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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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

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 Jon 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.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simpleminded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Arcam CDS50 CSD/SACD CD player, Goldpoint SA4 Passive Preamp, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE loudspeakers. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my cell phone. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

William (Bill) Heck, Contributing Reviewer

Among my early childhood memories are those of listening to my mother playing records (some even 78 rpm ones!) of both classical music and jazz tunes. I suppose that her love of music was transmitted genetically, and my interest was sustained by years of playing in rock bands – until I realized that this was no way to make a living. The interest in classical music was rekindled in grad school when the university FM station serving as background music for studying happened to play the Brahms First Symphony. As the work came to an end, it struck me forcibly that this was the most beautiful thing I had ever heard, and from that point on, I never looked back. This revelation was to the detriment of my studies, as I subsequently spent way too much time simply listening, but music has remained a significant part of my life. These days, although I still can tell a trumpet from a bassoon and a quarter note from a treble clef, I have to admit that I remain a nonexpert. But I do love music in general and classical music in particular, and I enjoy sharing both information and opinions about it.

The audiophile bug bit about the same time that I returned to that classical music. I’ve gone through plenty of equipment, brands from Audio Research to Yamaha, and the best of it has opened new audio insights. Along the way, I reviewed components, and occasionally recordings, for The $ensible Sound magazine. Recently I’ve rebuilt--I prefer to say reinvigorated--my audio system, with a Sangean FM HD tuner and (for the moment) an ancient Toshiba multi-format disk player serving as a transport, both feeding a NAD C 658 streaming preamp/DAC, which in turn connects to a Legacy Powerbloc2 amplifier driving my trusty Waveform Mach Solo speakers, supplemented by a Hsu Research ULS 15 Mk II subwoofer.

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. --John J. Puccio

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa