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On the occasion of his new CD with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra of Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky orchestral transcriptions by legendary conductor Leopold Stokowski (8557645), one-time Stokowski protégé José Serebrier recalls his memories of Stokowski, discusses Stokowski’s attitude toward orchestral transcriptions, and articulates his own approach to recording the music.

Q. How did your close professional relationship with Stokowski affect your interpretation of his transcriptions?  Did knowing Stokowski provide you with a special perspective on these works?

A.  Not really.  I do not recall ever discussing the transcriptions with the maestro.  What did help, however, was working for so many years as his associate conductor, and even though I was really too young to have taken full advantage of such a great learning opportunity, something may have rubbed off, by osmosis.

Truthfully, I could never get him to give me a word of advice or criticism.  The only advice Stokowski gave me was when I first met him, in Houston.  He had decided to perform my first symphony, as a last minute replacement for the still unplayable Ives Fourth Symphony.  I was 17 at the time, and a composition student at the Curtis Institute of Music in Philadelphia.  I went to Houston, and was given a one-minute interview with the maestro.  I used the opportunity to say that my real interest was conducting, and asked for his advice, since Curtis had no conducting class at the time.  His tongue-in-cheek reply has some validity: he said “go around the world and watch all the bad conductors, and learn what not to do.”

While it is true one can learn from other people’s mistakes, the fact is that I learned a lot about the métier of conducting from the years of working with Stokowski.  His rehearsal technique (like my teachers’ Antal Dorati and Pierre Monteux) played a great part in his artistic success.  His completely business-like approach to rehearsals, the “method” he used, and most of all his use of orchestral psychology, his ability to exhort the musicians to play more than their best, the entire approach was very inspiring.

Going back to your question, while my own concept of sound differs from Stokowski’s, there is a parallel, in that we both strive for a warm tone from the strings (I use a different method to attain it:: no free bowings in the strings, except on rare occasions when I want a special effect, while Stokowski used free bowings all the time) and an adjustment of the balance between strings and brass in the nineteenth-century works.  Having worked closely with Stokowski in New York during those formative years must have left an imprint in my approach to orchestral sound. Conducting his transcriptions, I took full advantage of that apprenticeship, but of course I played the pieces in my own way.

Q. You had once mentioned that Stokowski preferred to label his works as transcriptions instead of as arrangements or orchestrations.  Why did he use the term “transcriptions?”

A.  He disliked the term “arrangement.”  Orchestration would have been acceptable, but transcription most accurately describes what he did, which is literally to translate, or transcribe from another instrument or group of instruments, for performance by a modern orchestra, with the intention to bring the music to a larger public.

It used to be a common practice. While Stokowski was often maligned for making some very minor modernizations in a few of Beethoven symphonies, Mahler and many of his contemporaries “retouched” Beethoven regularly, and often made orchestral versions of chamber works. Just as often they transcribed large orchestral works for chamber ensembles.

Q. In the liner notes to the Naxos recording, you write that Stokowski had sought to re-create the “original, bolder, wilder” character of Mussorgsky’s Bare Mountain; similarly, you wrote that he found the Ravel version of Pictures at an Exhibition to be “insufficiently Russian.”  What, for Stokowski, constituted a genuine “Russian” sound?

A.  There are two separate questions here.  Stokowski knew rather well the Mussorgsky originals, as he was among the first to play them, (while the vogue was to perform the sanitized Rimsky-Korsakov arrangements).  While studying and conducting Mussorgsky’s original Boris score, Stokowski realized that what had been interpreted (by Mussorgsky’s contemporary colleagues) as primitive or unschooled orchestrations in fact reflected what he wanted and needed for his music, a mater-of-fact style of orchestration, showing bare bones!

Regarding the Bare Mountain saga, Rimsky-Korsakov didn’t just re-orchestrate it, he practically rewrote it, shortening it by more than half, changing the form, just keeping the motives but literally ”arranging” it into a concise new work.  Mussorgsky had battled with it for a life-time, never quite finding the right form or sequence for it. Rimsky-Korsakov solved the puzzle for him. What Stokowski did was genial.  He kept the Rimsky-Korsakov version/form, but went back to the original work for the bold touches of orchestration that resembled more the composer’s style and vision.  And then, Stokowski added a lot of salt and pepper, great modern touches of orchestration.  It’s Stokowski at his wildest and most imaginative.

Regarding the last part of your question, it has to do with the spirit and soul of the Slavic culture.  It wasn’t until I had worked with Stokowski for many years that one day I told him casually, at lunch “You know, Maestro, my father is Russian and my mother is Polish” and he replied: “NOW I understand!”

To be specific, there is a Russian school of violin playing, exemplified by the tradition of Leopold Auer.  That translated itself into a style of string playing in general, a full, extremely warm tone with a wide vibrato, and a larger than life approach to orchestral playing.

Q.  Why did the Stokowski Society approach you to make these recordings?

A. They have been following my activities for years. When they first approached me with this proposal I was not sure I wanted to do it, and the Society had to wait patiently for my reply for over a year. I listened to Stokowski’s own versions of his transcriptions and initially became discouraged, realizing that they could hardly be bettered.  I could not understand the need to re-record these works. Going back all the way to some of his earliest recordings with the Philadelphia Orchestra in the 1920’s and 30’s, these old recordings had superb sound, and magnificent performances.  I also listened to as many as five or six versions of each work recorded in different decades, with various orchestras. What I noticed at once was the vast difference of each and every version.  That fact gave me the reason I had been looking for: that another approach was justified, while keeping in mind some of what I had learned from years of watching the maestro at work: intensity of sound, freedom from the bar-lines, avoidance of metronome (just the mention of the word made him cringe), warm string tone, imagination and fantasy.  I am now delighted, thrilled to have done it, in my own way, and very much looking forward to continuing the series.

Q. Perhaps you could tell us something about the upcoming Naxos release of Stokowki’s Bach transcriptions with the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra that you will be conducting?  How did Stokowski’s approach to Bach differ from the Russian composers Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky?

A. Indeed. Bach was his first love.  He learned myriad of Bach works during his early years as a church organist in London and New York, and that overwhelming sound, a cathedral vibrating to the giant organ chimes, stayed with him and influenced the sound that eventually became his trademark.  For the Bach transcriptions and for those of other baroque composers, Stokowski tried to emulate the sound of a gigantic organ, using every available orchestral instrument, literally pulling out all the stops, as if he was still sitting at the organ.  During his lifetime, Stokowski had to endure much vilification from the hands of purists, critics, and many infuriated listeners that regarded his efforts as blasphemy.  But he kept on producing transcription after transcription, undeterred by the uproar.  The Toccata and Fugue in D Minor became a household work, and that was one of his goals: to bring this great music to as wide a public as possible.  He was convinced that Bach would have approved smilingly, as composers throughout the centuries have transcribed theirs and other composer’s works to suit the public needs.  For the Russian works, Stokowski used a special palette that best reflected the amplitude of the music.  For Bach and other baroque composers, he literally copied the stops he pulled out in the organ.

I should add that Stokowski often wrote, in his published transcriptions, his interpretation of the music, including especial personal things such as changes of speed required by the manual organ keyboard or the foot pedals.  If the conductor follows each one of these directions the performance becomes a sort of carbon copy of Stokowski’s, which doesn’t serve any purpose.  The idea then is to brush out the personal “interpretation” while keeping the brilliant orchestrations intact.

MUSSORGSKY/STOKOWSKI:Pictures at an Exhibition; Night on Bare Mountain; Entr’acte to Act IV of Khovanshchina; Symphonic Synthesis of Boris Godunov Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra
José Serebrier



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