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Leopold STOKOWSKI - Symphonic Transcriptions
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
A Night on Bare Mountain (1867-73) (trans. L. Stokowski in 1939) [09:17]
Entr’acte to Act IV of Khovanshchina (1872-75) (trans. L. Stokowski in 1922) [05:25]
Symphonic Synthesis of Boris Godunov from the Opera - Boris Godunov (1868-74) (trans. L. Stokowski in 1936) [24:21]
Pictures at an Exhibition: Piano Suite (trans. L. Stokowski in 1939) (Promenade 02:04; Gnomus 02:21; Promenade 01:10; Il vecchio castello (The Old Castle) 03:39; Bydlo (A Polish Ox-Wagon) 02:40; Promenade 01:03; Ballet de poussins dans leurs coques (Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks) 01:16; Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle 02:40; Catacombs - Sepulchrum Romanum; Con mortuis in lingua mortua 03:44; La cabane sur des pattes de poule - Baba Yaga (The Hut on Fowl's Legs) 02:58; La grande porte de Kiev (The Great Gate of Kiev) 05:15)
Pyotr Il'yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Humoresque, Op. 10, No. 2 (trans. L. Stokowski in 1941) [02:11]
Solitude Op. 73, No. 6 (trans. L. Stokowski in 1936) [03:26]
Leopold STOKOWSKI (1882-1977)
Traditional Slavic Christmas Music (1933) [03:18]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
Recorded at The Concert Hall, the Lighthouse, Poole, Dorset, UK, 21-23 September, 2004. DDD
NAXOS SACD 6.110101 [76:47]


Leopold Stokowski has transcended ‘cult figure’ status to be remembered as one of the greatest orchestral conductors of the 20th Century. Born in London of Polish-Irish ancestry, Stokowski found considerable success in the United States, where he was naturalised as an American citizen. In addition to his sixty-year legacy of making studio recordings Stokowski was an inveterate transcriber of music for the symphony orchestra. He made some two hundred orchestral arrangements of works which had started life in other forms, such as piano solos, songs, organ music, chamber works. Stokowski’s status has suffered a decline since his death in 1977, some of which was due to a bad press and a change in fashion. There is currently a resurgence of interest in his transcriptions with several high quality recordings available in the catalogues.

With discs of the undoubted quality of this Serebrier release and an upcoming Naxos release of Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions to come, again with Serebrier and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, the future looks bright. The other day I saw a posting on a message board that described listening to Stokowski’s transcription as, “a guilty pleasure.” I smiled to myself knowingly, fully understanding the sentiment about that wonderfully lush and rich ‘Stokowski Sound’.

As a former Stokowski protégé, the Uruguay-born conductor and composer José Serebrier, has the most impeccable credentials for recording Stokowski’s transcriptions. He worked closely with Stokowski from 1957 when he moved to the United States in order to study as apprentice to the great master, becoming his associate conductor for many years. The committee of the Leopold Stokowski Society approached José Serebrier with the suggestion that he take these scores into his repertoire and subsequently record them for Naxos, a project that was undertaken in September of 2004.

Mussorgsky wrote the score to A Night on Bare Mountain in 1867. He produced a second, choral version in 1872 as his contribution to a projected collective opera, Mlada, and finally recast it in the form of a choral introduction for Act 3 of Sorochintsy Fair in 1873. The score to A Night on Bare Mountain or, to use its proper title, ‘Saint John’s Night on the Bare Mountain’ was inspired by a scene of a witches’ Sabbath in Nikolai Gogol’s demon-haunted story of St. John’s Eve. One of the reasons Leopold Stokowski decided to make his own orchestral version of Mussorgsky’s score was his endeavour to get closer to the original, bolder and wilder version, as opposed to Rimsky-Korsakov’s cleaner, more Westernised revision. In fact, Stokowski’s version is actually close to Rimsky-Korsakov’s in content and form, while faithful to the original Mussorgsky in the orchestration. The famous 1940 Walt Disney technicolor film proved to be a perfect showcase for Stokowski’s grandiose vision. This is a rich and colourful work and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra under José Serebrier are resolute throughout with a reading that is wild and exciting, bold and craggy, which perfectly fits the requirements of the score. At point 01:39-02:35 the mysterious introduction to the work has a Middle-eastern flavour. The orchestral effects are marvellously performed throughout, particularly the stunning crash of thunder at point 05:33 to 05:39. There is superbly rich and clear woodwind playing especially between points 04:32 to 04:49 and 07:08-08:42.

Stokowski’s version of Mussorgky’s Khovanshchina fragment (the Entr’acte to Act IV) transforms it into a moving, heart-breaking statement. Stokowski’s own words, printed in the published score explain: “Of all the inspired music of Mussorgsky, this is one of the most eloquent in its intensity of expression. A man is going to his execution. He has fought for freedom – but failed. We hear the harsh tolling of bells, the gradual unfolding of a dark and tragic melody, with under-currents of deep agitated tones, all painted with sombre timbres and poignant harmonies.”

Everyone is on top form with a performance of unerring drama that easily evokes the harsh and terrifying world surrounding the execution. Credit must go to the Bournemouth strings who are in exceptional form. The episodes featuring the gong and brass at points 00:46-00:59 and 01:46-01:56 are especially effective.

Mussorgsky composed his supreme national opera Boris Godunov to his own libretto after Pushkin’s historical drama on the same subject and after Karamzin’s History of the Russian Empire. Rimsky-Korsakov in an effort to make the opera more acceptable to contemporary taste revised and re-orchestrated the score in 1896, again revising it for performance in 1908.

Stokowski gave the U.S. première of the original version opera Boris Godunov in 1929. Over the years, Stokowski experimented with several concert versions, including one with singers, eventually leading to the present substantial Symphonic Synthesis of Boris Godunov. The opera was not that well known in the first part of the twentieth century, and Stokowski felt that a symphonic version would help in bringing this great music to the attention of a wider audience. At nearly thirty minutes in length Stokowski has produced a substantial score. It would have been helpful had index points been used on the disc.

Serebrier and his orchestra have that special dramatic vitality to their performance and cast a strong spell. The work opens in a long, tense and serious manner. A change of mood at point 07:00 includes the extensive use of tolling bells reminding the listener of the church bells in Britten’s opera: Peter Grimes. A majestic fanfare at point 08:53 builds up a head of steam at 10:59 to a climax at 12:04. A restful episode between points 12:04-14:03 changes to one of a scampering and light-hearted vein (points 14:20-16-10). The extended restful section between points 16:11-24:21 provides a welcome respite from what has gone before, a mood that continues to the conclusion of the score.

Mussorgsky wrote the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition in 1874, inspired by visiting a posthumous exhibition in St. Petersburg of four-hundred or so paintings and drawings by his good-friend Victor Hartmann. A painter, water-colourist, stage designer and architect, Hartman’s death, at the early age of 39, devastated Mussorgsky. It is likely that composing the Pictures at an Exhibition as a tribute to Hartmanns art provided the grieving Mussorgsky with an element of catharsis. Mussorgsky wrote, “Ideas, melodies come to me of their own accord, like the roast pigeons in the story - I gorge and gorge and overeat myself. I can hardly manage to put it down on paper fast enough. In the creation of the piano suite Pictures at an Exhibition Mussorgsky’s tableaux (or scenes) attempt to capture the essence of each picture with vivid tonal realism and an astonishing aptitude for revealing Hartmanns most subtle artistic creation.

There were already several orchestral versions of the suite Pictures at an Exhibition by the time Serge Koussevitzky commissioned Maurice Ravel in 1922. Ravel’s score is by far the most famous of all the orchestrations and is now established as a core part of the orchestral repertoire and has become a celebrated orchestral showpiece. Stokowski knew that Ravel’s orchestration, that was based on the Rimsky-Korsakov revision of the piano score, contained errors and omissions. He also felt that Ravel’s orchestration was a great symphonic work, but not sufficiently ‘Russian’ and too subtle to do justice to Mussorgsky’s coarser idiom. Stokowski’s version is shorter than Ravel’s, because he decided to remove two pictures: Tuileries and The Market Place at Limoges, presumably because he felt they sounded too French, and/or he thought they were actually written by Rimsky-Korsakov. Maestro Serebrier sees little point in comparing the value of the Ravel and Stokowski orchestrations, as they both serve the work wonderfully, albeit in different ways, sensing that the Stokowski version will gain more devotees as time goes by.

Stokowski chose to employ an organ in the opening Promenade walking theme, which proves most effective as part of the colourful orchestration. Maestro Serebrier and the Bournemouth Orchestra provide a suitably menacing representation of Gnomus and The Old Castle with its accompanying troubadour is poignantly interpreted. In the tableaux Bydlo the Polish ox wagon with huge wheels is persuasively portrayed as it makes its stumbling progress that grows in sonority as it approaches and then fades away. The cheeping and scurrying in the scene of the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks in their Shells is especially compelling. Serebrier’s reading is most convincing in the tableaux Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuyle which represents one as rich and successful with a proud stately melody and the other as poor and unassuming represented by a humble indecisive subject. The orchestra in the Catacombs scene provides a most sombre and unsettling melody; heavy chords contrasted with a beautiful closing section of stillness. The virtuosity and brilliance of the Bournemouth players is superbly displayed in the tableaux The Hut on Fowl’s Legs. In the great final scene The Great Gate of Kiev, spectacular and exhilarating playing take the work to a sonorous and majestic conclusion.

The two Tchaikovsky fragments become mini-symphonic poems in Stokowski’s palette. Firstly the Humoresque, from Deux morceaux, Op. 10, No. 2 for piano, which was written in 1872. The middle section is based on a catchy street song which Tchaikovsky heard in Nice during a Mediterranean holiday. Rachmaninov used to play it as an encore, and Stravinsky used it in his ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. Secondly the title Solitude is Stokowski’s own; the original title was Again, as Before, Alone, Op. 73, No. 6, the final song from a set of Six Romances, on poems by D.M. Rathaus. In the hands of Serebrier these two short symphonic poems are treated with love and affection bringing out their contrasting moods splendidly.

Stokowski’s own composition, the short Traditional Slavic Christmas Music, is based on Ippolitov-Ivanov’s In a Manger, which in turn is based on a traditional Christmas hymn. Stokowski’s bare orchestration, which he first performed in Philadelphia on 19 December 1933, interpolates string and brass choirs (no woodwinds in this score), and has a certain magic, and not surprisingly, an organ-like quality. This mournful music is played here tenderly with an admirable fondness.

The Naxos SACD sound quality, which I played on my standard CD Player, is quite superb. The booklet notes by José Serebrier and Edward Johnson of the Leopold Stokowski Society are interesting and highly informative. On this form the talented Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra display their credentials as one of Britain’s premier orchestras and show how excellent their partnership is with inspirational conductor José Serebrier.

Whatever superlatives you hear about this disc I urge you to believe them. This is undoubtedly one of my records of the year. Stokowski, Serebrier and Naxos are a winning combination.

Michael Cookson

see also Reviews by Jonathan Woolf and Colin Clarke

On Naxos an Interview with José Serebrier: ‘Serebrier on Stokowski’

To mark the occasion of this new CD with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky orchestral transcriptions José Serebrier recalls his memories of Stokowski in an interview. Serebrier discusses Stokowski’s attitude toward orchestral transcriptions, and articulates his own approach to recording the music. For the interview visit the Naxos website: link



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