Orchestral Transcriptions of Leopold Stokowski
BBC Philharmonic Orchestra/Matthias Bamert
rec. New Broadcasting House (Chapel, Concert Hall & Studio 7), Manchester, 1993-2004
CHANDOS CHAN10900 [80:19]
Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra/José Serebrier
rec. Concert Hall of the Lighthouse, Poole, 2004-2008
NAXOS 8.578305 [61:28]
These discs make for an interesting and fortuitous comparison. Released at the same time, both contain similar repertoire and both are led by conductors who worked with Stokowski himself earlier in their careers. Both discs are, so far as I can make out, garnered as a “greatest hits” collection from a series of previously released Stokowski transcription discs, and you’ll find several of those discs reviewed fully elsewhere on Musicweb (see here for one example).
Listening to these discs in such close succession reminded me of just how much fun these transcriptions are. You'd need a cold heart jot to be thrilled by the horror-film drama of the D minor Toccata and Fugue which opens both discs: the roar of the bass, the tremble of the strings and the snarl of the brass are tremendous, and the things he does with the ending are just crazy. But it's tremendous! Who cares if the transcriber has taken enormous liberties? These transcriptions are things in themselves, separate from, indeed all but independent from their source material, and it would take the worst kind of purist not to glory in that fact.
Bamert and the BBC Philharmonic sound great on the Chandos disc. Byrd's Pavane and Bach's Air on the G String benefit from gorgeously rich, slushy string sound, though the Air has a rather inexplicable increase in tempo towards the end, and Wachet Auf suffers from the same thing. The Prince of Denmark's March is a little peremptory, but Jesu, Joy is delightful, as is Tchaikovsky's simply arranged Andante Cantabile. Dido's Lament is most notable for the mature way it handles the piece's emotional power, deeply moving without ever being manipulative, while the opposite is true of Panis Angelicus. Shostakovich's UN March sounds a bit like Sousa, while Stokowski's own take on Night on Bare Mountain is even more ghostly than the better known versions, though the ending is transcendent in a way that seems not entirely appropriate. Some things are more bizarre than others: Mozart’s Rondo alla Turca sounds a little silly, and playing Buxtehude on an Ondes Martenot is something that arguably not even Stokowski could get away with; however, Chopin's Funeral March will shake you to your boots (and fully test your speakers' bass capabilities).
Serebrier shares lots of the same repertoire, and it’s played every bit as well so that it’s difficult to put a cigarette paper between them. Most listeners will be swayed primarily by the choice of repertoire, and Serebrier’s gain is the two Wagner extracts. These are great, not least because, with only a few exceptions, Stokowski leaves well alone, creating concert paraphrases of the operas rather than re-scorings, and Serebrier unfolds them with gentle majesty. The oboes-as-Rhinemaidens sound a little odd, but the climaxes are very impressive. Sheep May Safely Graze is the model of a Pastoral, and Stokowski seems to enjoy scoring the “Little” Fugue to ensure it doesn’t live up to its name.
The recorded sound is perhaps focused slightly further forwards in Poole, but I loved the big bloom that you get in Manchester. You really hear that where they duplicate works - it's fascinating listening to them side-by-side - and in, for example, the Toccata and Fugue, the sound spacing in Bournemouth makes it easier to hear each string voice in its place in the stereoscope, utterly clear in a way that you don’t get in Manchester; but then, Manchester has a little more atmosphere, to my taste.
Both of these discs have merits and both sound great in their own way. Both are recommendable and should, hopefully, rehabilitate these transcriptions for an age where affinity to the original has become sacrosanct. Listener preference and repertoire choice will be the main decider here. Naxos does, of course, have price on its side, but Chandos packs in twenty minutes’ more music.
Orchestral Transcriptions of Leopold Stokowski (Chandos)
J.S. Bach (1685-1750): Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565 [10:00]
William Byrd (c. 1540-1623): Pavane and Gigue [4:40]
J.S. Bach (1685-1750): Aria (‘Air on the G String’) [5:50]
Jeremiah Clarke (c. 1674-1707): Trumpet Prelude (‘The Prince of Denmark’s March’) [2:15]
J.S. Bach (1685-1750): Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring [3:06]
Dieterich Buxtehude (c. 1637-1707): Sarabande and Courante [4:39]
J.S. Bach (1685-1750): Wachet auf [4:04]
Fryderyk Franciszek Chopin (1810-1849): Marche funèbre [6:59]
Henry Purcell (1659-1695): Dido's Lament [3:59]
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791): Turkish March [2:47]
César Franck (1822-1890): Panis angelicus [3:45]
Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975): United Nations March [2:29]
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-1881): A Night on Bare Mountain [10:43]
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893): Andante cantabile [7:50]
Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov (1859-1935): In the Manger [2:51]
John Philip Sousa (1854-1932): The Stars and Stripes Forever [3:27]
Stokowski Transcriptions (Naxos)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750): Toccata and Fugue in D minor [9:02]
Pyotr Il’yich Tchaikovsky (1840-93): Solitude, Op. 73, No. 6 [3:26]
Richard Wagner (1813-83): Entrance of the Gods into Valhalla (from Das Rheingold) [8:13]
J.S. Bach: Air on the G string (from Orchestral Suite No. 3) [5:35]
Modest Mussorgsky (1839-81): A Night on Bare Mountain [9:15]
Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977): Traditional Slavic Christmas Music [3:04]
J.S. Bach: Sheep May Safely Graze (from Cantata No. 208) [5:37]
Henry Purcell (1659-95): Dido’s Lament (from Dido and Aeneas) [4:21]
Luigi Boccherini (1743-1805): Minuet [3:44]
J.S. Bach: ‘Little’ Fugue in G minor, BWV 578 [3:36]
Wagner: Ride of the Valkyries (from Die Walküre) [5:35]