow that Broke the Plains. Valuably for aficionados of Stokowski’s studio recordings this January 1944 broadcast with the NBC Symphony predates by two years the commercial recording Stoky made. This is also a work drenched in Americana – only the Kelly comes close in that respect in this programme - and also a work that takes an obviously politicised stance. This is beautifully performed – and even the cattle bells come across well (have they been given the XR spatial treatment?). Carlton Cooley was co-principal violist of the orchestra with William Primrose and his Eastbourne Sketches were written in 1924 during a stay in the English seaside town, though he only orchestrated it in 1941; it was performed here in 1942. Cooley had been principal violist of the Cleveland Orchestra back in 1924 so I wonder what he was doing in Eastbourne. I’m going to suggest it was via the then concertmaster of the Cleveland, the distinguished British violinist Arthur Beckwith who had a stint as musical director of the Grand Hotel in Eastbourne. Perhaps these two jaunty principals voyaged to England in the orchestra’s off-season during the summer of 1924 and Beckwith took Cooley to one of his haunts. Certainly, after a portentous opening, Cooley’s piece turns fizzy and droll and just the kind of thing for a promenade along the front. Finally, there’s Roy Harris’s Folk Rhythms of Today, derived from his ballet What So Proudly We Hail and a suitably knock-about number to complete the disc.

Annotator Edward Johnson has been given a page to tell us about the pieces, a job he does with his customary skill. This is a well-balanced and cleverly laid-out programme.

Jonathan Woolf

Previous review: Rob Barnett

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