Stravinsky: Octet (1922-3); Concerto in E flat, “Dumbarton Oaks” (1938); Symphony in C (1940); Symphony in Three Movements (1942-5). Twentieth Century Classics Ensemble, Orchestra of St. Luke’s and Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Robert Craft. Naxos. $8.99.
Stokowski: Bach Transcriptions, Volume 2; Transcriptions of Palestrina, Byrd, Clarke, Boccherini, Mattheson and Haydn. Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra conducted by José Serebrier.
Composers took the 20th-century orchestra in many directions, starting in the earliest days of the century, when Gustav Mahler often used it with chamber-music-like precision while Richard Strauss preferred it for overwhelming sonic splendor. As the century progressed, composers continued to find new ways to handle large ensembles. Stravinsky, for example, used the availability of multiple instruments and sections to make his characteristic off-beats surprising in his Symphony in C, and also used a deliberate reduction of orchestral forces in the work’s second movement (Larghetto concertante) to create a highly moving elegy for his eldest daughter and wife, both of whom had died of tuberculosis not long before. The Symphony in Three Movements contains a central tribute as well – the second movement was written for a film by Stravinsky’s friend, Franz Werfel, but not used – and the entire work has something of a Mahler-like “chamber” feeling in its focus on solo or paired instruments such as harp, harp and piano, and bassoons and strings (although the symphony certainly sounds like nothing Mahler wrote). This three-movement work was written in bits and pieces and is less fully integrated than the Symphony in C, but uses the orchestra just as skillfully – and Robert Craft, here as throughout his recordings for (or, as is the case with this CD, being re-released by) Naxos balances and propels the music knowingly and with consummate skill. The chamber works that complement the orchestral ones here are equally effective. The “Dumbarton Oaks” concerto, for 10 strings and five wind instruments, and the earlier Octet for winds, are both in traditional three-movement form, the Octet being neoclassical in structure (Stravinsky’s first work of this type) and the concerto being inspired by Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 3 – as seen through a very Stravinskian lens.
The lens through which Leopold Stokowski saw Bach, and the orchestra, was quite different from Stravinsky’s. Original-instrument performances and academic studies of Bach’s era simply did not exist when Stokowski, who was born in 1882, studied the Baroque master’s music. Indeed, Bach’s music was far from ubiquitous in concert – it was considered rather dry and rarefied in the early to middle part of the 20th century. Stokowski’s answer to the paucity of Bach was to render it in terms that he felt audiences of the time would accept and enjoy – terms that frequently seem overblown and vastly overdone today, but that made sense in historical context and still show a great deal of cleverness and even some sensitivity to Bach’s harmonies (if scarcely to his contrapuntal mastery). José Serebrier, who studied and worked with Stokowski, is a persuasive advocate of the older conductor’s transcriptions – although nothing Serebrier can do with them can make them idiomatic or prevent them from shading time and again into grandiosity. The 11 Bach works on Serebrier’s new CD range from the famed Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, created in 1926 and memorably used in Walt Disney’s 1940 film Fantasia, to the second fugue from Book I of The Well-Tempered Clavier, with stops in between at Ein feste burg and Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring and elsewhere. Complementing the Bach transcriptions – and shedding additional light on Stokowski’s approach – are his orchestrations of short works by other Baroque and classical composers, from Palestrina, William Byrd, Jeremiah Clarke and Johann Matheson to Haydn and Boccherini. Many of the works on this CD are now quite familiar in their original versions, with the result that Stokowski’s use of huge orchestral forces can come across as something of a desecration. Clearly, though, Stokowski had no such intention, and these transcriptions and arrangements are all well-worked and, especially in small doses, can be pleasant antidotes to the sometimes too-dry versions by performers who mistake lack of expression for authenticity. Stokowski’s transcriptions were all about expressiveness, and if they included far more of it than Bach and the other composers here ever intended, that at least shows how much Stokowski loved this music and wanted to communicate his affection, in some form, to audiences that were not familiar with the works as the composers intended them to be performed.