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Stokowski conducts Twentieth Century American Composers
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Leopold Stokowski
rec. broadcasts 1941-44
PRISTINE PASC625 [79:38]

Exemplary in timing and choice, this CD has some overlap with another Stokowski anthology once to be had on Guild. Pristine has the edge in offering more. Its ambit rests with the output of American composers, all alive at the time these mono broadcasts took place. They were made in front of a largely well-behaved audience by an orchestra cut from elite cloth. Unlike some of the other Pristine Americana collections there are no spoken announcements. Credit to Pristine for capturing every last drop of clarity, ripeness and intensity from these eighty-year-old originals.

The Stringfield is a pretty implacable, clattery and mercilessly edgy march. This is barely offset by a bluesy and moody accent in the middle section. The Patrol ends with a return to unsmiling deadly business. It’s cleanly recorded and a rare example of the work of the flautist composer who studied with George Barrère and Nadia Boulanger. In 1928 his symphonic suite, From the Southern Mountains, secured the Pulitzer Prize for music.

A further example of war-time spirit is to be found in Morton Gould Spirituals for String Choir and Orchestra. There is a tortured and ruthless Proclamation. The ‘Sermon’ movement offers succour to the soul while ‘A Little Bit of Sin’ steers between sour and blues. The ‘Protest’ movement soars and sears its way into the final toe-tapping, if repetitive, ‘Jubilee’. Spirituals is one of Gould’s most recognised works (Naxos, Mercury and Dorati Society),

Creston, a resilient, seriously ambitious symphonist, had several works championed by Stokowski. The always useful Pristine notes refer to The Chant of 1942 as the composer's "personal reaction to the tragic events of that year - an expression of sadness and indignation but also hope." It’s not a long piece but Creston does not sell short on torment, determination or symphonic ambience. It is reminiscent of the music of George Antheil and, at the end, of Shostakovich.

After its initial blush, Schuman’s Prayer, 1943 was to re-emerge in 1955 as Prayer in Time of War. It’s another essay in introspective solemnity rather than the fiery blast of other wartime works such as Stanley Bate’s Third Symphony or Vaughan Williams’ Fourth. At about 5:00, at the work’s apex, it erupts and the NBC orchestra’s trumpets meet the challenge with scorch and excoriation.

‘Sunset Reflections’ is from the middle of Robert Kelly’s Adirondack Suite and was plucked by Stokowski from its flankers: I. ‘Prelude’ and III. ‘Cobble Climb’. After time spent at the Julliard, Kelly studied at the Eastman School where his tutor was Herbert Elwell. His other works include two symphonies, and concertos for violin and for viola. This at times Debussian and Sibelian impression was its premiere which drew the following description from Stokowski: "impressions of sunset in the mountains, lyrical and poetic, with a quick vibrating rhythm like the pulsations of light." Nicely varied, and despite a few auditorium thuds the piece is nicely put across.

The music for the film The Plow that Broke the Plains has secured a place for Virgil Thomson in the record catalogues and concert halls. The bucolic, gawky yet impassioned six-movement suite has had its outings on CD (EMI, Hyperion and Naxos). The latter company have even given us the film on DVD (2.110521). This is the campaigning Thomson, superbly capturing the sad and disillusioning effects that “uncontrolled farming was having on the American and Canadian prairies”. The score ‘had legs’, with Stokowski to be heard in a set of RCA Victor 78s featuring the Hollywood Bowl Symphony. He recorded it again with the Symphony of the Air for Vanguard in 1961.

Carlton Cooley’s Eastbourne Sketches speak of reminiscences of "a holiday spent at that delightful resort on the English Channel during the summer of 1924." It’s the initial 'Promenade' that is heard here. The movement combines a jaunty swagger and surging string writing that surprisingly incorporates a serious mien. Two decades before Cooley’s stay, Debussy had been at Eastbourne’s Grand Hotel correcting the proofs for his La Mer.

The rockily jutting Roy Harris piece derives from the ballet What So Proudly We Hail and includes Harris’s barking and erupting brass. There’s a folk aspect but it does not defuse Harris’s accustomed symphonic gait. It ends abruptly.

The helpful background notes are by Stokowski authority Edward Johnson.

Rob Barnett

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]

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