, July 2010
Let's try the two Bach discs first. Fear not - it's not a case of glitz and glare. This is Bach orchestrated and shaped in performance with responsive musical sensitivity. We start not with a showstopper or at least not in the Technicolor sense. The Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3 is a gentle feather-fall in this reading. Serebrier builds and sustains the blessing and does nothing to break the spell. A remarkable kinship of serenity of spirit arches over the first eight tracks with the Chorale from the Easter Cantata providing a rhetorical majestic flourish over this sea of peace. And the mood remains largely undisturbed into the Stokowski ‘originals’ and in the Handel. In the Purcell the solo cello takes the seraphic voice of Dido in the Lament. We return to Bach for the final Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor BWV582. This delivers drama to end a disc that otherwise seems designed to soothe the savage breast. These symphonic transcriptions reveal a side of Stokowski that could be relied upon during his long Philadelphia tenure to have the same soothing effect as a Beecham lollipop. Indeed it is a surprise that the two giants did not exchange such salves for the soul.
In volume 2 the Toccata and Fugue in D minor is as grandiloquent as need be without quite the gargantuan Stokowski-Decca balance. On the other hand the recording is sensitive and wide in dynamic range. It picks up even the key tickle of the woodwind. Serebrier attends to the conflagration but also brings out the exciting elysian harp arpeggios. This is a wonderful recreation. With the Arioso and Wachet auf we return to the legato piacevole of the first disc. The Adagio seemed almost to launch into a certain work by Rodrigo. Mein Jesu, like many of these honeyed cantabiles, reminds us how much Finzi owed to Bach. Indeed much that we hear on the two Bach discs suggests that Stokowski would have been a great Finzi interpreter - listen to the Siciliano if you remain to be convinced. Majesty opens the anthology and returns for the Bach Fugue in C minor. It leaves a suspicion that one of the longer bipartite Bach works might have rounded out the second collection with greater emotional symmetry.
We divert from Bach for pulse-slowing works such as the Adoramus te by Palestrina, the Byrd Pavane, a fairly fleet Boccherini Minuet sounding a little like the Elizabethan Serenade as does the Haydn Andante Cantabile. The Clarke Trumpet Prelude seems a bit less than special. I am not sure the trumpet principal really enjoyed the piece.
Symphonic syntheses of Wagner were a specialty of Stokowski. Gorgeous is the word for the effects secured. The anvil blow in the Entrance of Gods into Valhalla certainly lets you know it's there and the fortissimos are stunning. The depth and affluence of tone is stirring in the Tristan Synthesis. The Parsifal confection is grand on religiosity - just as prescribed. We end with the balm and flame-flicker of the Magic Fire Music from Die Walkure and a lavishly potent but respectfully understated Ride of the Valkyries.
The fourth disc is largely Mussorgsky - or I should say largely Stokowski-Mussorgsky. A Night on the Bare Mountain is given one of its most sinister outings. This register with particularly prominence not so much in the wild goat caperings as in the woodwind solos which are superb. Produced for Fantasia it is quite a lurid piece with the effect only chamfered in the visuals accorded by Disney. The entr'acte to Act IV of Khovanshchina is Sibelian in its groaning claustrophobia; compare the deep rumble in the finale of Sibelius 2. The Godunov Synthesis was produced three years before the Bare Mountain, in 1936. From Serebrier's comments it is clear that Stokowski continued to tinker and adjust, sometimes radically, all his life. The result here is tense and wonderfully radiant. This is a piece I have every wish to return to such is the spell it casts. The Pictures have been arranged and orchestrated time after time. The most unusual among orchestral forays has been the version by Henry Wood issued on Lyrita. But there are many others including a modernish - well OK, 1970s - one by Philip Jones of PJBE fame and a synthesiser one by Tomita. Bydlo is given an implacable and pretty fast stride - there's real threat here, relieved only by those scything strings in tr. 8 at 1:02. Serebrier produces a miraculously pianissimo Promenade just before the chuckling and knowing Ballet of the Chickens. The Promenade is not spent profusely here - it appears only three times and that's to the good. The brass bark and howl for all the world like escapees from a frenetic Herrmann recording session. The Great Gate has some magically calculated effects including the fluttering Firebird plumage at 3:03 onwards. Stokowski seems to have the Tchaikovsky 1812 in mind as he recreates The Gate.
After such magniloquence it is good to have the ear balm and cheeriness of Tchaikovsky's Humoresque op. 10 No. 2 and the heartfelt tremble and glimmer of the violins in Solitude. The mood is unbroken by the rounded arioso of Stokowski's Traditional Slavic Christmas Music from 1933.
Finally we have about 23:41 of Jose Serebrier interviewed by Raymond Bisha who sets the scene. The pattern is music - talk – music - talk. We know all the music from the other four discs. Serebrier has much to say even if the recorded quality is somewhat treble-blunted by being taken down over the phone. He makes the point that he never studied with Stokowski - not that this stops Bisha from again repeating the error in one of his later questions - but instead worked with him. Serebrier was in fact a pupil of Antal Dorati and later attended the Monteux school. After Stokowski Serebrier worked with Szell and benefited from the clarity he brought to the conductor's art; interestingly there is a DG Cleveland/Knussen CD of Mussorgsky-Stokowski. The interview is valuable also for the light brought to bear on why Stokowski wrote some two hundred transcriptions. We are also reminded us that Stokowski gave more premieres than any other conductor. The chances he took with new and often avant-garde repertoire ultimately cost him his post at Philadelphia. Serebrier has much that is fascinating and instructive to say about Stokowski's free approach to music and visual effects - all part of a glamour that continues to glow.
Chandos have also produced four full price CDs of Stokowski transcriptions with quite an overlap with the Naxos sequence. These are conducted by Matthias Bamert. These are listed below but compete in a different price bracket altogether. Naxos have two volumes of Bach-Stokowski in their Historical line (volume 1; volume 2). Pristine have also entered the historical lists. A fascinating 2 CD miscellany of Bach orchestral transcriptions on 78 is on Biddulph. There are two intriguing Chandos-Slatkin CDs of composer and conductor arrangements. Chandos also carry a CD of Stojkowski-Bach from 1980 analogue sessions by the Sydney Symphony Orchestra and Robert Pikler.