About this Recording
8.112019 - BACH, J.S.: Stokowski Transcriptions, Vol. 2 (Stokowski) (1929-1950)

Great Conductors: Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977)
Bach Transcriptions • 2


In 1953 the American music critic Peter High Reed interviewed the conductor Leopold Stokowski for the American Record Guide. One of the subjects which they covered was tradition. In his comments Stokowski gave a valuable insight into his own view of this controversial aspect of musical performance: ‘When an artist opposes tradition, he opens himself to ridicule as well as praise. It is a mistake to allow tradition, as Nietzsche once said, to become holy and inspire awe, for the older it becomes and “the more remote is its origin, the more confused the origin is…”. In the final analysis, it is the artistic results with which the true artist is concerned. It is my firm conviction that no artist need be hampered by the venerability of tradition nor the persistent reverence given it’.

Some years later, one of the most perceptive commentators on Stokowski’s art, the American historian William Ander Smith, interviewed Stokowski’s colleague and biographer Abram Chasins about Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions. Smith recalled: ‘Chasins described Stokowski as having large gaps in his musical education. One of these was his lack of training in formal baroque style and usage. Chasins added that during the thirties he had talked to Stokowski about the matter in relationship to the maestro’s Bach transcriptions, noting that criticism of Stokowski’s romantic approach was bound to come. To this Stokowski answered not a word. He only smiled, reported Chasins. When the criticism did come in the late forties, it was vehement and continued to mount during the fifties and sixties. Yet, as Chasins pointed out, while Stokowski’s approach was technically incorrect, he had emotionally and intuitively caught the color and spirit of Bach even though some of his performances live and on record verged into the overdramatic’.

Stokowski’s transcriptions for orchestra of Bach’s music helped to introduce audiences to the music of a composer whose works in the inter-war years were far less well known than they are today, following their extensive dissemination through recordings and broadcasts. Before these became ubiquitous, the opportunity to hear major works by Bach as well as by other composers of the baroque era might literally occur only once in a lifetime. The transcriptions thus formed a key part of Stokowski’s crusade to increase the accessibility of music, as well as usefully extending the orchestral repertoire. In terms of musical style Stokowski’s transcriptions had little to do with Bach: they are rather complete re-compositions in the manner of Wagner or Tchaikovsky for the late-romantic symphony orchestra. Stokowski was not the only musician of his generation to orchestrate Bach in this way. Others who did likewise included Elgar, Klemperer, Schoenberg, and Wood. What Stokowski did do, as the composer Ellis Kohs has noted, ‘was to bring out in a way that nobody else has, the essential mysticism and the romanticism of Bach, which is undeniable’. Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions have enjoyed great popularity, aided by his continuous recording of them throughout his lifetime, from 1927 to 1974. And they continue to do so through their presentday performance and re-recording by contemporary conductors, such as José Serebrier, who has recorded a wide range of Stokowski’s transcriptions for Naxos.

The recordings of music by Bach conducted by Stokowski contained on this issue include several made with the Philadelphia Orchestra between 1929 and 1940 (tracks 10, 12–16), an extremely rare issue from his short period with the All-American Youth orchestra made in Hollywood during 1941 (track 11), and three items from 1950 when Stokowski was recording in New York for RCA with ‘His Symphony Orchestra’. Of these his account of the Second Suite re-emerges from the vaults after a period of absence lasting more than fifty years. The producer of these RCA recordings was Richard Mohr, who has vividly described recording with Stokowski and this group: ‘It was a pick-up orchestra. It had marvelous players: Robert Bloom, oboe; Julius Baker, flute; Leonard Rose and Bernie Greenhouse, cellos; Walter Trampler on viola, and, my God, the concertmaster was either Shumsky or Mischakoff for a time…That orchestra! What I think was remarkable about it was that the string strength was 8 [first violins] - 6 [second violins] - 4 [violas] - 4 [cellos] - 2 [basses], which is like a Palmer House [or Palm Court] ensemble. But Stokowski had that unique knack of making it sound as though it were 18-16-14-12-8. We did all those records at Manhattan Center: things like the Tallis Variations and the Verklärte Nacht’. Evidently during these sessions Stokowski would frequently separate the various instrumental groups and have them miked separately. Violins and violas would be on his left, cellos and basses to his right. The woodwinds he had on his left, separated by about ten feet from the strings, with the brass even further back to his left. Stokowski was extremely sensitive to dynamics and was aware that with post-war advances in recording techniques and technologies it was possible to achieve a true crescendo and diminuendo that would have been impossible before wider frequency recording became standard from the end of the 1940s.

The All-American Youth Orchestra existed for only two years, 1940 and 1941. It came into being at a time when Stokowski had broken with the Philadelphia Orchestra and had achieved wide-spread fame through Walt Disney’s film Fantasia. Supported politically by the American government, he had the opportunity to tour Latin America with the Orchestra in 1940. To underwrite the tour financially he turned to Columbia Records. In only four months Stokowski recruited an orchestra of 108 players from 1500 applicants. 27 concerts were given in six Latin American countries, and thirteen recordings were made for Columbia. During 1941 Stokowski and the Orchestra toured America for twelve weeks from the beginning of April, playing in 56 cities to great public enthusiasm. Bach featured prominently in the Orchestra’s programmes, often opening a concert. Most of the financial cost of the 1941 tour was covered by Stokowski himself, as Columbia had withdrawn its support after the 1940 tour. The influence of the Orchestra was considerable. To quote another American critic, William Trotter: ‘Considering how briefly the ensemble functioned its legacy is phenomenal, for its graduates had broad and lasting impact on the orchestras and music schools of America’. Just as the freedom of his Bach transcriptions attracted critical disdain, so many contemporary critics saw the tour as a gimmick, cheapening music, rather than as a significant initiative, giving valuable experience to young musicians, as well as taking live music to many who had never before had the opportunity to hear a symphony orchestra. With the benefit of hindsight and the orchestra’s recordings, such as that of Bach’s Preludio from the Third Partita for Violin, it is now possible to make a more balanced assessment on both counts, of text and performance.

David Patmore


Producer’s Note

The Suite in B minor, Stokowski’s only recording of the work, has been unavailable commercially for the past half century and makes its CD debut here. The two transcriptions which follow it had not previously been recorded during the conductor’s days in Philadelphia. Indeed, this is Stokowski’s only recording of his own transcription of Jesu, joy of man’s desiring, as his stereo remakes (one with chorus, the other for orchestra only) were arranged by others. The transcription of the Preludio from the E major Violin Partita is also a first Stokowski recording. The sources for the current transfers were first edition American LPs for the 1950 recordings, a 78 rpm Victor “Z” pressing for Shepherds’ Christmas Music, a late wartime “Silver” label pressing for Es ist vollbracht, and “Gold” label pressings for the remaining items. (The single Columbia side came from a wartime “Silver” pressing.) The whistling sound heard at the ends of the two sides of Shepherds’ Christmas Music were due to the wax masters starting to cool before recording had finished for that side.

Mark Obert-Thorn

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