July 06, 2006


Stokowski: Bach Transcriptions; Transcriptions of Handel and Purcell; Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies. José Serebrier conducting the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra. Naxos. $8.99.

Vivaldi: Bassoon Concertos, Volume 3. Tamás Benkócs, bassoon; Béla Drahos conducting the Nicolaus Esterházy Sinfonia. Naxos. $8.99.

     Fully appreciating Leopold Stokowski’s transcriptions of works by J.S. Bach requires rewinding time – going back to an era when original-instrument performances were unheard of, recordings were available only on 78-rpm discs playing three minutes per side, and Bach’s works were heard very rarely in concert halls.  In those days – 60, 70 and more years ago – Stokowski the conductor performed a valuable musical service, using his experience as an organist (and the love of Bach he developed by performing Bach’s works on that instrument) to bring this music to a far wider audience.  Stokowski thus played a role similar to that of Felix Mendelssohn, who revived Bach’s music in the 19th century after it had gone largely unplayed for nearly 100 years.

     In the modern era, though, Stokowski’s transcriptions have not worn well.  Where Bach – whose original works are now easy to hear – offered subtlety and complexity, Stokowski’s transcriptions offer strong emphasis and obviousness.  There is great beauty in some of them, but it is not Bach’s beauty.

     With that understanding, that mindset, there is much to enjoy in José Serebrier’s latest CD of what Stokowski wrought.  Stokowski himself said of several of these works that he wrote them wondering what Bach would have done if he had had access to a full-size modern symphony orchestra.  Well, he would have written entirely different music – not created grandiose versions of his clear-sounding, carefully devised contrapuntal masterpieces.  Still, Stokowski is effective in his own way, at least sometimes.  The Air from Orchestral Suite No. 3 and “Sheep May Safely Graze” are both affecting, and the complex chorale-prelude Wir glauben all’ an einem Gott has strength and majesty aplenty.  On the other hand, Es ist vollbracht! from the St. John Passion is passionless, even dull, for its first two-thirds, then overdone to the end.  The Pastoral Symphony from Handel’s Messiah is soupy and syrupy, and the understated tragedy of Dido’s Lament from Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas sounds as weepy as a 19th-century melodrama.  Stokowski’s setting of “Two Ancient Liturgical Melodies” is interesting, especially since the first (Veni Creator Spiritus) had been used by Mahler and the second (Veni Emmanuel) was used by Respighi.  José Serebrier is a sensitive, thoughtful conductor, a friend and associate of Stokowski, and as effective an advocate as this music is likely to get.  Taken in small doses rather than heard straight through, this CD has much to recommend it.

     Nevertheless, Baroque music sounds better when played as Baroque composers intended – witness the third volume in Naxos’ excellent series of Vivaldi’s bassoon concertos.  Both bassoonist Tamás Benkócs and conductor Béla Drahos take pains to play the music as accurately as possible, and it shows: the performances are light and bright, showcasing the bassoon’s virtuosity in a way seldom heard in later music.  Vivaldi wrote more than three dozen bassoon concertos, and this CD offers some of the more interesting ones.  RV483 is the only bassoon concerto Vivaldi wrote in E-flat, and includes a lyrical C minor slow movement.  RV495 is one of only two written in G minor, and features a particularly dramatic opening.  RV500, in A minor, is a bassoon version of the Oboe Concerto, RV463.  RV502, in B-flat, surprisingly avoids the instrument’s own bottom B-flat – indicating that it may have been written for a performer more familiar with an older form of the bassoon that had a lesser range.  Also here are two of the 14 concertos in C major: RV472, which starts with a bassoon solo, and the cheerful RV474.  All these works are basically good-humored, and all are similar in the wide leaps they require of the soloist and the finely planned give-and-take between bassoon and ensemble.  These are not original-instrument performances, but their balance and enthusiasm are right for the music – as is their modest scale.

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