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While praising Ravel's instantly popular 1922 orchestration of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition (which he introduced to the Philadelphia audience in 1929), Stokowski claimed that it was too "Gallic" and, in 1939, offered one that he claimed was more "Slavic". What is "Slavic"? The first four bars (eight with Stokowski, he divides Ravel's 5/4 and 6/4) of the opening Promenade may give a clue: in lieu of Ravel's solo trumpet, you get Stokowski's first violins (playing in the lower register and sounding, here, almost viola like), soon joined by the complete strings where Ravel has the full brass (minus two trombones). The effect is thicker than with Ravel, more inflated, heavier. Is "thick" Slavic and "lean" Gallic? Maybe so, but one thing is sure, this heavy reliance on the strings is first and foremost an unmistakable Stokowski trademark.
But Stokowski's orchestration is not just about pouring thick servings of string soup. Ravel's Gnomus is pretty ominous, but Stokowski's (he titles it "Gnomes" and does some cuts to Mussorgsky's original in the first part) is brutal and frightening, with screaming strings and snarling brass. The same brutality can be heard at the end of Goldenberg and Schmuyle, thanks to the addition of brass to Ravel's strings and woodwinds. The history of Russia and the Soviet Union lets me think that, yes, "brutal" is, indeed, Slavic.
His second Promenade, with its shimmering strings (in place of Ravel's woodwinds) answering the calls of a forlorn bassoon, is not the one of a stroller in the posthumous exhibion of Viktor Hartmann's paitings, but rather the journey of a day dreamer in another reality. Maybe there is something there very Slavic as well (vodka helping). Lower strings tremulating in the third Promenade (Ravel's fourth; it comes after Bydlo; Stokowski omits the one after The Old Castle) and you are projected on the Bald Mountain before the bacchanale erupts. Ravel's saxophone in the Old Castle may be more atmospheric than Stokowski's cor anglais, but Stokowski's softly whispering violins are more atmospheric than Ravel's English horn... and violins. Here again Stokowski's version cuts some chunks from Mussorgsky (and Ravel) - but he also adds a coda of his own. His lower strings (instead of Ravel's woodwinds) also lend a fine and appropriate processional atmosphere to the softer parts of The Great Gate of Kiev (at 0:47). Now, an Orthodox procession: that certainly is Slavic.
Rapidly, listening to Stokowski's orchestration is no more about trying to pit it against Ravel's and decide which one is "the best", but simply enjoying its own shimmering colors. I don't find Ravel's Ballet of the Unhatched Chickens particularly "Gallic", on the contrary its sardonic timbres sound very "Slavic" to me; Stokowski's orchestration is different, but equally sardonic, and both versions are equally enjoyable. But Stokowski's "Hut of Fowl's Legs"' is something else: with its elephant-like trumpeting brass, it is The Rite of Spring that he must have had in mind here.
Not that, in all details, Stokowski's choices are always radically different from Ravel's. Apparently Stokie was perfectly happy with Ravel's bassoon in The Old Castle, his bass clarinet at the end of Gnomus, his tuba in Bydlo (to which he adds, if my ears serve, a trumpet) then violins exactly at the same place as Ravel, his bass strings for Goldenberg and trumpet for Schmuyle (although it alternates with flute - Schmuyle had a sister, maybe).
But where Stokowski's arrangement is frustrating, though, is when he leaves out Tuileries and The Market at Limoges. Why? And it is especially regrettable in the latter case, since, in Mussorgsky's conception, Limoges segues directly into Catacombs through a big, tension building crescendo/accelerando. Not here. On the other hand, don't let the track listing lead you in thinking that Stokowski also left out Cum Mortuis in Lingua Mortua: in fact it is part of his Catacombs.
Stokowski's orchestration seems to be enjoying some favor of late. A number of conductors have taken to conducting and recording that version - maybe just out of jadedness with Ravel's: Mussorgsky-Stokowski: Pictures at an Exhibition, Stokowski's Mussorgsky, Stokowski Transcriptions - Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition / Bach: Toccata and Fugue in D minor, Mussorgsky: Pictures at an Exhibition, Ippolitov-Ivanov: Caucasian Sketches, Op. 10 / Scriabin: Symphony No. 5 Op. 60 Prometheus, "Poem of Fire" / Mussorgsky/Stokowski: Pictures at an Exhibition. I've heard none of them, but still, if you are going to listen to Stokowski's orchestration (and, if you are a fan of Pictures, by all means you should), this is really where you should start: why listen to the prophets when you have God himself speaking? So for Stokowski the orchestrator, better listen to Stokowski the interpreter. And for Stokowski the interpreter, this is the version to get. Stokowski recorded his own orchestration three times in the studio (there are also a couple of live versions): in 1939 with the Philadelphia Orchestra (reissued by Dutton; Stokowski Conducts a Russian Spectacular), in '41 with the All-American Youth Orchestra (on Columbia 78rmps, not reissued) and this one here, in 1965 and in Decca's Phase-Four Stereo, as vivid and full as anything from the digital era.
Added to the great sonics, the point is, Stokowski the orchestrator and Stokowski the interpreter are in fact indistinguishable. Stokowski's score wasn't published until 1971, and I've found a facsimile of two pages on the internet: Stokowski the orchestrator has written out in the score every minute detail, every pocchissimo rallentando or diminuendo that Stokowski the interpreter had in mind: all those quirks and idiosyncrasies of interpretation are part of Mussorgsky's-Stokowski's composition, and, based on those two pages, Stokowski the interpreter is true to the hilt to the composer. Sometimes the "Slavic" violence and brutality seems more a matter of interpretation than of orchestration, as in Catacombs (which have never to me ears sound closer to Wagner, especially to Stokowski's Wagner). Likewise his Bydlo is no heavily trudding oxencart, but the marching on to war of an army of trolls, and this is not so much a matter of orchestration as of tempo: Stokowski's is about twice as fast as the one we are accustomed to hearing Ravel. Are trolls Slavic by the way?
So, is Ravel's orchestration superior to Stokowski's? I can't say so, the two are brilliant and rewarding. So why the universal fame of Ravel's, rather than Stokowski's? The absence from the latter of Tuileries and Limoges provides part of the answer, and maybe the fact that Stokowski's was too closely associated with himself as interpreter, in times when it was fashionable to look down on him and his interpretive idiosyncrasies. Stokowski's orchestration/interpretation is also more showy and gaudy - you know: Slavic. Maybe that was a drawback in times when one could revel in Mussorgsky but only with Ravelian elegance and "quant-à-soi". But basically I think the main reason is only because Ravel was there first, and established a stronghold that Stokowski's simply couldn't budge. So, ultimately, Stokowski's only mistake is NOT to have had the brilliant idea of orchestrating Mussorgsky's Pictures before 1922. It is Koussevitzky who came up with it and entrusted it to Ravel, and the rest is history. Had Stokowski been more clever, it is the Stokowski heirs, and not those of Ravel (did Ravel have any?) that would have their pockets flowing with royalties today.
Note that what I have is not this Phase Four reissue, but an earlier Japanese release by King Record, K30Y 1546, paired only with Stokowski's arrangement of Debussy's Engulfed Cathedral, reissuing the original Decca LP. I have the rest of the content of this CD in the Stokowski box published by Decca in its Original Masters collection, Leopold Stokowski: Decca Recordings, 1965-1972 (Original Masters Limited Edition).
Scriabin's "Poème de l'extase" is not so easy to bring off. The conductor needs to find the fine balance between being too strict, dry and ungiving, thus betraying the composition's meaning - it is, after all, a poem of "ecstasy", and one may legitimately understand here "orgasm"; Scriabin's filled the score with markings such as "languido", "soavamente", "carezzando", "delice" - and, on the other extreme, being excessively languid, sultry and swooning, turning Scriabin's poem into a vulgar whore covered-up with a thick crust of make-up. Given the kind of conductor that Stokowski was, I would have thought that he would have erred in the direction of the second pole; in fact, not at all. This is, like Stokowski's previous recordings of Scriabin's piece, a remarkably balanced version, and it comes if vivid and pungent sonics. Though recorded live on September 8, 1972, it was picked up and released by Decca and became Stokowski's third "official"/commercial version - and also the last one (two other live versions from 1968 and 1969 were published in the CD era on BBC Legends, and I haven't heard them, see ASIN B00001W07J and B00005LW1I). His first studio effort was made in 1932 with his Philadelphia Orchestra and its antiquated sonics make it no more than a trace of what the real experience might have been (Schoenberg: Gurrelieder; Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy; Poem of Fire); it is marginally tighter-fisted than the subsequent recordings, as if the conductor didn't quite yet have the music in his stride. The next one was the 1959 Everest recording with the Houston Symphony Orchestra, and while slightly more classically-minded and disciplined than this one, with lesser variations of tempo and more cogency in the tempo relationships, it is remarkable how Stokowski's conception has remained unchanged through the years (Tchaikovsky: Francesca da Rimini; Hamlet / Scriabin: Poem of Ecstasy ~ Stokowski). Its sonics are excellent, though not as full and vivid as in 1972. The latter has the more vivid sonics then, with even some solo violin and trumpet timbres that, very fugitively, veer towards the gaudy, and, as befits the live occasion, Stokowski conducts with marginally more abandon, dynamism and bite, but also less discipline in the observance of the tempo relations. Both versions are excellent and I could live with any of the two, but if I had to choose only one, it would probably be this one.
I'll return to Stravinsky's Firebird-suite when I've done my comparative homework - which might be in some years.