SHOSTAKOVICH Symphonies: No. 5; No. 6; No. 7, “Leningrad”1 • Leopold Stokowski, cond; Philadelphia O; NBC SO1 • MUSIC & ARTS 1232, mono (2 CDs: 153:06) Broadcast: New York 12/13/19421
None of this material is new to CD, but it brings back into circulation performances that have been out of print for a while. I have these same recordings of the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies on Pearl CDS 9044Read more and the Sixth Symphony on Dell’Arte 9023, and collectors like me will want to know if these new “restorations” from Music & Arts justify replacing their old versions. Those who don’t already have these recordings in their library, however, will want to know if they are worth adding at all.
The second question is easily answered: Stokowski’s Shostakovich, while not definitive, is attractive and exciting, and those who are not put off by vintage sound should make themselves familiar with these recordings. The conductor’s concern for showmanship and sound per se is not misplaced in these symphonies. In the Fifth (April 20, 1939), the Philly strings take on a starring role, with Stokowski encouraging hyper-expressive playing from them that, with its swooping and sliding, seems “retro” and possibly a little lacking in taste today. Nevertheless, it makes a terrific impression. Stokowski plays loose with the composer’s terraced tempo changes in the last movement. He also indulges in a bit of recomposing in the second movement (specifically, with the horns, two measures before rehearsal number 57), which is treated with more brilliance than black humor. Other conductors have performed this work more idiomatically, but Stokowski’s recording is gripping in its own way. Much the same is true for the Sixth (December 1940). Stokowski is less morbid in the opening Largo than in the Fifth Symphony’s corresponding movement, but the interpretation remains dark, imposing, and intense. The Allegro is given its equivocal due, and the closing Presto is played at a surprisingly moderate tempo, emphasizing the music’s largely sardonic temperament and increasing its stature.
Some readers will be familiar with the story behind Stokowski’s broadcast of the “Leningrad” Symphony, but it bears repeating, at least briefly. With the collapse of the non-aggression pact between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union early in World War II, the latter became the United States’s ally. The rights to perform Shostakovich’s Seventh, the first of his wartime symphonies, were secured by the NBC Symphony Orchestra, and the microfilm score reached the United States in 1942 by a somewhat circuitous route. At that time, Stokowski was the Orchestra’s principal conductor, but Arturo Toscanini remained very much in the picture, and he argued he should be the one entrusted with the Symphony’s American premiere. This event no doubt would be given prominence by the media, and would reflect well upon whoever the conductor was. Toscanini prevailed, arguing that he, as an Italian, would be a more “interesting” choice. And so the premiere went to Toscanini, and a commercial recording of it subsequently was issued, but Stokowski conducted the symphony five months later with the same orchestra, and it is that broadcast which is made available (again) here.
Toscanini is said to have looked back on the “Leningrad” Symphony as “junk.” His performance gives no hint that he disrespected the work, and it is well worth a listen. Toscanini and Shostakovich’s music were not an intuitive pairing, however, and not a wholly successful one in practice either. As for Stokowski, his reading of the “Leningrad” has the immediacy and the vital urgency and drama of a communiqué from the front—which, of course, it was. He keeps a tight grip on the score’s tendency to sprawl, and makes every note seem both inevitable and necessary. In contrast to his recordings of the Fifth and Sixth Symphonies, Stokowski’s Seventh is relatively fleet, without ever seeming glib. (Fortunately, Music & Arts doesn’t replicate Pearl’s silly decision to split the symphony across two discs.) The orchestral playing is inspired, and no allowances need to be made for its broadcast (i.e., no retakes possible) origins. In short, one’s knowledge of Shostakovich’s “Leningrad” Symphony is incomplete if one has not heard this performance. Its white-hot intensity makes it a “must.”
Pearl’s remasterings were effected by Mark Obert-Thorn (Fifth Symphony) and Ward Marston (Seventh), with Marston also doing the honors for Dell’Arte’s transfer of the Sixth Symphony. Music & Arts’s new transfers are by Obert-Thorn (Fifth and Sixth Symphonies) and by N. N. and Kit Higginson (Seventh). In a “Producer’s Note,” Obert-Thorn explains that he used “the best portions of two copies of first edition pressings,” and that he has attempted to bring out the lower frequencies of the “rather bass-deficient” originals. Indeed, in the Fifth Symphony, the Pearl CDs have more surface hiss than those reviewed here, which have a more satisfying balance across the frequency range, without losing any of their brightness. In the Sixth Symphony, Dell’Arte and Music & Arts are closer. Nevertheless, the latter again comes out on top with richer, warmer sound, and less filtering in the higher frequencies. Turning to the Seventh Symphony, we have a more problematic source: noisy discs never intended for commercial release. In both cases, the force of the music-making outweighs sonic limitations, and there are limits as to what a transfer engineer can accomplish without damaging the music per se. Both Pearl and Music & Arts offer acceptable solutions. Music & Arts has removed less of the noise, but seems to have left more of the performance intact; in comparison, Pearl’s transfer feels a little too filtered in the high end. Assorted artifacts in the source material have been unobtrusively minimized in the Music & Arts release, however.
This Music & Arts release is not particularly expensive, and if anyone knows these readings only from the Pearl or Dell’Arte releases, they still might want to acquire it for the richer sound overall. If you don’t know these readings, then you don’t know what you’re missing, and I advise you to add this release to your collection as soon as you can!