by Walter Simmons
VAUGHAN WILLIAMS Symphony No. 9. HOVHANESS Symphony No. 2, “Mysterious Mountain.” CRESTON Toccata. RIEGGER New Dance • Leopold Stokowski and his Symphony Orchestra • CALA CACD0539, mono ADD (73:17) Live: Carnegie Hall 9/25/58
Issued by the Leopold Stokowski Society, this recent release documents a concert given in honor of Stokowski’s 50th anniversary as a conductor. The concert was presented by the Contemporary Music Society, an organization led by Oliver Daniel (1911-1990), a vigorous advocate of new music and a close associate (and, eventually, biographer) of Stokowski. For the September, 1958, concert the conductor assembled an orchestra composed of some of the best musicians in New York. (This was just a handful of years before he created the American Symphony Orchestra, which probably included many of the same players.) With the exception of the Riegger piece, the program was devoted to works that had just been composed during the preceding few years. Originally scheduled as the major offering was Shostakovich’s Eleventh Symphony, composed the previous year. However, shortly before the concert, Stokowski learned of the death several weeks earlier of Ralph Vaughan Williams, and decided to replace the Shostakovich with the English composer’s Ninth Symphony, which had just been premiered in London several months before, and had not yet been heard in the United States. The Creston had also been composed in 1957, on commission from George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. Stokowski himself had commissioned the Hovhaness work, presenting the premiere in Houston in 1955.
For the Stokowski enthusiast, and for partisans of the repertoire chosen for the program, the concert was a landmark event. (As such a partisan, and an admirer of Stokowski as well, I have known about this concert for many years. But at the time it took place I was not quite twelve years old, and had as yet heard none of this music. However, within a year or two I had discovered all of it, and would have done anything to have been present.) For such listeners, this recording is a treasurable document. However, from a purely objective standpoint, some of the works fared better than others. For some listeners the sonic compromises of this 1950s live-event recording and the availability in some cases of good alternative studio recordings may make this release superfluous. Perhaps surprisingly, the Vaughan Williams emerges as the most coherent, fully convincing rendition on the program. Percy Grainger, who was in attendance, wrote to the composer’s widow, “The performance seemed a perfect one in every way and the exquisite beauty and cosmic quality of this immortal work struck me as being ideally realized.”
As someone who reveres Vaughan Williams as one of the greatest composers of his generation, I hold his nine symphonies in the highest regard. Of them I (along with many others) would select Nos. 4, 6, and 9 as the finest of them all. Furthermore, as a major work completed by a composer at age 86, No. 9 is a statement of which I stand somewhat in awe. Most commentators find it an enigmatic work, difficult to grasp and conceptualize. I share their perplexity, which may be attributable to its plethora of strikingly diverse, highly characterized musical ideas that seem to be evoking specific expressive notions that are never made explicit. Or perhaps it is simply that the fourth movement does not convey the sense of summing up the foregoing events and pressing toward a final resolution, as one typically expects from a finale—especially of a ninth and final symphony. Some have drawn upon comments and associations made by the composer at various stages during the work’s composition in an effort to “explain” its “meaning;” others have focused on its unconventional scoring (which includes prominent roles for flügelhorn and three saxophones –the latter representing one of the most successfully integrated usages in the symphonic repertoire); still others resort to the usual clichés about late works, e.g. “autumnal” expression, farewell to life, retrospective contemplation, etc. However, none of these attempts is really convincing. Neville Cardus found its clumsy nobility to be reminiscent of Bruckner, and I think he had a point. Yes, there is a clumsy nobility, but also a true sense of exaltation, albeit one that embraces elements that are ominous, sinister, grotesque, and sardonic. But as difficult as it may be to capture in words, Vaughan Williams’s Ninth is one of the great symphonies of the 1950s—a vision of cosmic beauty, but a beauty comprising revelations not all of which are comforting. Stokowski leads a performance remarkable for its consistent cogency and intense focus. Profoundly moving, it is a reading that all admirers of Vaughan Williams will want as a secondary recording.
Alan Hovhaness’s Mysterious Mountain (originally thus entitled and only later plugged into his vast catalogue of 67 symphonies) is the composer’s best-known work, deeply beloved among his many devotees. Its wide popularity among his output of more than 400 works can be attributed to its accessible euphony and its ongoing availability for nearly 50 years on a magnificent RCA recording, eventually reissued on CD, featuring Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. By now there have been quite a few additional recordings of the work, and I must confess that I haven’t kept up with all of them. Most that I have heard are quite good, but all take the outer movements much faster than Reiner did. Having been long accustomed to Reiner’s tempos, I find these faster readings somewhat disconcerting, but I am not prepared to say that they are “wrong” (Andante is a particularly vague tempo indication), although I do find that they rob the work of some of its “mystery.” Stokowski, who not only commissioned and premiered the work but also performed many other works of Hovhaness over the years, warrants respect as an authority, and it must be said that he too opts for a more hasty journey up the mountain. On the other hand, his rendition of the second movement is especially beautiful, and builds to quite an impassioned climax.
Paul Creston is another American composer whom Stokowski favored. Falling into a fast-slow-fast design, his Toccata is the sort of exuberant, festive piece for which the composer became somewhat typecast during the 1950s. Creston’s chief musical interest was rhythm, and he loved to devise textures built from syncopated, polyrhythmic ostinati, with subtly interlocking accent-patterns. A commission from the virtuosic Cleveland Orchestra provided him with the opportunity to create one of his most intricate works, boasting some 65 different rhythmic patterns within ¾ meter—a real orchestral tour-de-force with brilliant solos to highlight each instrument, all in a work less than 15 minutes in duration. The Toccata never appeared on a commercial recording until 1994, when Gerard Schwarz recorded it with the Seattle Symphony (now available on Naxos 8.559153) in a performance whose energy sags somewhat as the orchestra struggles to negotiate the work’s demands. An air-check of the Cleveland premiere reveals a meticulously accurate performance, though one that is also rather clinical and bloodless, lacking any real joy or enthusiasm. What is missing from that rendition becomes immediately apparent when heard alongside Stokowski’s reading. There is a real sense of excitement here, along with the manic exuberance that elevates Creston’s music above the level of banality to which it often sinks in less competent or sympathetic hands. Such enthusiasm offsets some unfortunate clinkers, including an oblivious trumpet entrance in the final section that occurs a phrase or two early.
Wallingford Riegger was an American composer, a contemporary of Griffes who lived into the 1960s. Although his music is heard infrequently today, he was regarded highly at one time for his personal application of the 12-tone system. However, his most widely played pieces are a number of lively, infectious works written to accompany modern dance. One of these is called New Dance, a six-minute piece originally composed for piano and percussion in 1935, but orchestrated in 1940. Its extroverted, energetic character, and its focus on syncopated rhythmic patterns bring it remarkably close to the style of Creston. It is a delightful piece, but, unfortunately, the one that fares most poorly in performance here. Odd inconsistencies of tempo destroy the sense of spontaneity and undermine the music’s cumulative impact. Far more effective is the hearty Eastman-Rochester performance from the early 1950s, conducted by Howard Hanson. Once available on a Mercury monaural LP (MG 50078), it has not, as far as I know, been reissued on compact disc.
This release is highly recommended to Stokowski aficionados and connoisseurs of tonal music of the 20th century. One regrettable omission: given the circumstances of the concert, it would have been great to have a listing of the orchestra personnel.