Classical Reissue Reviews

“Stokowski, A Renaissance and Baroque Concert” = Works of BACH, VIVALDI, LULLY, CETI, FRESCOBALDI, PALESTRINA & GABRIELI – Solosts/Leopold Stokowski & His Sym. Orch. – Pristine Audio

A collection of Leopold Stokowski’s transcriptions of ‘older’ music, this Pristine reissue presents works in the glorious Stokowski Sound that purists denigrate but music-lovers applaud.

Published on August 15, 2013

“Stokowski, A Renaissance and Baroque Concert” = Works of BACH, VIVALDI, LULLY, CETI, FRESCOBALDI, PALESTRINA & GABRIELI – Solosts/Leopold Stokowski & His Sym. Orch. – Pristine Audio

Stokowski, A Renaissance and Baroque Concert” = J.S. BACH: Siciliano; Mein Jesu; Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor, BWV 582; VIVALDI: Concerto Grosso in D Minor, Op. 3, No. 11; CESTI: Tu mancavi a torentarmi, crudelissima speranza; LULLY: Nocturne; March; FRESCOBALDI: Gagliarda; PALESTRINA: Adoramus Te; O Bone Jesu; GABRIELI: Canzon Quarti Toni a 15; In Ecclesiis Benedicte Domino – Brass choir/ a capella chorus/ Charles Courboin, organ (in Gabrieli: In Ecclesiis)/ Leopold Stokowski & His Sym. Orch. – Pristine Audio PASC 391, 75:40 [avail. in various formats from pristineclassical.com] ****:

From studio recordings made 1950-1952, producer and restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn has spliced two distinct RCA albums by Leopold Stokowski (LM 1133 and LM 1721) that indulged his penchant for orchestral transcriptions of ancient music, of which those by J.S. Bach stood pre-eminent, with some forty from that master. While purists have and will continue to balk at the lush orchestrations and their essentially Romantic ethos, the Stokowski transcriptions continue to fascinate the music-lover and connoisseur of rich orchestral technique, and the restored sound will certainly add to the luster and mesmeric aura these inscriptions already possess.

The opening Siciliano from Bach’s C Minor Violin Sonata, BWV 1017, establishes the grand line and sensuous cantilena that suffuses these selections. Mein Jesu, BWV 487 projects an introspective, darkly chromatic passion which exploits first the low strings and then, most piquant, the baritone strings. The last of the 1950 sessions, the Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor – much of which may imitate the contrapuntal style Bach admired in Buxtehude – builds upon an ostinati bass theme some twenty-one variations, arranged as seven groups of three that each open with a quote in the Lutheran chorale style. Stokowski, typically, arranges his orchestral choirs in the manner of the organ’s diapason, using free bowing to assure a seamless transition through the variants while they create a thick fabric of stretti.  But beyond the immensely cerebral contrapunctus, the lyricism of the transcription proves quite compelling, especially as the music crescendos into brass, and the bass tones assume their rightful organ ground swell.

The second “large” work, Vivaldi’s D Minor Concerto Grosso from L’Estro Armonico, begins the sessions recorded between late February and early April 1952. Stylistically, this thickly lush treatment of the otherwise transparent score seems totally misplaced except as an orchestral or acoustical etude representing a definite aesthetic viewpoint. Stokowski at several points in the outer movements converts the concerto into a woodwind serenade concertino against the larger string ripieno. When the texture thickens, we feel as if we were auditing luminous Elgar or Reger. The sighing effects of the Largo, decidedly histrionic, do have their effect, much (given the flute and oboe solos) in the manner of Gluck’s Orfeo.

Cesti’s 1668 Tu mancavi. . .Stokowski transcribed for strings and harp, so the passionate result might be likened to those illuminated religious paintings by Matthias Gruenewald. For the Adoramus Te, Christe attributed to Palestrina, Stokowski employs an a capella chorus to the same layered effect, with only the absence of bassi profundi to prevent its sounding like a Russian doxology.  The sacred motet O Bone Jesu, Miserere nobis, long attributed to Palestrina now has its creation ascribed to Ingegneri. The two Gabrieli pieces indulge the Venetian brass principle and its resonant antiphons: the 1597 Canzon is scored for three contrasting five-part choirs mostly in E Major but descending into the lachrymose D Minor.  In Ecclesiis (1615) is a motet for fourteen voices, which Stokowski opens with thundering bass organ chords in pedal, played by Charles Courboin. The voice parts represent the epitome of the Gabrieli style, indulging in plagal cadences and incorporating filigree endemic to the Renaissance—the seven-bar Allelluia treatment—and early Baroque. The brass parts surge forward, an Annunciation worthy of the highest cherubim. As Gerard Souzay commented in an interview regarding Stokowski’s mounting of Monteverdi’s Orfeo in Paris, “We expected any number of ‘romantic’ indulgences from Stokowski, but we were pleasantly surprised, if not shocked, by the chastity of means Stokowski could evince when he wanted to maintain his notion of an ‘authentic’ sound.” Producer Obert-Thorn supplies an informative note about the work-intensive restoration of this particular cut from LM 1721, which suffered any number of technical problems, here corrected in glorious sound.

The remaining ‘profane’ works by Lully and Frescobaldi provide an immediate contrast, beginning with the light though sensuous strains of the Nocturne from Lully’s 1681 ballet Le Triomphe de l’Amour, after Moliere. The brief March from Lully’s 1673 opera Thesee brings ceremonial pomp and pride to the fore, a motive of which any British composer would be glad to claim. Frescobaldi’s 1627 Gagliarda projects a somber dignity much in keeping with the solemn dignity of the ‘sacred’ compositions, close in spirit to Dido’s Lament from Purcell.

—Gary Lemco


I had thought I would be covering a high-res version of the above reissue, as I did with the Pristine Debussy Preludes, but it turns out that all the Pristine remasterings that originate from Mark Obert-Thorn are only 16-bit, not 24-bit, so I burned this download to a standard CD as FLAC files for my Oppo deck. However, the above is probably standard mono, while I selected the Ambient Stereo option on my download.

Was hoping I had one of the two original RCA mono LPs, or at least a cassette dub I had made of it in the past. Unfortunately I couldn’t locate either one, but I do recall not only the thin sonics of the LP, but also the considerable surface noise.  The noise is entirely gone here, though the bass end is still a bit sparse.  It’s a pleasure to hear the musical details of Stoky’s arrangements as described by Gary above.  I found the short March by Lully to be the highlight of the two albums; It really swings in Stoky’s rich orchestration.

I hadn’t previously compared the ambient stereo Pristine material with the mono equivalent before, but that was easy to do on my Integra preamp since I read that the particular patented software process is entirely compatible to mono reproduction. Switching back and forth I was quite surprised that there was no difference in the perceived reverberation on either, yet the ambient stereo playback had much more depth and a more three-dimensional feeling to it. So there is no playing around with phase which would cancel out and sound poor when combined back to mono. There were no wandering instruments as one sometimes gets with previous pseudo-stereo processing. I found that when run thru my ProLogic IIz height channel setting, the ambient stereo creates a fine pseudo-surround field. And for headphone playback there is not only great depth but less of a “hole in the middle” effect than with most actual stereo recordings.  I would definitely recommend anyone getting Pristine remasterings from original mono sources go for the ambient stereo option when available.

—John Sunier




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