, November 2010
RACHMANINOV, S.: Symphony No. 3 / Vocalise (National Philharmonic, Stokowski) NC8802024
DVOŘÁK, A.: Serenade / VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R.: Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis / PURCELL, H.: Dido’s Lament (Royal Philharmonic, Stokowski) NC8802025
BYRD, W. / TAVERNER, J.: Masses / Motets (King’s College Choir, Willcocks) NC8802020
There is a different sort of delving into the past in three new Newton Classics releases. This CD company is re-releasing recordings, most of them originally made in analog form, from the middle and latter part of the 20th century. And some of them are very special indeed. Leopold Stokowski’s broadly Romantic conducting style was not to everyone’s taste during his lifetime and will not be so today, but it has to be said that two new recordings made when Stokowski was 93 years old (two years before his death) are fascinating and in many ways quite remarkable. Stokowski conducted the première of Rachmaninoff’s Third Symphony in 1936 but then never again led it in public—so his return to the work in 1975 was quite an event. And he makes a strong case for this symphony, emphasizing its very broadly melodic lines and lush, even cloying orchestration. The pacing is deliberate, but not slow, and the National Philharmonic plays willingly and with feeling, if not perhaps with the burnished quality of brass that shows Rachmaninoff at his best. The composer’s orchestration of the well-known Vocalise completes the CD, with Stokowski making the work as expansive and emotional as anyone could wish.
With the Royal Philharmonic, Stokowski in the same year made his first-ever recording of Dvořák’s Serenade for Strings, giving the work a lush and expansive performance that feels rather old-fashioned and a touch heavy-handed, but is certainly quite beautiful in its own way. Vaughan Williams, whose work Stokowski advocated for many decades, is here represented in a beautifully modulated and highly emotive version of Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis that shows Stokowski’s conducting style at its most effective. On the other hand, Stokowski’s overblown orchestration of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas shows why musical purists have long been uncomfortable with Stokowski’s handling of early music. Whatever else this version may be, and it is certainly lush and broad, it is not Purcell except in the most general sense. It is, however, very well played, and indicative, for those interested in such things, of the way music of pre-Classical times was brought to the concert hall at a time when such works were rarely heard and Stokowski was seeking ways to make them sonically appealing to audiences of the day.
Moving even further back in time, and in a much more authentic way (although not fully in accordance with historical performance practices, which had yet to become the norm), the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge, offers some beautifully sung versions of masses and motets by William Byrd (1540–1623) and John Taverner (c. 1490–1545). The Taverner works were recorded in 1961; the Byrd, in 1959 and 1963. The sound of these a cappella pieces is actually quite fine—the recordings were all made in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge—and the singing is warm, mellifluous and beautifully controlled. The sound is more massive than would be heard in more-authentic performances today, and there is more overt emotionalism expressed in the singing, but the purity of tone of the performers is winning, and their commitment to expressing the underlying sentiments of the texts comes through with clarity and feeling. The music of Byrd and Taverner is not often heard even today, but it is of considerable musical—not merely historical—interest, and this well-priced two-CD set provides a fine opportunity to hear some very beautiful and effective performances by a choir that was, at the time of these recordings, one of the very best. What the performances lack in terms of adhering to historical principles that were unknown at the time, they make up for in sheer quality of sound and expressiveness. That makes these and the other Newton Classics CDs recordings to which listeners can look forward, even as the reissues themselves look back at performances from 30 to 50 years ago.