FREDERICK STOCK

1872-1942

When Ed Rich the headmaster of Town School for Boys in San Francisco asked this 11-year-old record collector to become the music critic of the Town Crier, a monthly sheet if I remember right, perhaps I should have told him I wasn’t ready to distinguish between useful, empathetic criticism and my own juvenile failure to resist imperfect perceptions. Thus I trashed poor Frederick Stock in one of my first reviews. I’d seen a picture of him looking a bit rumpled, and therefore inept, as he rehearsed his Chicago Symphony in that perennial wing collar, and after hearing his recording of Brahms’ Third with its leisurely third movement I insulted the man something fierce, writing that the music sounded so tired it was as if an old man were trying to make his way over the Alps. Oh dear!

A million years later I listen to that same Brahms recording, now safely transferred from “78” to CD, and see where I went wrong. Yes, the third movement is slow, even (on purpose I think) a bit spent. But this is no ancient slipping on an Alpine ascent, the performance is quite strong enough, becoming rather profound indeed, and with the most amorous and pleading of cello brigades. Yes, I goofed.

And the first movement? Flooded with feeling, lightly. Snappy and organic, with no giant gestures as the music shoves off, the effect is almost Mozartian. Stock allows himself a big impetuosity now and then, rushing for instance into the passions of the development. A little later the solo horn is melodizing at 39,000 feet, fondly, sweetly. The clouds smile. And near movement’s-end there’s a three star felicity, the violas entering midway in bar 214, sandwiched by sustained violins and cellos, with a We’re Here, Folks salute and the deepest of deep warm tones, a buzzy walnut oil warmth. Well, Stock was a violist in the Chicago Symphony before this very clever young man from Germany – he was a conservatory mate of Mengelberg’s – became its conductor in 1905. He’d remain in that post for 37 years, conducting regular concerts, pops concerts, children’s concerts, taking the orchestra off to Detroit on the night train to appear on the General Motors Hour, and not bothering to make much of a career elsewhere. He preferred to stay home in Hyde Park and write Glazounovian music that still, some of it, wears rather well. He was of course typed as somewhat inferior to more peripatetic maestri, but this is to miss what a delightful conductor he was. Not as elegant and seignorial, say, as Koussevitzky, or as demonically dramatic as Mengelberg, but we don’t need clones of those and other Larger than Lifes.

Perhaps Stock’s conducting was comfy as an old shoe, but mind you, the shoe was well made. Discriminating Virgil Thomson in the old New York Herald Tribune got it right when he wrote about a Brahms performance, yes it was the Third, that it “floated on a Viennese lilt, pastoral, poetic, and effortlessly convincing.” From Stock’s recording of the Third — alas he did not record the other symphonies — one can imagine how he must have handled the Brahms symphonic canon. Very likely his First was unusually buoyant, meanwhile I hear quite clearly a very pastorally-oriented Second, and the Fourth, I suspect, came on snappy and warm, luminous!

The thrust of Stock’s orchestra was relatively intimate and in its gemuetlich string sound there was a lovely liquid tone with a real shine to it. In his fetching 1927 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth you can almost drink the sound of those Michigan Avenue violins. And the generous but graceful, sometimes positively sinuous changes of tempo in that smooth-rolling performance work now as well as they did in what we’re forever being told was a more permissive time for undue license in such matters. Well, it was somewhat later that several conspicuously-placed and singularly literal-minded record reviewers tried to sow the seeds of guilt in their listeners who, left to their own listening, would not have become as partisan as politicians in favor of, say, Toscanini to the disadvantage of Bruno Walter, Furtwaengler, Mitropoulos, etcetc. But enough of such editorializing.

As Tchaikovsky in the opening movement of his Fifth Symphony reaches at bar 116 the ante-room, so to speak, of what will become at measure 154 an established “second key,” D major, and, a handful of bars later, an honest-to-goodness “lyric second theme,” he proceeds to season his score with a succession of tempo directions implicatory or definite, that’s to say molto espressivo, poco meno animato, stringendo, Tempo I, un pochettino più animato, and finally, at the great lyric tune, molto più tranquillo, molto cantabile ed espressivo. All of which might be translated as “slow down some (for a legato crescendo in the strings), then a bit more (for repeated, possibly pleading notes in violins and cellos), then pick up speed again, animating even more (at the sort-of-fanfare bar 154), slowing significantly a little later for that lyric theme.

No conductor is the same in this little chapter with its multitude of directions leading to a multitude of choices, some of which could be negative reactions to so much prompting from a composer who is 1) thorough, or 2) too fastidious, depending on one’s point of view. Best is when the music, any particular measures thereof, simply SPEAKS to the conductor, leaving no alternative but to draw the tempo this way or that, and Stock puts himself on a most delightful limb by slowing considerably rather than accelerating when, not long after those pleading notes of the violins and cellos, his first horn — in exceeedingly Brahmsian mood at bars 140-43 – dawdles amazingly over one and then another DEEE, duhduhDUHH, DEEE,duhduhDUHH.

Stock, we know, was a versatile conductor; still, it’s something of a surprise to find him so echt-espagnol in a “live” 1940 performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s celebrated Capriccio. A riotous clarinet early on, a suitably indolent view of the Variations movement, a sudden ascent of the Gypsy Song with skirt-rustling strings buzzing into action, then a mock despairing viola solo, why, it all adds up to a symphonic hoot for the ages. No less admirable is a 1941 recording of Forest Murmurs from Wagner’s Siegfried, a shimmering performance brimming with joy. As the opera historian Gustav Kobbé wrote, “the amorous quiver of the branches quickens Siegfried’s half-defined aspirations.” No one has caught this quiver-and-quickening better than Stock.

Other credits: a fluid, frictionless Also Sprach Zarathustra of Strauss from 1940 that seems to play itself; a Bach Second Suite dated 1927 that licks its sonic chops in a warm introduction, proceeding to a darting, near-manic bourrée and a pomposo polonaise; and a Schubert C major Symphony (1940, I believe) with a breezily pastoral opening movement claiming such interesting detail as a VERY pianissimo and more-legato-than-usual treatment of the trombones’ Big Scene late in the exposition. Also note the exceptionally bright and insistent repeated notes of the trumpets: you can’t miss these luminous triplets at bar 289.

And then there’s Stock’s problem-child Mozart G minor Symphony (about 1930) in which the tempo-shifts in the first movement are a bit much for the music’s natural line but how fascinating that amorous subtext of the second theme with its sexy Oh Well!, an earlierday voicing, so to speak, of George and Ira Gershwin’s But Not for Me. The dumped-suitor scenario is pursued by Stock, logically enough, in Mozart’s plaintive slow movement. Consolation comes in the lyric theme of the finale!

Now for an encore, April 1935 in Chicago’s Orchestra Hall . . .