Stokowski Symphonic Transcriptions

Brilliant recordings of Stokowski’s technicolor spectaculars

Author: 
Edward Greenfield

Stokowski Symphonic Transcriptions

  • (A) Night on the Bare Mountain
  • Khovanshchina, Entr'acte (Act IV)
  • Boris Godunov, Symphonic Synthesis (arr/orch Stokowski)
  • Pictures at an Exhibition
  • (6) Songs, No. 6, Again, as before, alone
  • (2) Morceaux, Humoresque, E minor
  • Traditional Slavic Christmas Music

Stokowski’s orchestrations, as flamboyant and full of flair as his interpretations as a conductor, have increasingly been accepted and welcomed on disc, a good sign that rigidly purist attitudes have nowadays softened. This Naxos collection of Stokowski’s arrangements of Mussorgsky under José Serebrier follows directly on Matthias Bamert’s and Oliver Knussen’s discs, and quite apart from the budget price proves the most formidable rival, offering outstanding performances by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra, brilliantly recorded in sound if anything even more spectacular and more cleanly focused than that on the discs from Chandos and DG.

Few would claim that Stokowski’s arrangement of Pictures at an Exhibition matches, let alone outshines, that of Ravel. But with its weighty brass it is certainly more Russian. In fact – one of the most serious shortcomings – Stokowski omits two of the movements, ‘Tuileries’ and the ‘Market Place at Limoges’ on the grounds that they are too French. Yet Serebrier’s new performance, like that of Bamert, makes it very convincing with speeds well chosen and the brass wonderfully incisive. If I find Knussen disappointing, despite fine playing from the Cleveland Orchestra, it is largely through several odd choices of speed, with that for ‘Bydlo, the Polish Ox Cart’ so fast that it loses all menace, and ‘The Hut on Fowl’s Legs’ so fast it sounds rushed: Serebrier is steadier, with finer detail.

The atmospheric qualities of the Boris Godunov Symphonic Synthesis come over superbly too, 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 even more evocative than with Bamert. If A Night on the Bare Mountain finds the Naxos recording rather less immediate than in the other items, the weight of the arrangement comes over well, and the Khovanshchina Entr’acte has impressive weight and clarity.

The extra items also weigh in Serebrier’s favour: an arrangement of a Tchaikovsky song that explores an astonishingly wide emotional range within a tiny span and the jolly Humoresque, a piano piece that Stravinsky memorably used in his ballet The Fairy’s Kiss. Finally, a baldly effective piece, attributed to Stokowski himself, based not just on a Christmas hymn but on Ippolitov-Ivanov’s In a Manger. It is good news that Serebrier is now going to record a disc of Stokowski’s arrangements of Bach.

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