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ClassicsOnline Home » BACH, J.S.: Stokowski Transcriptions, Vol. 1 (Stokowski) (1927-1939)
The transcriptions of Bach’s keyboard works for full symphony orchestra by Leopold Stokowski, one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century, formed a successful part of his crusade to increase the accessibility of music. In reality Stokowski’s transcriptions had little to do with Bach: they are rather complete re-compositions in the manner of Wagner or Tchaikovsky for the late-romantic symphony orchestra. They have enjoyed continuing popularity since Stokowski first introduced them, and took a central rôle in the internationally popularfilm which he made with Walt Disney, Fantasia. The recordings on this CD were made between 1927 and 1939, with Stokowski conducting in all instances The Philadelphia Orchestra, whose lush orchestra style was clearly well suited to his musical vision of Bach. Contemporary audiences and conductors continue to respond warmly to these re-compositions with many successful performances and re-recordings, such as those by José Serebrier (Naxos 8.557883).
By Ian Lace
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.
By Rob Maynard
“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.
Great Conductors: Leopold Stokowski (1882-1977)
Leopold Stokowski was born in London in 1882. His father was a cabinet-maker of Polish descent, and his mother was of Irish origin. As a child he learnt to play the violin and piano, sang in a church choir, and discovered the organ when he was eleven years old. After studying at the Royal College of Music and Royal College of Organists he became choirmaster and organist at St Mary’s Church, Charing Cross, moving to a similar post at the more prestigious St James’s Church, Piccadilly, two years later. While there he was a student at Queen’s College, Oxford, and conducted small orchestral concerts in London. On the recommendation of Sir Hubert Parry he was appointed in 1905 as choirmaster and organist at St Bartholomew’s Church, New York. Here he inaugurated a series of organ recitals, often including in the programmes his own transcriptions of works by composers such as Elgar, Tchaikovsky and Wagner.
During 1906 Stokowski studied conducting with Nikisch in Leipzig. He left his New York post in 1908, determined to develop a career as a conductor. With the help of his future wife, the pianist Olga Samaroff, he secured the position of conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in 1909. He developed the Orchestra considerably, but resigned in April 1912, two months before the announcement of his new appointment as chief conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra. During the 24 years in which Stokowski led the Philadelphia Orchestra he established it as one of the finest in the world, its reputation significantly enhanced by the numerous recordings which conductor and orchestra made together. Between 1936 and 1941 he gradually withdrew from his involvement with the orchestra, while pursuing interests in other fields, such as film. One of his lasting achievements in this field was his collaboration with Walt Disney in the creation of the animated film Fantasia, the soundtrack of which he conducted and which included his transcription of Bach’s mighty Toccata and Fugue in D minor.
For the remainder of his career Stokowski led a varied existence, divided between guest-conducting and various short stints as a chief conductor, all of which were underpinned by a constant programme of recordings. With the sponsorship of the American Columbia Record Company in 1940 he formed the All- American Youth Orchestra, which continued until 1942, and was briefly revived in 1948. Between 1941 and 1944 he conducted the NBC Symphony Orchestra alongside Toscanini. At the invitation of the mayor of New York, Fiorello La Guardia, he formed in 1944 the New York City Symphony Orchestra. Aimed at a mass audience with low priced tickets, the orchestra’s concerts were very successful, but Stokowski resigned in July 1945. He conducted the Hollywood Bowl Symphony Orchestra during 1945 and 1946, and was guest conductor of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra between 1946 and 1950.
In 1951 at the invitation of Beecham Stokowski conducted in England for the Festival of Britain (his first public appearance in that country since 1912), and also conducted at the Salzburg Festival. Between 1955 and 1961 he was chief conductor of the Houston Symphony Orchestra, resigning because of the management’s refusal to permit mixed-race choral forces for a performance of Schoenberg’s Gurrelieder. He made his only appearance at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, in 1961, conducting Puccini’s Turandot with Birgit Nilsson and Franco Corelli in the leading rôles. In 1962 he formed the American Symphony Orchestra at his own expense, and led this orchestra for ten years. In 1972 Stokowski settled in England, where he continued to record to the very end of his life. He was due to record the Symphony No. 2 by Rachmaninov for the first time the day after he died peacefully in his sleep, at the age of 95, in 1977.
Stokowski was a truly remarkable conductor, one of the very finest of the twentieth century. He had the extraordinary ability to create his own unique sound with an orchestra entirely through gesture and facial expression. No matter what the repertoire, his performances were characterized by a strong sense of atmosphere, achieved through a mastery of orchestral colour, shape, and drama. On the podium he conducted without a baton, and employed very fluid gestures combined with a penetrating and hawk-like gaze.
Stokowski’s transcriptions of Bach’s keyboard works for orchestra were a natural progression from his transcriptions of orchestral works for organ. In addition they helped to extend the orchestral repertoire and to introduce audiences to the music of a composer whose works in the inter-war years were far less well known than they are today. They thus formed a key part of Stokowski’s crusade to increase the accessibility of music. In defence of his transcriptions against critical attack that they were inauthentic, Stokowski made the following response: ‘The important thing is not the instrument but the feeling expressed. You may not agree. Everyone has a right to his own opinion and so do I’.
In reality Stokowski’s transcriptions had little to do with Bach: they are rather complete re-compositions in the manner of Wagner or Tchaikovsky for the lateromantic symphony orchestra. Stokowski was not the only musician of his generation to orchestrate Bach. Others who did likewise included Elgar, Klemperer, Schoenberg, and Wood. What Stokowski did do, as the composer Ellis Kohs has noted, ‘was to bring out in a way that nobody else has, the essential mysticism and the romanticism of Bach, which is undeniable’. Stokowski’s Bach transcriptions have enjoyed great popularity, aided by his continuous recording of them throughout his lifetime, from 1927 to 1974, and they continue to do so through their continued performance and re-recording by contemporary conductors, such as José Serebrier (Naxos 8.557883).
The recordings on this CD feature performances made between 1927 and 1939, with Stokowski conducting in all instances the Philadelphia Orchestra, whose lush orchestra style was clearly well suited to his musical vision of Bach. The recording venues were either the Orchestra’s home, the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, or RCA-Victor’s studios in Camden, New Jersey. These latter recordings, made between 1931 and 1934, involved reduced orchestral forces, reflecting the economies which had to be introduced following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and the subsequent Great Depression.
In 1943 Stokowski published his only book, which was entitled Music for All of Us. This contains what may be seen as his musical credo, by which he lived throughout his whole life: ‘I believe that music can be an inspirational force in all our lives – that its eloquence and the depth of its meaning are all-important and that all personal considerations concerning musicians and public are relatively unimportant’. It is in this context that his Bach transcriptions may best be enjoyed.
The sources for the present transfers were all pre-war American Victor shellacs (“Z”, “Red Seal Scroll” and “Gold” label pressings). The Camden recordings were made with reduced forces in small studios which had noticeably less reverberation than the orchestra’s home, the Academy of Music, although only in the case of the “Little” G minor Fugue did I add a small amount of digital reverberation.
GREAT CONDUCTORS • LEOPOLD STOKOWSKI
 Toccata and Fugue in D minor (for Organ), BWV 565
Recorded 6 April 1927 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix nos.: CVE-37468-2 and 37469-2
First issued on Victor 6751
Three Chorale Preludes
 Ich ruf’ zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ, BWV 639
Recorded 13 October, 1927 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: CVE-39358-2
First issued on Victor 6786
 Nun komm der Heiden Heiland, BWV 599
Recorded 7 April, 1934 in Trinity Church Studio No. 2, Camden, New Jersey
Matrix no: CS-82183-1
First issued on Victor 8494 in album M-243
 Wir glauben all’ an einen Gott, BWV 680
Recorded 1 May 1929 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: CVE-48931-5
First issued on Victor 7089 in album M-59
Three Selections from Book One of The Well-Tempered Clavier
 Prelude XXIV in B minor, BWV 869
Recorded 2nd May, 1929 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: CVE-47974-2
First issued on Victor 7316
 Prelude VIII in E flat minor, BWV 853
Recorded 12 October 1927 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: CVE-39357-1A
First issued on Victor 6786
 Fugue II in C minor, BWV 847 2:01
Recorded 7 April, 1934 in Trinity Church Studio No. 2, Camden, New Jersey
Matrix no.: BS-82182-1
First issued on Victor 1985
Violin Partita No. 2 in D minor, BWV 1004
Recorded 30 April 1934 in Trinity Church Studio No. 2, Camden, New Jersey
Matrix nos.: CS-83110-1, 83111-1, 83112-1, 83113-1, 83114-1
First issued on Victor 8492 through 8494 in album M-243
 Ein feste Burg (Chorale Prelude, after Luther), BWV 80
Recorded 20th April, 1939 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix no.: BS-035812-1
First issued on Victor 1692
Three Transcriptions of Organ Works
 Adagio (from Toccata, Adagio and Fugue in C major, BWV 564)
Recorded 28 October 1933 in Trinity Church Studio No. 1, Camden, New Jersey
Matrix no.: CS-75684-2
First issued on Victor 8495 in album M-243
 “Little” Fugue in G minor, BWV 578
Recorded 17th March, 1931 in Trinity Church Studio No. 1, Camden, New Jersey
Matrix no.: CVE-64077-2
First issued on Victor 7437
 Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, BWV 582
Recorded 16 November 1936 in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia
Matrix nos.: CS-03102-1, 03103-2, 03104-2 and 03105-1
First issued on Victor 14580 and 14581 in album M-401
The Philadelphia Orchestra • Leopold Stokowski
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
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BACH, J.S.: Stokowski Transcriptions, Vol. 1 (Stok...