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Gramophone, February 2010

Bach transcribed and transfigured, and a Pristine triple

While treating us to some excellent new recordings of Leopold Stokowski’s orchestral transcriptions under José Serebrier’s baton (8.557883, 8.572050 & 8.557645) Naxos have simultaneously been releasing some of the master’s own vintage recordings. “Bach/Stokowski Transcriptions, Vol 2” opens with, would you believe, a relatively straight Second Orchestral Suite recorded in 1950 by the Stokowski Symphony Orchestra and flautist Julius Baker, big-boned Bach, to put it very mildly, but sumptuously played. The Air from the Third Suite twists and turns with voluptuous self-awareness, a real showcase for the Philadelphia strings. As to “Es ist vollbracht!” from the St John Passion, words fail me: the style is so alien that one ceases to hear Bach and instead hears a fin de siècle tone-poem in memory of Bach. It is utterly bewitching, as are various other chorales, preludes and the like.

Gary Lemco
Audiophile Audition, September 2009

Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn here conjures ten Bach performances by Leopold Stokowski (1882–1977), inscribed 1929 (Shepherds’ Music) to 1950 (Suite in B Minor) that effectively fix Bach in the Romantic tradition. The rare Suite No. 2 under Stokowski—recorded at Manhattan Center 12–14 September 1950)—had a brief life on RCA LP (LM 1176), but has not seen a place in the catalogue for over 45 years. The tempos prove rather leisurely, especially in the Rondeau and Sarabande—the latter’s receiving the full Stokowski treatment, given stellar presences in “His Symphony Orchestra,” like Bernard Greenhouse, Leonard Rose, Robert Bloom, and Oscar Shumsky—although the Bourree and Polonaise respond with firm resolve. Julius Baker, of course, is the soul of musical discretion and light, sweet tone. The final Badinerie flutters and sails with light gossamer wings.

Two mellow slowly realized vocal  pieces follow—the familiar Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and Sheep May Safely Graze; then the Sinfonia from the Christmas Oratorio. Each bears the imprimatur of the “Stokowski Sound”, lush and dripping with sincerity.  The Prelude in E (20 July 1941 in Hollywood) proves a virtuoso toccata for the fine body of strings Stokowski assembled for the All-American Youth Orchestra, 1950–1941. With the Air in D from the Orchestral Suite No. 3 (15 January 1936), we enter the sacred precincts of the Philadelphia Orchestra (from 78 rpm M 401) and its immaculate sonorities. The broad mysticism Stokowski achieves—via some impressive homogeneous portato—in the Air on the G String rivals the Furtwaengler account in Berlin. The independent singing lines of the Fugue from BWV 542 (7 April 1934) intertwine with silken authority, especially in the ambient woodwinds and strings; but the entrance of deep pedal from the Philadelphia celli and basses is a veritable force of nature. Deep crimson hues mark Mein Jesu! Was fur Seelenweh, somber and devotional in each note.

The remarkable aria Es ist vollbracht from the St. John Passion (8 December 1940) seems to point to the slow movement from Beethoven’s Eroica Symphony for spiritual intensity; and given the recording’s proximity to America’s entry into WW II, it carries a valediction for an era. Despite a brief interlude of ascension and triumph, the sensibility of mourning prevails in weeping tones. That same spirit of solemn veneration—almost a devout obsessiveness—permeates the exalted chorale, “Jesus Christus Gottes Sohn” (5 April 1937) from Cantata No. 4, again attuned to Stokowski’s elegance sense of terraced dynamics that his Philadelphia Orchestra can realize like few ensembles in the history orchestral discipline.

David Denton
David's Review Corner, September 2009

In the early part of the last century much of the vast output of Johann Sebastian Bach had slid into obscurity, and a number of well-meaning musicians made orchestral arrangements so as to bring it into the concert hall. Among them was the English-born organist, Leopold Stokowski, who had built a career in the United States as one of the foremost conductors of his time. He had, of course, a deep understanding of Bach from his time in the organ loft, but he was also a very commercial person and not afraid of inflating Bach’s music if that was the way he could bring it back into popularity. So you will have to take them at face value as being created with the best of intentions. Some works responded more readily than others, and with the great flautist, Julian Baker, in a solo role, the Second Suite emerges in good taste, and as the sleeve note points out, Stokowski did not use a big orchestra for his transcriptions, he just made it sound that way. Of course there were pure flights of fantasy as in the souped-up version for strings of a movement from the Third Violin Partita. He is more circumspect in Sheep may safely graze and the popular Air on a G string, and I love the restrained beauty he brings to Mein Jesu! Was fur Seelenweh. Purists will see it as an anachronism, others as a gem of its period. Many of the tracks have not previously been available on CD, and though they are a mixed bag in sound quality, it still manages to convey the rich tonal quality he created in the Philadelphia orchestra.

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