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Matty J Hifi
Classical Rough and Ready, February 2010

Pictures At An Exhibition. Wow, does this ever get complicated. First I have to separate the music from the transcriptions, then I have to separate the transcriptions from the conductors. Very tricky. Then I have to cut through the veil of adulation surrounding Ravel, the fog of neglect in which Stokowski lay almost completely forgotten.

Well, I’ll start with the music itself. The word “grotesque” comes immediately to mind, but I’m afraid that if I use it then people will misunderstand what I mean. I don’t mean “disgusting” or “revolting.” I mean “malformed, distorted, strange, odd, peculiar, etc.” Mussorgsky really stood alone in his ability to depict the dark, the bizarre and the freakish in the language of music. I suppose that’s what attracts people to it, though I have to say that grotesquery is not high on my list of deeply appreciated musical qualities. Nevertheless, I do like the Pictures. I admire his vision and the talent required to realize it. And there can be no question of what it is that has attracted people to orchestrate this work.

Promenade. Stokowski uses strings, Ravel uses brass. Who is right, and who is wrong? Well, both work. Either is a perfectly valid approach. But. I have to say that I keep feeling as if Ravel is trying to take music which is Russian to its core and somehow make it French. Stokowski the Slav, on the other hand, just feels more Russian. More authentic.

In Catacombs Stokowski demonstrates an appreciation of subtle dynamics where Ravel is merely loud throughout. The difference is too dramatic to be a conductor issue—I’m putting it down to the trascribers. Byron Janis on piano seems to walk a line between the two, suggesting that neither is trying to be completely true to the original dynamics. Stokowski’s approach feels a lot more atmospheric. Spookier. And isn’t that what this is all about?

The Hut On Fowl’s Legs. This is the one example where Stokowski actually out-Ravels Ravel. Sharper, brighter, more taught, more colorful. Maybe that’s as much conductor as anything else, but there are some significant orchestration differences. Ravel relies a little too much on percussion here, where Stokowski uses virtually every instrument at his disposal except a banging drum. Again, it’s personal and subjective but I prefer the Stokowski on this one.

The Great Gate Of Kiev. This is a Stokowski show stopper. He evidently tinkered with the last few bars virtually every time he recorded it, usually adding in percussion of one type or another, and every version I have (Serebrier on Naxos, Stokowski on London LP, and Stokowski on a Music & Arts CD) is different and each is brilliant. The Ravel is merely solid, though that may only be a lack of energy and will on the part of Dorati.

All in all, Ravel is at his best in quiet moments where subtlety of coloration is easiest to hear. In larger moments his Gallic flare betrays the music, sometimes making it sound like Paris street musicians instead of like the orchestral drama writ large that it is. He is (often, but not always) a little more free-wheeling with percussive effects—sometimes helpful, sometimes neutral, never annoying.

Stokowski, on the other hand, lends his Pictures all the power and force that the big moments need. His Great Gate packs the punch. Where he differs from Ravel he favors traditional orchestral balances with everything subservient to the strings. The problem, if this can be said to be a problem, is that he doesn’t often differ that much from Ravel. I know I just spent four (albeit short) paragraphs pointing out some of the more obvious differences, but the long and the short of it is that the two versions are far more alike than they are different. Take away the monochromaticism of Dorati’s reading and the occasionally sluggish tempos of Serebrier, and there simply isn’t enough of a difference between the two to matter to the casual listener. And that reflects poorly on Stokowski (I’m sorry to say) since his version post-dates Ravel’s by some seventeen years. And since I still have to say that I prefer it. For myself. Nobody else should be bothered.

Ultimately the Ravel transcription is not particularly well-served by the Dorati recording. The sound is clear, but vaguely thin as you might expect on a recording of its age, and the tempos seem a little rushed, almost giving the music the feel of accompaniment to a silent film. Makes it feel almost like a pantomime. Not weighty enough. Serebrier has better sound, and takes a marginally more measured approach to the music than does Dorati—an approach I think I prefer. So if I had only these two recordings to choose from, I’d take the Stokowski, but only because of the conductor.

Penguin Guide, January 2009

This Naxos collection of Stokowski’s flamboyant arrangements of Mussorgsky at budget price proves the most formidable rival for similar collections on premium-priced labels. It offers outstanding performances by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, brilliantly recorded in sound if anything even more spectacular than on rival discs. Though Stokowski’s arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition is less refined than that of Ravel, with its weighty brass it is certainly more Russian. The most serious shortcoming is Stokowski’s omission of two of the movements, Tuileries and The Market Place at Limoges, made on the grounds that they are too French. Yet Serebrier’s new performance makes the result very convincing, with speeds well chosen and the brass wonderfully incisive. The atmospheric qualities of the Boris Godunov symphonic synthesis also come over superbly, starting with a hauntingly rarefied bassoon solo, even if the recording catches the clicking of the keys. The mystery of the chimes in the Coronation Scene as well as the Death Scene are most evocative, and in Night on the Bare Mountain the weight of the arrangement comes over well, and the Khovanshchina Entr’acte, too has impressive weight and clarity. Among the extra items, the Tchaikovsky song, Solitude, explores an astonishingly wide emotional range within a tiny span, and the jolly Humoresque is a piano piece that Stravinsky memorably used in his ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. The baldly effective Slavic Christmas Music, attributed to Stokowski himself, is based not just on a Christmas hymn but on Ippolitov-Ivanov’s In a Manger. Altogether a treasurable collection, well worth its modest cost.

Gramophone, July 2007

Outstanding performances by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, brilliantly recorded.

Classic FM, November 2006

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Fanfare, November 2005

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Bob McQuiston
Classical Lost and Found, September 2005

This release is a conventional, CD(2) album. It is also available as a hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0) album, which contains a stereo track playable on conventional machines, as well as super audio stereo and multi-channel tracks playable on super audio machines.

This recording was “CD of the Month” in Gramophone Magazine (Awards/05) and it’s a sound spectacular of major proportions. Some of Leopold Stokowski’s Johann Sebastian Bach retreads may be sticky wickets, but when it came to Russian music, he was right on the rubles. These brilliant orchestral transcriptions are full of Slavic sole and conductor Jose Serebrier furthers the cause with exceptionally sensitive performances. In fact, many may find they prefer this version of “Pictures at an Exhibition” to the better known one by Maurice Ravel. There’s also a symphonic synthesis of “Boris Godunov” that’s a knockout—operaphobes take note! Two other Modest Mussorgsky delights, “A Night on Bare Mountain,” which is one you’ll never forget, and the entr’acte from the fourth act of “Khovanschina” are also included. The program closes with arrangements of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky’s piano piece, “Humoresque,” (shades of Igor Stravinsky) and song, Again, as Before, Alone (entitled “Solitude” here), plus Stokie’s own, moving “Traditional Slavic Christmas Music.” This release is also available in hybrid, CD(2)/SACD(2/5.0) format. By the way, do try some of the other arrangements of “Pictures” by Ashkenazy, Bekova, Boyashov, Crabb/Draugsvoll, Funtek, Gortchakov, Guillou and Leonard; and, of course, the original for solo piano.

Gramophone, August 2005

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Jeff Simon
The Buffalo News, July 2005

After “Fantasia” made him a movie star, his transcriptions of Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain” and other Russian warhorses became some of the splendors of ’50s LPs. Jose Serebrier, bless him, knows it and led the Bournemouth Symphony last September in new version of Stokowski’s great Mussorgsky transcriptions, including “Pictures at an Exhibition”…It’s not merely splendidly done here—with a spirit of its own—it’s on Naxos and, therefore, attractively priced.

Daniel Felsenfeld
Time Out New York, July 2005

As a public figure, Leopold Stokowski was known for flashy moves such as shaking hands with Mickey Mouse in Fantasia. As an orchestrator famous for applying his idiosyncratic touch to music composed by others, Stokowski made similar choices. The maestro’s musical personality—old-fashioned gentleman cum media-savvy huckster, not to mention tireless champion of the music of his day—is apparent in every bar of his fascinating transcriptions of two masterpieces by the “musical primitive” Mussorgsky. Reworking such strong stuff as A Night on Bare Mountain and Pictures at an Exhibition, Stokowski was paradoxically both wholly original and true to the composer’s spirit.

Take the famous opening “Promenade” movement from Pictures: Ravel’s familiar orchestration opens with a brilliant but obvious trumpet fanfare. Stokowski scores the same passage for violas leading the low strings, creating a sound that is both regal and ambrosial. A peculiar choice that a more radical composer such as Stravinsky might have made, it’s just the sort of thing that makes Stokowski’s version one of the few that can stand up to Ravel’s.

José Serebrier leads the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra in thrill-a-minute performances that finally do justice to Stoki’s transcriptions, in terms of both sonics and performance. His valuable program offers further Mussorgky (including a sustantial suite from Boris Godunov), as well as two miniatures by Tchaikovsky and an original setting of traditional Slavic Christmas music. Since Stokowski’s own recordings are currently out of print, Serebrier’s vivid portrayal will no doubt provide the standard by which future recordings are judged.

Robert Benson, July 2005

A welcome addition to the CD catalog…Serebrier’s performances are brilliant and incisive…The Bournemouth Symphony is in top form and the sonics, with producers/engineers Nick Parker and Phil Rowlands, are of demonstration quality. I eagerly await the SACD version of this recording which has been announced for fall release.

David Hurwitz, June 2005

…Serebrier, who worked as Stoki’s assistant conductor at the American Symphony Orchestra for about five years, brings a keen ear for those luscious string sonorities that also give these editions much of their magic at lower dynamic levels. I’m thinking, for example, of the shimmering closing pages of the Boris Godunov Symphonic Synthesis, among other places. Serebrier also captures the tragic intensity of the Khovanshchina Entr’acte as well as Stokowski ever did: he’s slower, darker, and heavier than Knussen, more raw and “Russian” sounding, as he also is in the terrifying Catacombs section of Pictures at an Exhibition.

There’s further icing on the cake that you won’t find on the Knussen disc: the two lovely Tchaikovsky transcriptions (the Humoresque will be familiar to knowledgeable listeners from its use in Stravinsky’s The Fairy’s Kiss), and Stokowski’s own Traditional Slavic Christmas Music, a setting where once again Serebrier shows himself able to conjure a truly authentic “Stokowski sound”. Mind you, these aren’t mere imitations. Serebrier’s flexible approach to tempo and willingness to inject a jolt of extra electricity make something quite special out of the climaxes in A Night on Bare Mountain, and it’s very clear that the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra is having as much fun playing this music as you will have listening to it. The engineering stands among the best from this source as well. Spectacular, sensational, skirting the boundaries of “good taste”—this is the real deal.

Jose Serebrier
June 2005

During his apprenticeship with Stokowski, Serebrier had an opportunity to get to know many of the more than 200 symphonic transcriptions the old maestro had made of works that had begun life in a different form. The most famous of these orchestrations is almost certainly Mussorgsky’s Night on Bare Mountain. Wilder and “more Russian” than Rimsky-Korsakov’s westernized version, Stokowski’s “Night” was the musical highlight of Walt Disney’s classic Fantasia and for many kids of that generation—me included—a thrilling introduction to the world of “classical” music. Stokowski’s versions of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice and Toccata and Fugue in D Minor were also magical parts of that film.

I relived those goosebumps again last week when I put on the new recording of Stokowski’s versions of A Night on Bare Mountain, Pictures at an Exhibition and several other orchestral transcriptions which Naxos is releasing next week with his one-time protege Serebrier at the helm of the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Nobody conducting today holds a tighter grip on the musical reins and under his hands these tired old war horses come storming out of the barn like frisky young colts. You may prefer Ravel’s orchestration of “Pictures” but you won’t find much fault with Stokowski’s more muscular approach. It would take a real cynic to dislike a big wet horsey kiss like this one.

As they have done for Marin Alsop in previous Naxos recordings, the Bournemouth musicians show they can play in the first division beside their big city cousins. The recording quality is vivid and consistently excellent. Pay particular attention to the drop-dead gorgeous strings in the Entre’acte of Khovanschina.

Naxos Records, a member of the Naxos Music Group