Stokowski, born in 1882, and Vaughan Williams, born a decade later, were roughly contemporaries. They studied organ under the same teacher, thanks to the fact that the precocious Stokowski was admitted to the Royal College of Music at thirteen. Over their long careers the conductor was a champion of the composer, leaving us notable recordings of the Fourth, Sixth, Eighth, and Ninth symphonies, although by far his favorite work was the Tallis Fantasia. There have been a number of issues of this recording of the Eighth, dating from an Albert Hall concert in 1964 with the BBC Symphony. Two days later in the same venue he performed the Shostakovich Fifth, this time with the LSO. For longtime fans of Stokowski, these are prime live recordings, showing not a bit of the octogenarian's age. The sound is serviceable FM radio stereo without any significant flaws so long as you don't expect a studio recording; some may find the microphone placement a bit too distant and lacking in impact, however.
Stokwski had some composers he never missed with, and these are two of them. The Shostakovich is bold and assured, with an attractive rough edge at times. Given his reputation - often deserved -- for manipulating the score to achieve vulgar, crowd-pleasing effects, this reading of the Fifth is free of eccentricities. The conductor simply seems to be perfectly in tune with the music, reminding me of Bernstein, who was always "on" when the composer was Shostakovich. Stokowski is more carefree than Bernstein, however, and the jollity of the Scherzo, without a touch of satire or irony, indicates that the whole performance will be "positive," to borrow a favorite term from British reviewers. The Largo is not lingered over or given tragic overtones (Bernstein did both). The finale is fast off the block, with pounding kettledrums and exciting momentum, but not Bernstein's exhilarating presto. The tone is triumphant all the way to the close. If you want an exuberant, apolitical reading that contains no editorial comments about Stalinism or the composer's suffering, Stokowski's would be hard to surpass.
The Vaughan Williams Eighth, coming as it did from a composer in old age, was viewed as unusually fresh, light, optimistic, and colorful (the expanded percussion section employs "all the 'phones and 'spiels known to the composer" as well as the tuned gongs from Puccini's Turandot.) Premiered in 1956 when RVW was 84, it is not the most cohesive of his symphonies -- he himself called the opening movement seven variations in search of a theme -- but it's lively, compact, and attractive. The orchestra makes some odd sounds reminiscent of Walton's modernist touch with orchestration. The slow movement is a cavatina for strings, lovely in its soulfulness if not the most memorable melody. The finale is an exuberant toccata stuffed with percussion but sounding very much like the old, beloved Vaughan Williams whose melodic outpourings bespoke Britishness to the core.
Stokowski gives a vigorous, well-judged reading that, frankly, is the only one a collector would ever need, excluding specialists in Vaughan Williams. The sound is good enough to capture all the flavors of those gongs, 'phones, and 'spiels. As you can tell, I feel an affectionate enthusiasm for this music, composer, and conductor.