ENDNOTES, 13th October 2016

Leopold Stokowski, Carnegie Hall 1947

Leopold Stokowski, Carnegie Hall 1947

ENDNOTES, 13th October 2016

In this edition: Chandos’ tributes to Stokowski and Richard Hickox * Choral treasury of English visionaries from Somm

Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) was one of the great showman-conductors of his time – a famed interpreter of Rachmaninov, a great popular persuader and communicator for music (especially in his pivotal role in Walt Disney’s film, Fantasia) and a meticulous, brilliant arranger of the music of many other composers, from Bach to Shostakovich. Stokowski remained on the conductor’s podium into his old age, conducting Mahler’s Second Symphony at the Proms when most ordinary men would have retired; and in a BBC interview in the 1960s he spoke of his interest in the Promenade audience, in particular, “…their hunger for music”. For some critics, the conductor is a somewhat controversial figure – too much of a showman, perhaps – but if there is one characteristic that could be attributed to the maestro, it was his hunger for music; the passionate quest, through several centuries, to take the work of composers (some of whom, such as 16th-century England’s William Byrd, you might not associate with an international figure of Stokowski’s persona) and infuse them with a new brilliance.

From Chandos Records comes a recent compilation of Stokowski arrangements, admirably performed by the BBC Philharmonic Orchestra, based at Media City, Salford, conducted by Matthias Bamert, and thrillingly recorded in a style of which Stokowski would undoubtedly have approved. Here, the recording engineers have produced a CD of true demonstration class, allowing us to appreciate the orchestra in all its varied facets – from the heartfelt Andante Cantabile by Tchaikovsky (chamber music expanded by Stokowski to full orchestral strings) to the American triumphalism and razzmatazz of Sousa’s march The Stars and Stripes Forever. However, three pieces stand out for me in the collection; the Pavane and Gigue by Elizabethan and Jacobean England’s William Byrd, the Sarabande and Courante by the baroque composer and organist, Dietrich Buxtehude, and a United Nations March by Shostakovich. Not only do these three works show the full quality and vision of Stokowski’s skill as an arranger and orchestrator: they bring out the very best in the playing and conducting of the performers, bringing us interpretations of music which the listener will want to play again and again. Firstly, the Byrd: here the ancient pavane almost sighs its way into view, with ravishing realisations of the music’s English melancholia by the horn and string players of the BBC Philharmonic. We are immediately in the landscape of mediaeval churches, or (in the ensuing, lighter Gigue) the Royal court; late-afternoon light, perhaps, on the stone of a building or the furrows of a Saxon field – Stokowski’s 20th-century orchestration somehow intensifying the antique feel, the authenticity of the original structure.

Next, the Buxtehude: a similarly elegiac work with hushed church sonorities, yet given an extraordinary other-worldly atmosphere by the use of the decidedly 20th century electronic instrument, the Ondes Martenot (played on the disc by Cynthia Millar), creating a lost, mournful, almost tearful impression via the strange “science fiction” waves of sound it generates. Finally, the United Nations March, a piece of superior cinematic Shostakovich recycling, beginning with a noble full-brass statement – very like the thrilling Festival Overture – and then suddenly taking us by surprise with a tongue-in-cheek parade-ground fanfare. From this delightful and amusing moment, the march – which turns out to be very relaxed and tuneful – seems more like an accompaniment to a Soviet propaganda film, showing happy citizens in great Russian cities, or a pleasant bus-ride through Moscow. However, the work was played at the U.N. General Assembly and does genuinely give us a sense of a great body going about its good works (in theory, at least).

Chandos has also celebrated the life of another fine conductor, Richard Hickox CBE, who died suddenly in 2008 at the age of just 60 – shortly after being taken unwell at a recording session in Wales, in which Holst’s Choral Symphony was to have been produced. I can recall Hickox’s Proms debut in 1983, and I was privileged to see him conduct many times, including a Vaughan Williams symphonic cycle at the Barbican. Like Stokowski, Richard Hickox was a seasoned, dedicated recording artist, relishing music of all eras – from Haydn (his Nelson Mass is one of the finest on record) to 20th– century British classics. ‘The Richard Hickox Legacy’ is an impressive series of CDs – an important retrospective, both for Chandos and for recording history in this country generally, as the conductor has included many less-well-known pieces – such as (in the Holst collection) the infectious energy and rhythms of A Fugal Overture, and Capriccio (from 1932) – a work which begins with some of the loneliness of the symphonic impression and yet suddenly changes mood entirely, to lead us on a quirky, catchy, (rather complex) march – whose tune can be very difficult to filter out of the mind and ear!


However, it is Holst’s Egdon Heath – inspired by Hardy’s Wessex – which truly makes the CD; a peculiar atmosphere of stillness and the slowing of time, of being alone in the countryside, but with a surprising jolt in our reverie – for out of nowhere, a sudden approach of a gust of wind, or some more enigmatic and worrying supernatural disturbance in the landscape. At just over 16 minutes in length, Egdon Heath, nevertheless seems to be much longer, embracing many ideas and much drama, and with some of the composer’s strongest, most appealing writing and ideas. Again, as you would expect from Chandos, a recording that brings the music to new life – and a reminder of the quiet, unassuming greatness of the late Richard Hickox.

Holst’s The Evening Watch, Op. 43. No. 1 features on another highly-recommendable CD, this time from Somm Records – the label founded by Siva Oke, who, with recording engineer, Paul Arden-Taylor, can rival Chandos for a choice of visionary repertoire and resonant recording venues. Entitled “English Visionaries”, the new disc brings the bright, clear, on-the-note voices of the accomplished and ambitious Birmingham Conservatoire Chamber Choir to the fore. Conducted by Paul Spicer, with Nicholas Morris, organ, this smaller-scale choral force (recorded at St. Alban the Martyr, Birmingham) produces a wide, full, inspirational sound in the rare Vaughan Williams piece, A Vision of Aeroplanes which dates from 1956, and in the better-known, Tudor-like Mass in G Minor (soli: Elizabeth Adams, Nicola Starkie, David Emerson and William Gee). That Three Choirs contemporary of Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells, is represented by a setting of Joseph Beaumont (1616-99), The House of the Mind – “As earth’s pageant passes by,/Let reflection turn thine eye/Inward and observe thy breast;/There alone dwells solid rest.” Somm’s recording takes the listener to these misty regions – another thought provoking and enjoyable offering from a label of rare distinction.

Stuart Millson is the Classical Music Editor of The Quarterly Review

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