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Classics CD Review, February 2009

It seems rather odd that José Serebrier, who often worked with Stokowski, chose to omit the most popular of the Maestro's Bach transcriptions, the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. [It’s the opening track on Vol 2, 8.572050 - Ed.] On Naxos' CD we have the full orchestral sound associated with the conductor only in the finales of the Fugues in G and C minor. The remainder are soft, contemplative works exploring string sonorities. Also we have transcriptions of works by Handel and Purcell, along with Stokowski's setting of Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies, which begins and ends with soft bells which also separate the two. Serebrier's sensitive performances are beautifully captured by Naxos. Stokowski recorded all of this music himself, much of it several times, and you can hear many of these in a fine Pearl 2-CD set of transfers by Mark Obert-Thorn (See also Naxos 8.111297 and visit Stokowski’s biography page on naxos.com – Ed.)



Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, November 2006

Stokowski’s transcriptions - but not recorded by Stokowski?

Yes, but how brilliantly they sound on this marvellous new Naxos release conducted by José Serebrier who is served by excellent Naxos sound. Serebrier, who contributes the concise, readable and erudite notes, was, for five years, Stokowski’s Associate Conductor at New York’s Carnegie Hall and was hailed by Stokowski as “the greatest master of orchestral balance”.

Serebrier’s readings of Stokowski’s arrangements are studied: meticulous attention paid to orchestral colour, detail, perspectives, clarity and transparency, dynamics, accents and phrasing.

One of the most affecting selections is Stokowski’s arrangement of Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies: the ninth century Veni Creator Spiritus (‘Come Holy Ghost, Our Souls Inspire’) and the lovely medieval Veni Emmanuel, the tune familiar to us at Christmastide and used by Respighi in his Three Botticelli Pictures. The two melodies, Veni Emmanuel climaxing in a joyous outburst, are prefaced and separated by gently receding, tolling bells. The arrangement of Handel’s Pastoral Symphony continues in the same beauteous serenity. Even more affecting is Stokowski’s arrangement of Purcell’s Dido music; strings expressively layered and nuanced, and accents, and solo cello phrasing sensitively enhancing the sobbing pathos of this great Lament.

But the emphasis in this collection is rightly on Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions. The main work is the glorious Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. For the first performance of his transcription, Stokowski wrote: “[It] is in music what a great Gothic Cathedral is in architecture – the same vast conception, the same soaring mysticism given eternal form. Whether played on the organ, or on the greatest of all instruments - the orchestra – it is one of the most divinely-inspired contrapuntal works ever conceived.” Indeed. Stokowski’s arrangement reflects the sonorous magnificence of a great cathedral organ and Serebrier delivers an inspired reading that reaches such a glorious tingling climax, it should leave you breathless.

The remaining items are winsome transcriptions of favourite Bach pieces, Stokowski cleverly changing the voicing, to maintain interest and attain an appealing freshness, of each repeat of the tune, that has attained pop-culture status, of Air on the G string; and employing minimal forces - strings and two flutes and two oboes - to tellingly underline the tender fragility of Sheep may safely graze. The contrapuntal magnificence of the ‘Giant’ and ‘Little’ fugues is wondrously magnified in the full colours of the large symphony orchestra and the deeply felt poignancy of Komm süsser Tod is nicely realised, lower woodwinds and brass affectingly emulating the gravitas of the organ pedal. Another sublime realisation is the Stokowski arrangement of Bach’s touching Nun komm’ der Heiden Heiland. (Come Thou Redeemer of our Race).

This album is one of the best packaged of Naxos’s releases mostly, I suspect, because the recording was “made possible through generous grants from the Leopold Stokowski Society and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra Endowment Trust”. In addition to Serebrier’s notes, there is a contribution, “Stokowski and Bach” by Edward Johnson of the Leopold Stokowski Society, and reproductions of three letters, dating from 1964/65, from Stokowski to Serebrier, one of which includes this rather enigmatic, cheeky assertion: “It is quite the contrary at Trivi where we need a strong man who plays soccer, and always brings a different girl.”

Sheer magnificence. Heartily recommended.



Edward Greenfield
Gramophone, November 2006

The pupil does the maestro proud with these exhilarating Bach arrangements Jose Serebrier and the Bournemouth orchestra follow up their brilliant disc of Stokowski's Mussorgsky arrangements (A/05)with this mainly Bach collection. Some may be surprised he does not include by far the most famous of Stokowski's Bach transcriptions, the D minor Toccata and Fugue, but even more impressive is the extraordinarily powerful version of the great C minor Passacaglia and Fugue, here given a thrilling, thrusting performance. The orchestra respond superbly to Serebrier's direction which, as a former pupil of Stokowski, he has based on the maestro's recordings and performances. Starting the sequence is the Air from Suite No 3. Serebrier loyally reproduces the ultra-romantic approach taken by Stokowski, with portamento slides between notes and the broadest possible phrasing and a massive rallentando at the end. It is good that we can now accept such a reading as offering a valid view, representing its period. The result is lusciously beautiful, with the Bournemouth strings wonderfully refined. The majority of items will please those with a sweet tooth, such as Stokowski's arrangement of the Pastoral Symphony from Handel's Messiah and his arrangement of Dido's Lament from Dido and Aeneas. On the other hand, his own piece, Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies, is more remarkable for its restraint. Even so, I enjoy the brisker numbers most of all, not just the great Passacaglia but, in particular, the "Little" Fugue in G minor, a favourite party-piece of Stokowski's here given an exhilarating performance. The welcome news is that Serebrier plans to record Stokowski's Wagner arrangements, his so-called "Symphonic Syntheses".



John Terauds
Toronto Star, October 2006

Leopold Stokowski Symphonic Transcriptions (Naxos): Nicely played by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, directed by José Serebrier, this is a well-made disc that unintentionally showcases how conductor and arranger Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977) almost drowned the music of Bach in a thick syrup of legato string playing. There's a stultifying version of "Dido's Lament" from Henry Purcells' Dido and Aeneas as well, for further convincing.




David Hurwitz
ClassicsToday.com, June 2006

Stokowski's Bach transcriptions have received a great deal of attention on disc lately, but this is one of the very few recordings that has the genuine flavor that Stoki himself brought to them. The obvious first question is: How do these versions compare to the "originals"? Can they be as good? The answer, quite simply, is "Yes, they can." Serebrier doesn't try to duplicate every gesture that Stokowski made. That would be impossible in any case, given the wide range of tempos and other variations among his own numerous recordings of these pieces. Take the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor: Stoki's own timings varied between about 12 minutes (in Philadelphia) to more than 14 in a later rendition. Serebrier takes about 13, which is similar to the tempo Stokowski adopted in his 1940s All-American Youth Orchestra reading (on Cala). In general Serebrier is a bit swifter than his late mentor, particularly in such numbers as Komm süsser Tod and Nun komm' der Heiden Heiland, but speed isn't really the issue with Stokowski. What matters more is sonority, that special "Stokowski sound". The fact is, these orchestrations are not particularly original or imaginative. They are almost uniformly (indeed formulaically) based on strings as the principal voices, with woodwind and brass reinforcement as necessary. Heard in quantity, they risk sounding quite monochrome. Some, like the "Little" Fugue in G minor, use the winds in imitation of the organ, but there's nothing special in that. What makes them work is not how they are written, but rather how they are played. Take the famous Air from the Orchestral Suite No. 3. Listen to Serebrier summon that rich vibrato from the cellos, the shimmering texture of the seraphic violins, and the discreet touches of portamento: this is the true "Stokowski sound"--sensual, luminous, and warm. Or take the almost apocalyptic entry of the full orchestra toward the end of the "Little" Fugue: Serebrier understands that theatrical flair, even bordering on vulgarity, makes these arrangements come to life. There's a sense of danger here--of almost, but never quite, crossing over the "bad taste" line--that makes listening so much more fun. The same sense of nearly garish drama characterizes this powerful performance of the Passacaglia and Fugue. It's worth pointing out, by the way, that it probably was a smart move to omit the Toccata and Fugue in D minor, for two reasons. First, it eliminates the temptation to make obvious and facile comparisons to Stokowski's half-dozen recordings of the most famous of all his Bach transcriptions; and second, it leaves hope that another disc may be forthcoming containing an equally rewarding mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar. Aside from Bach, Serebrier includes Stokowski's own Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies, a sexy conflation of Veni Creator Spiritus and Veni Emmanuel, as well as the Handel and Purcell items. Dido's Lament sounds particularly dark and tragic in this performance. It's clear that the Bournemouth Symphony is having a great time reproducing these ultra-rich, Golden Age sonorities, and my only quibble concerns the principal oboe, whose clicking valves decorate his solos with excessive prominence. But then Stokowski himself made magic with every kind of orchestra and caliber of player, so this isn't a big issue. The engineering supports the interpretations particularly well, giving the strings the necessary sheen and allowing the climaxes to expand hugely. Like Serebrier's and Bournemouth's previous Stokowski project, dedicated to Mussorgsky, this new release is an unqualified triumph.






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9:58:03 AM, 18 April 2014
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