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Bach: Famous Transcriptions.

Bach: Famous Transcriptions. Leopold Stokowski, Symphony Orchestra. EM17243-5-57758-0-1 (2-disc set).

Leopold Stokowski was a mere lad in his seventies when he made these recordings of Bach transcriptions in 1957-58 with his handpicked Symphony Orchestra. His own orchestral arrangements of works originally written either for solo organ or small baroque ensembles are probably still an acquired taste, but they've been around for so long and have become so well known, a lot of us take them for granted as being entirely "Bach."

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'unfaune, recorded live with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Festival Hall, London. More about that in a minute, but first, 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 inspiring, too. Best of all, the sound, nearly a half a century old, is everything one could want it to be--deep, firm, solid, and robust, a tad compartmentalized perhaps, but well spread out across the stereo stage. I prefer this sound to Stokowski's later Phase-4 recordings for Decca, now also available on CD (in a five-disc box). EMI's late fifties' sound is less bright and better focused than Decca's. In fact, EMI's old sound is better than a lot of what passes for modern digital recording.

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, though they are individually tracked, there is no menu selection 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....
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Publication:Sensible Sound
Article Type:Sound Recording Review
Date:Jan 1, 2005
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