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Stokowski Conducts 20th Century Symphonies
Alan HOVHANESS (1911-2000)
Symphony No. 1, Op. 17 Exile (1939, original version) (1939) [18:38]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Symphony in C (1940) [28:22]
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)
Symphony in E flat (1941) [29:42]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. live, NBC Studio 8H, New York, December 1942 (Hovhaness), February 1943 (Stravinsky, Hindemith)

Edward Johnson’s program notes remind us of Leopold Stokowski’s career-long commitment to contemporary music – a salutary reminder for those of us who reflexively associate the conductor with Romantic repertoire. (The first Stokowski album I ever bought, actually, was his Phase Four coupling of Ives and Messaien.) Surprisingly, however, Johnson’s note leaves no room for the usual brief comments by remastering engineer Andrew Rose; I am wondering what he might have thought of his various sources.

Even the too-prolific Alan Hovhaness had a First Symphony. Its three movements show the hallmarks of his later style before they ossified into clichés. Florid clarinet and flute solos riding along the harmonic minor – which resembles Central Asian modal scales – impart an oriental flavour. Between these, string quasi-tremolos keep the rhythm active; a motif of four accented chords repeatedly disrupts the second movement Conflict. Ethnically, the third movement ranges further afield, with a British-sounding wind chorale and a curiously Celtic 6/8 fugal subject. Note that, shortly afterwards, Hovhaness replaced Conflict with a completely new second movement, Grazioso, so this is the only recording of the original version. Rose’s source material appears to have been excellent: the clarinet solos are clear and forward – though the bassoon seems recessed – and tutti chords have a nice focus and presence.

The Stravinsky comes off less well, partly because of a less-good original – a “chumble”, the sort of background chewing noise caused by damaged grooves, invades the second movement – and partly because Neoclassicism simply was not the NBC Symphony’s normal line of territory. The opening is judiciously poised; quiet chugging accompaniments provide a forward impulse. But the bobbing motif first heard at 1:52 begins, shortly thereafter, to inch slightly forward; the scansion becomes increasingly uncertain as the movement goes on – and it does go on. The playing or recording in the plausible Larghetto concertante is disproportionately loud; in the sprightly Allegretto, the impressively resonant, stabbing bass syncopations tend to impede the momentum. The finale, at least, is vivid.

Hindemith’s Symphony, recorded a week later, is also nominally Neoclassical, but big and full-textured rather than lean and spare, less chug-chug in its propulsion. It is disconcerting to hear such massive sonorities being made to move, or, at times, to galumph, like an elephant dancing. The source material is better than in the Stravinsky, with no “chumble”; the peremptory unison horns at the start, in fact, cut through more vividly than the comparatively restricted tutti. The Sehr langsam is broad and solemn, with a menacing undertone; the third movement is a scherzo, but intense rather than jocular. The finale strides firmly; the springy dotted chorales in the brass suggest the composer’s Symphonic Metamorphosis.

Three historically important symphonies in three very different styles, then, lovingly tended, but drawn from variable sources. I liked the Hovhaness best. You decide for yourself.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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