About this Recording
8.578305 - STOKOWSKI TRANSCRIPTIONS (Bournemouth Symphony, Serebrier)

Stokowski Transcriptions
J.S. Bach • Tchaikovsky • Wagner • Mussorgsky • Purcell • Boccherini


When the Leopold Stokowski Society approached me a few years ago with their idea that I should consider recording some of the Stokowski transcriptions, my first reaction was that these scores probably didn’t need new versions, since Stokowski’s numerous recordings were still available. But Edward Johnson from the Stokowski Society persisted and sent me numerous other recordings of these works by a number of conductors. After listening to a few of these versions I was persuaded to try my own hand. At the time, I believe that the fact that I had worked with Stokowski as associate conductor in New York for five years didn’t give me any particular advantage, since during that tenure I had not incorporated his transcriptions into my repertoire. I thought they were “his”, and that his very personal interpretations were imprinted onto every note. I felt strongly about not doing an imitation, since imitations are seldom as good as the original. Stokowski, on the other hand, played my compositions since I was 17, starting with my First Symphony, which he premièred as the last-minute replacement for the world première of Ives’ Fourth Symphony, which was still too difficult for orchestras at the time. He performed my Elegy for Strings at a Carnegie Hall concert the following year, and later on he opened the Carnegie Hall season with the première of my Poema Elegiaco. It is possible that because I remember the quality of sound that Stokowski obtained from orchestras, this might have given me an edge, and in any case it provided me with a further reason to tackle the orchestrations.

Some of the works have such specific interpretation guidelines that to follow them would indeed create a clone of the Stokowski versions. I listened to other conductors’ recordings to observe how they had handled these directions to slow down, speed up, hold on to one note here and there, all written out in clear language just as Mahler did in his music. It was a predicament. I had to study and decide on each one of these directives, and in the end I felt convinced that my own solutions improved the performances. I tried to make the versions my own.

The first try was with the orchestrations of Mussorgsky works. These made the most sense to me at the time, since Mussorgsky had left many of his works unfinished and many other composers had tried their hand at orchestrating them. The first time I heard Stokowski take on Pictures at an Exhibition was in Houston, Texas, when he premièred my First Symphony. The concert included the Mussorgsky. But I had never conducted it, only the Ravel version. The symphonic synthesis of Boris was of great interest to me since I have conducted the opera many times in the original Mussorgsky orchestration, which was the basis for Stokowski’s synthesis. I realised that he did this at a time, early in the 20th century, when the opera was unknown to American audiences, and this was a way to make this music known. Some of the “fillers” in that album are gems of brilliant, sensitive orchestration. Favourites of mine are Tchaikovsky’s Solitude and Mussorgsky’s Entr’acte from Khovanshchina, mini-masterpieces.

The success of this recording took me and the wonderful Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra by surprise: not just the three GRAMMY® nominations, but the press comments and the public’s enthusiasm. We quickly started to plan the next recording, which I had never expected, and Bach was the obvious choice. The Toccata and Fugue in D minor had become Stokowski’s signature piece, but I would not agree to include it. I felt that it was so personal a statement that in doing a performance it might sound like an imitation. Besides, Stokowski had recorded it many times. Instead, I rummaged through the poorly kept manuscripts of dozens of orchestrations and with the help of Edward Johnson I came up with an enticing repertoire. This recording was even more successful than the Mussorgsky, and it encouraged us to tackle the most ambitious follow-up: Wagner. Here we had a different consideration. These were not transcriptions, but symphonic syntheses of operas. Stokowski’s reasons at the time were similar to the ones I mentioned above: Wagner was still largely unperformed in opera houses, and Stokowski wanted this music to be heard. The only work in which he made actual orchestration changes was the Ride of the Valkyries, where he cleverly accentuated some things in the 2nd violins which might otherwise be obscured, and also made some flashy doublings. On the other hand, he took away some doublings in the brass to clarify the texture. The changes are in general quite subtle. The other adjustments, in the large operatic chunks, were to link the different orchestral fragments and to give vocal lines to musical instruments. But in general he left Wagner alone!

Letter after letter started to arrive demanding a continuation of the Bach recording and specifically requesting the Toccata and Fugue. Eventually I got enough nerve to approach it, especially after I heard other versions both in recordings and public performances. I also listened to organ performances to try to get close to the “original”, and studied the musicologist’s notes that claimed that this amazing work may not be by Bach after all. I wondered how Stokowski would have felt about that, considering the disdain he felt for musicologists and what they stood for.

José Serebrier

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