Bach: Famous Transcriptions (CD review)

Leopold Stokowski, Symphony Orchestra. EMI 7243-5-57758-0-1 (2-disc set).

Leopold Stokowski was mere slip of a lad in his seventies when he made these recordings of Bach transcriptions in 1957-58 with his handpicked Symphony Orchestra. No doubt people still find his orchestral arrangements of works originally written either for solo organ or small baroque ensembles an acquired taste, to say the least; but they’ve been around for so long and people have come to know them so well, a lot of folks take them for granted as being entirely “Bach.” If you can keep from making that mistake, you’ll get more fun out of the music.

This two-disc set contains a seventy-minute CD of eleven of his famous Bach arrangements, plus a DVD of a 1972 performance of Debussy’s Prelude a l’apres-midi d’un faune, recorded live with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London. More about that in a minute. First, let’s have a brief look at the Bach, which begins with the Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor, continues with things like the “Little” Fugue in G minor, the “Air on the G String” from the Orchestral Suite No. 3, the “Preludio” from the Violin Partita No. 3 among others, and, of course, the celebrated Toccata and Fugue in D minor to close the show.

I prefer the old man doing the slower Bach items, Stokowski displaying a marvelous sensitivity and eloquence in the gentler music, although there is no denying that the big moments in the Toccatas come across with an excitement that is quite invigorating, too. Sure, the purists among us will continue to call Stokowski’s transcriptions corny or schmaltzy or commercial bastardizations of great music. Yet I’m not so sure that Bach himself wouldn’t have enjoyed them. Given the number of times Bach transcribed his own music for different instruments, I don’t think he’d mind what Stokowski did to it. Let’s put it another way: One should view Stokowski's arrangements of Bach as alternatives to the real thing, not as substitutes for them. One can go to the opera or symphony and still enjoy a good pop or rock concert. Well, some of us can.

Best of all, EMI’s sound, now over a half a century old, is fairly good for its age--reasonably deep, firm, solid, and robust, somewhat compartmentalized perhaps, but well spread out across the stereo stage. I slightly prefer this sound in Bach to Stokowski’s later Phase-4 recordings for Decca, now also available on CD (in a five-disc box, which contains some really great things). Even though EMI’s late-Fifties’ sound may still seem highly engineered, it is a tad better focused and better imaged than Decca’s, if not quite so spectacular.

The accompanying DVD contains the Debussy; it’s done in color but in monaural sound. Still, it’s fun to watch Stokowski at ninety counting the beats and waving his arms about, without baton as was his practice from about 1929 onward. Interestingly, the booklet note says he returned to London to conduct the London Philharmonic, but the listing on the DVD says he’s leading the London Symphony Orchestra. Take your pick. Also on the DVD, and of equal importance, is a promo for EMI’s Archive series of DVDs, containing one or two-minute audio-video clips from over two dozen performances by great artists of the twentieth century. Name the performer, and he or she is probably here, from soloists to singers to conductors. But, unfortunately, although EMI gave them individual tracks, the company provided no menu selections for them and no listings in the booklet. They are fascinating to watch, but if you want to find something in a hurry, you’ll have to type up a listing of track selections for yourself.  Oh, well....

To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here:


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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.

Mission Statement

It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa