Shostakovich: Symphony No. 5; Vaughan Williams: Symphony No. 8
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|1. I. Moderato|
|2. II. Allegretto|
|3. III. Largo|
|4. IV. Allegro Non Troppo|
|5. I. Fantasia|
|6. II. Scherzo Alla Marcia (Per Stromenti A Fiato)|
|7. III. Cavatina (Per Stromenti Ad Arco)|
|8. IV. Toccata|
"A blisteringly powerful Shostakovich Five and a zestful reading of RVW's youthful Eighth Symphony makes this a compelling disc that will appeal to all Stokowski fans and admirers of both composers" (Musicweb, Recording of the Month); "Stokowski at his characterful best in two rousing Proms performances Gramophone); "The Shostakovich is a magnificent interpretation a master is at work." (The Sunday Telegraph); "Decent sound for the vintage; thoughtful notes. All in all, a major release."(International Record Review); "Both of these fine 8ths are worth hearing Michael Jameson's helpful and informative notes complete this exceptionally attractive and worthy package." (American Record Guide). Repertoire: Shostakovich: Symphony No.5 in D minor, Op.47; London Symphony Orchestra; Royal Albert Hall, London, 17 September 1964.
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The magical Eighth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams caught audiences off guard when first performed in 1956. Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia gave the US premiere and Leopold Stokowski conducted the new symphony in 1957 with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, with the composer present in the Royal Box. The lightness of the music coupled with the exotic percussion instruments (including three tuned gongs) was fresh and youthful, when something like the cataclysmic Sixth was anticipated. Stokowski conducts the symphony with an expansive tempo for the Fantasia movement, whereas most conductors are faster; the Scherzo is taken at a much faster pace (it certainly sounds more like a march than most performances), and once heard at this speed, all others pale in comparison. The meditative Cavatina is beautifully phrased and the Toccata is briskly played with much warmth and excitement.
The recordings on the disc were made in September 1964 and are sonically clear, although some definition might be is lost with the array of percussion in the Toccata of the Vaughan Williams, it is still clear enough to hear the individual .
These are vigorous performances are not to be missed and despite the fact these are live performances at Royal Albert Hall, the sound is quite good.
It of course features two composers with whom Stokowski was personally acquainted and indeed friendly; the pictures in the liner notes show him applauding Shostakovich and working on a score with Vaughan Williams - possibly the symphony here. The Eighth is arguably the most dreamily lyrical, colouristically adventurous and essentially English of Vaughan Williams' symphonies; there is a certain charm in hearing an 82 year-old conductor conduct an 84 year-old composer's music with such affection and indulgence. Some find the Fantasia and Cavatina too languorous but it seems to me that Stokowski captures their ethereal stillness, his careful moulding and firmness of line compensating for the diffuseness of the melody. The Scherzo is zestful, the Toccata exuberant. Vaughan Williams' prominent use of an expanded percussion section is of course a gift to an exhibitionist like Stokowski; he gives us a portrait of an Elgarian London: all rumbustious urban bustle and tolling bells.
The sustained, stabbing intensity of the opening of his Shostakovich, tempered by gorgeous string tone, works in stark contrast to, for example, the bleaker melancholy of Previn's Fifth. Previn is all icy chills, Stokowski's Fifth all burning agony. The swagger of the Allegretto pizzicato invites a parallel with his delivery of the Scherzo in Stokowski's Proms performance of Mahler's "Resurrection Symphony"; no-one does a demonic dance better than Stokowski. The Largo yearns and swoons, achieving a tragic status; the finale is triumphant and leonine. Stokowski claimed a special affinity with Slavic music; Shostakovich acknowledged and honoured him for it. I certainly know of no finer performance of this favourite symphony than this one.
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.