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Gramophone, January 2009

Stokowski's Bach continues to fascinate even those who would normally run a mile from re-upholstered Baroque, and Naxos's presentation of fine Mark Obert-Thom transfers (76 minutes' worth) includes high-rise orchestrations of the D minor violin Chaconne and C minor organ Passacaglia and Fugue that still sound mightily impressive, as does the playing of the Philadelphia Orchestra.

Ian Lace
MusicWeb International, November 2008

The recordings on this CD were made between 1927 and 1939. Electric recordings had just begun to appear in the mid-1920s. Consequently this is rather primitive mono sound but the producer and audio restoration engineer for this collection, Mark Obert-Thorn, must be congratulated. The results represent an outstanding achievement in restoring such a clean and remarkably unwavering sound.

The virtuoso Philadelphia Orchestra, considered one of the top American orchestras, had a luxuriant orchestral style. It was eminently suited to these opulent transcriptions and  Stokowski draws from it powerful and deeply affecting performances. He instils extra grandeur and magnificence to Bach’s monumental Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor and to the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. He adds a new dimension to the selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier, a moving pathos, for example, to the E flat minor Prelude; and an amplified sense of piety in his sensitive treatment of the Three Chorale Preludes. The transcription of the Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, made in 1934, was for a reduced orchestra—economies were necessary after the Wall Street crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression. The Partita, then, was probably a deliberate choice by Stokowski because his transcription sensitively combines a muted chamber music-like intimacy with a more colourful splendour in the more extrovert passages.

It should be mentioned that an excellent modern recording of a selection of the Bach-Stokowski transcriptions is available on Naxos 8.557883 with Jose Serebrier conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra.

The present Naxos album is an essential purchase for all Stokowski fans.

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, October 2008

“Every great artist does thousands of things for which we have no method of writing on paper … We don’t know how to do that … And we have to, through imagination, through feeling, through—I don’t know what—some instinctive quality that some artists have, we have to try to understand and reproduce and give to the listening public what we consider was in the mind and soul of the composer …” [Leopold Stokowski, speaking in 1969: from the Teldec DVD The Art of Conducting].

In 1977, on the very day before he was to record nothing less than Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony for the first time, Leopold Stokowski died at the age of 95. He turned out to be, however, one of those fortunate artists whose reputations survive their own lifetimes intact and this new disc will, I am sure, only add to the number of his many admirers. 

I have recently been listening to—and reviewing on this website—several other orchestral recordings made in the late 1920s and early 1930s, yet nothing had prepared me for the way in which those on this disc so triumphantly transcend the limitations of the recording technology of the time. 

Let’s certainly give due credit to Mark Obert-Thorn whose re-mastering of the original material is certainly up to his usual excellent standards. But it is not only those transformational skills that rivet you to your seat as soon as you put the disc into the player. It is, rather, a unique combination of the musical arrangements themselves and the sheer orchestral sound. 

As booklet writer David Patmore points out, as an organist the young Stokowski was used to transcribing well-known orchestral pieces for his instrument, so, once he had reached the conductor’s rostrum, performing the reverse process came almost naturally to him. But the transcriptions—and recordings—that he made of Bach’s music were so inventive, so far beyond the obvious and predictable, so possessed of a unique sonority and so intensely alive, that they immediately took on an independent life of their own. 

Just as important to the success of these recordings, though, is the unique, lush “Philadelphia sound” that Stokowski famously nurtured and honed during his long spell with that orchestra (1912-1940). The sound was achieved partly by physical means – rearranging the orchestra’s seating, for instance, as well as encouraging free bowing by the string section and free breathing by the brass—and partly by re-orchestrating a wide range of repertoire to suit his own requirements. Quite fortuitously—but very happily - the resulting rather bass-heavy sonic profile turned out to be ideally suited to the new electrical recording technology that was being introduced from 1925 onwards, with its far greater ability to capture lower frequencies. In fact, it may even be that the new technology actually encouraged the development of the “Stokowski sound” further and faster, for we find that, by the time of only his second electrical recording (Tchaikovsky’s Marche Slave, May 1925), the conductor was already augmenting his double basses in the recording studio to achieve a more powerful sonic effect. 

On this particular disc, it is the three longer pieces —BWV 565 and, especially, BWV 1004 and BWV 582—that make the greatest impact. It is rather as if Stokowski’s performances, with their characteristic cantabile violins and exquisite range of tonal colours, exercise some sort of hypnotic effect that makes an ever more cumulative and progressive impact as you immerse yourself in it for longer and longer. That is not, though, to denigrate the shorter pieces that are each, in their own way small, perfectly-crafted jewels—the Ein Feste Burg chorale prelude makes a particularly strong impact. 

Even today, Stokowski’s transcriptions—not just of Bach but of many other composers—hold a place in the orchestral repertoire. In the past few years his protégé José Serebrier has been recording many of them for Naxos in the sort of state-of-the-art sound that some CD buyers consider essential. There is, though, still a great deal to be said for returning to the original versions themselves and appreciating once again the unique mastery and magic that Stokowski exerted over both the scores and his orchestra when these superb recordings were originally set down.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2008

Leopold Stokowski belonged to a group of well-meaning musicians who sought to bring the music of Bach back into the concert hall through their orchestration of his keyboard works.

Though he was to become a world famous American during his time as principal conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra, Stokowski had been born and spent his younger years in London. Working as an organist in the city, it was his move to the post of organist at New York’s St. Bartholomew’s Church at the age of 23 that provided the first stepping stone to his becoming one of highest paid musicians in the US. It was his desire to take Bach’s music from the organ loft that initiated his colourful orchestral transcriptions, though today we would view them as a total reworking much in the style of Wagner. By a large margin it was to be the thunderous Toccata and Fugue in D minor that proved his undoubted success, the work’s inclusion in Walt Disney’s film, Fantasia, bringingit worldwide popularity. Much of the remainder of this disc—which includes Three Choral Preludes, selections from The Well-Tempered Clavier andthe Chaconne from the Second Violin Partita—are generally small-scale compositions, returning to the full orchestra only in the final track, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor. The recordings, all made with the Philadelphia Orchestra, come from the period 1927 to 1939 and were at a time when the recording quality could not do full justice to his intricate orchestrations. But as a historic document it makes an interesting adjunct to Naxos’s new recording conducted by Stokowski’s one-time assistant, Jose Serebrier (8.557883)

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