, October 2008
“Every great artist does thousands of things for which we have no method of writing on paper … We don’t know how to do that … And we have to, through imagination, through feeling, through—I don’t know what—some instinctive quality that some artists have, we have to try to understand and reproduce and give to the listening public what we consider was in the mind and soul of the composer …” [Leopold Stokowski, speaking in 1969: from the Teldec DVD The Art of Conducting].
In 1977, on the very day before he was to record nothing less than Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony for the first time, Leopold Stokowski died at the age of 95. He turned out to be, however, one of those fortunate artists whose reputations survive their own lifetimes intact and this new disc will, I am sure, only add to the number of his many admirers.
I have recently been listening to—and reviewing on this website—several other orchestral recordings made in the late 1920s and early 1930s, yet nothing had prepared me for the way in which those on this disc so triumphantly transcend the limitations of the recording technology of the time.
Let’s certainly give due credit to Mark Obert-Thorn whose re-mastering of the original material is certainly up to his usual excellent standards. But it is not only those transformational skills that rivet you to your seat as soon as you put the disc into the player. It is, rather, a unique combination of the musical arrangements themselves and the sheer orchestral sound.
As booklet writer David Patmore points out, as an organist the young Stokowski was used to transcribing well-known orchestral pieces for his instrument, so, once he had reached the conductor’s rostrum, performing the reverse process came almost naturally to him. But the transcriptions—and recordings—that he made of Bach’s music were so inventive, so far beyond the obvious and predictable, so possessed of a unique sonority and so intensely alive, that they immediately took on an independent life of their own.
Just as important to the success of these recordings, though, is the unique, lush “Philadelphia sound” that Stokowski famously nurtured and honed during his long spell with that orchestra (1912-1940). The sound was achieved partly by physical means – rearranging the orchestra’s seating, for instance, as well as encouraging free bowing by the string section and free breathing by the brass—and partly by re-orchestrating a wide range of repertoire to suit his own requirements. Quite fortuitously—but very happily - the resulting rather bass-heavy sonic profile turned out to be ideally suited to the new electrical recording technology that was being introduced from 1925 onwards, with its far greater ability to capture lower frequencies. In fact, it may even be that the new technology actually encouraged the development of the “Stokowski sound” further and faster, for we find that, by the time of only his second electrical recording (Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, May 1925), the conductor was already augmenting his double basses in the recording studio to achieve a more powerful sonic effect.
On this particular disc, it is the three longer pieces —BWV 565 and, especially, BWV 1004 and BWV 582—that make the greatest impact. It is rather as if Stokowski’s performances, with their characteristic cantabile violins and exquisite range of tonal colours, exercise some sort of hypnotic effect that makes an ever more cumulative and progressive impact as you immerse yourself in it for longer and longer. That is not, though, to denigrate the shorter pieces that are each, in their own way small, perfectly-crafted jewels—the Ein Feste Burg chorale prelude makes a particularly strong impact.
Even today, Stokowski’s transcriptions—not just of Bach but of many other composers—hold a place in the orchestral repertoire. In the past few years his protégé José Serebrier has been recording many of them for Naxos in the sort of state-of-the-art sound that some CD buyers consider essential. There is, though, still a great deal to be said for returning to the original versions themselves and appreciating once again the unique mastery and magic that Stokowski exerted over both the scores and his orchestra when these superb recordings were originally set down.