GHCD 2324 – Serge Koussevitzky (1874–1951) – Vol. 2, Live 1943-1948
Boston Symphony Orchestera, Serge Koussevitzky – Conductor
CRC – Winter 2008
Here different aspects of Koussevitzky’s greatness are revealed in a series of live recordings. Mussorgsky’s Night evokes a truly terrifying experience in a performance of extraordinary weight and vividness: the 1944 recording is good, as it is in a touchingly tender account of the same composer’s evocation of dawn breaking over the Moscow River. Tchaikovsky’s epic Symphonic Fantasy doesn’t quite have the White heat in performance possessed by Night on a Bare Mountain, and the sound is not so welldefined, but it still has sufficient passion and excitement to rival nearly all other performances one has heard. Koussevitzky was most at home in Russian and French music, maybe, but he was a dedicated Champion of contemporary Scores and he conducted a good deal of British music. His account of the Vaughan Williams has superficial similarities with the composer’s own realisation of the score (Somm m SOMMCD071 – reviewed in the Spring issue, page 76), particularly in its strong, alert rhythmic quality and in the way that emotional expression is conveyed vividly but quietly and naturally, without being pointed. The Bostoners seem to be perfectly inside the music, as if it was second nature. Unfortunately the recording here is not brilliant for 1947, rather edgy and with a lot of background noise. If you are not familiar with Koussevitzky’s art this disc as a whole gives a good Impression of his qualities.
American Record Guide March / April 2008
These broadcast recordings made from 1943 to 1948 capture the Great Russian conductor working with congenial repertoire when he was at the height of his powers and reputation. Night an Bald Mountain is spine-chilling and Francesca da Rimini emotively supercharged. These are the sort of works where one might prefer a faster-and-louder pre-war conductor of the Nikisch school someone who is not shy about special effects. I would not have programmed them together, as too much sonic sublimity can be deadening; the Prelude is dwarfed by these massive works.
While Koussevitzky’s commercial recordings might be preferred in those instances, the Vaughan Williams Symphony is a fresh discovery: a more grand and colourful performance of this war-time work would be difficult to imagine. Best of all, the Sound is just lovely; with a blushing warmth in the strings that melts the heart. Peter Reynolds is to be commended for his remastering, which allows us to hear Koussevitzky’s orchestra under conditions as good as it gets.
INTERNATIONAL RECORD REVIEW – JANUARY 2008
Serge Koussevitzky’s Vaughan Williams When I reviewed Volume 1 of Guild’s Koussevitzky ‘Live Recordings’ in April 2007 I said how much I was looking forward to further releases. Now Volume 2 has appeared and it’s a wonderful follow-up. As far as I know, Koussevitzky’s 1947 live broadcast of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony has been in circulation only privately among enthusiasts, but now Guild has released this radiant performance and it gives us the chance to experience Koussevitzky’s Vaughan Williams at its most radiant, expressive and – at the climax of the first movement electrifying, superbly played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There is a rehearsal fragment of the Sixth Symphony which is equally thrilling (in the Boston Symphony Broadcast Archives set), but this Fifth Symphony is an account to treasure – it has not only drama and ravishing beauty but also a symphonic cogency and sweep that is something to marvel at. A gem, then, and it comes coupled with three Russian classics:
Mussorgsky’s Niaht on a Bare Mountain – from the same concert as Koussevitzky’s live Bartok Concerto Jor Orchestra – and Khovanshchina Prelude (both in the RimskyKorsakov arrangements) and a searingly authentic reading of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini (the booklet gives no date for this or for Khovanshchina, but I am fairly certain they are both from Symphony Hall on April 24th, 1946). This is clearly a series to watch:
I hope such rarities as Koussevitzky’s Peter Grimes interludes and Copland’ s Appalachian Sprina (from a concert at Hunter College, New York in 1946) will follow, as well as live readings of such Koussevitzky specialities as Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. As with Volume 1, the disc comes with excellent notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. Very warmly recommended (Guild GHCD2324, 1 hour 18 minutes).
Munch in Debussy, Ravel and Roussel
Next is a thrilling NBC Symphony concert from 1954, conducted by Munch in a programme which includes Debussy’s Iberia, Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin and the Second Suite from Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane. The Roussel was a great Munch speciality and, caught live, his performances of it could be hair-raisingly exciting in the final ‘Bacchanale’. This NBC account comes pretty close to the best of them (an amazing performance with the Orchestre National de France in 1966 on Disques Montaigne). The Debussy was another Munch favourite and while this live version doesn’t quite have the polish of the 1957 Boston SO studio recording on RCA, both performances demonstrate a superbly refined ear allied to a propulsive energy that marks out Munch’s Debussy conducting as something wholly individual. The Ravel is also delightfully done. Guild gives us the whole broadcast (in very well-restored sound), complete with opening and closing announcements – a form of presentation that gives a real sense of occasion, I think. A lovely disc (Guild GHCD2327, 56 minutes).
John Barbirolli in New York
A very enterprising Guild two-disc set includes live performances of John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic, made between 1937 and 1943. The biggest pieces here are Franck’s Symphony, Brahms’s Double Concerto (both 1939), to which are added Iberia by Debussy (1937), The White Peacock by Griffes (1938), the Overture to an Italian Comedy by Arthur Benjamin (1941), Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Kina John Overture (1942) and other shorter pieces. The absorbing programme notes with this release (as for all the other Guild releases under review here) are by RM-W. He makes the important point that reputation, especially the notion that Barbirolli somehow ‘failed’ in New York, is simply not borne out by these concerts. I can only agree. There is a good deal of lovely playing (the last movement of the Franck has one rocky moment, but several passages of great beauty), and the conducting is propulsive and purposeful throughout. It’s marvellous to hear Barbirolli conducting The White Peacock,
a delectable work, and his account of Iberia makes an interesting contrast with the Munch reading discussed earlier. In general it doesn’t quite have Munch’s swing and swagger, but both conductors have a sure sense of direction and draw some fine playing from their players. The Benjamin and Castelnuovo- T edesco overtures are fascinating, and the Brahms Double Concerto with Albert Spalding and Gaspar Cassado is a particularly impassioned reading from two great soloists and a conductor who draws orchestral playing of unflagging commitment and warm-heartedness. Sound quality is variable: the originals are often in poor condition, but the best has been done with them here. Not to be missed by Barbirolli admirers (Guild GHCD2330/31, two discs, 2 hours 27 minutes)
Fanfare November/December 2007
Between commercial and live, off-the-air recordings, several dozen recordings ofKoussevitzky and the BSO were made from the mid 1930s through 1950. Relatively little of it was re-released on LP, and that condition has unfortunately been little remedied on CD. Guild therefore deserves a vote of thanks for its live Koussevitzky series. Though only on its second volume, these well-produced selections do a creditable job of conveying the magic that conductor and orchestra brought to Boston audiences for 25 years.
The best of the lot is the Francesca da Rimini, a passionate reading that showcases the BSO’s incisive but warm strings. Almost equally good is the Prelude from Khovanshchina, with exceptional pacing and control of dynamics. Both performances spotlight the BSO sound during that period, less sonorously blended than some other top flight American orchestras, but capable of great tonal variation. Night on Bald Mountain is less flexible in its tempos than many other versions, but all the more exciting when Koussevitzky does shift gears. The BSO brass are bright and Russian sounding. An exciting reading, this, despite limitations of the original source recording.
Finally, there’s the Symphony No. 5 of Vaughan Williams, in an emotionally committed reading.
Three years earlier, Barbirolli recorded the work commercially, and the two versions differ notably. Glorious John’s more lyrical performance achieves a level of gossamer menace in the Scherzo that I’ve never heard matched, since; but Koussevitzky brings out a mocking, sarcastic vein (those jeering brass!) that is equally valid. Perhaps surprisingly, the BSO ties with the Barbirolli’s cherished Halle musicians in discovering just the right sense of reflective peace in the work’s final moments.
Classical Net 2007
Listening to the first bars of Vaughan Williams’ Fifth Symphony one is immediately struck by the sheer fire and brimstone of Koussevitzky’s reading which fairly seethes with intensity. It’s far more involving than Boult’s contemporaneous performance recorded a few years later and definitely more invigorating than Barbirolli’s premiere performance. For me, this is the recording to have as the modern versions; although far better recorded are not a patch on the great Russian maestro who takes the music to a different level altogether.
Similar intensity involves Mussorgsky’s “Night on Bald Mountain”, another tour de force of orchestral virtuosity. Conversely, the “Khovanschina” Prelude is full of mystery and dark foreboding, a well nigh ideal version of a work which is not as often performed as its more famous counterpart, “Boris Goudonov”. Finally we have what is one of the most intense interpretations of Tchaikovsky’s magnificent ‘Francesca da Rimini’, astounding in its devil may care abandon and portrayals of the damned by lust.
Robert Matthew Walker’s notes are excellent and the whole enterprise can safely be listed as my disc of the year for historical recordings. If we are having more issues from the Koussevitzky back burner containing such recordings then I will await the rest with relish.
By John Quinn
Russian music was one of the specialities of Serge Koussevitzky. He is, perhaps, less celebrated as a champion of British music. However, in the interesting note accompanying this CD Robert Matthew-Walker points out that the maestro led the American première of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast in 1932 – I’ll bet that was exciting – and commissioned both Peter Grimes and Spring Symphony from Benjamin Britten. During his tenure of the Boston podium he conducted symphonies by Bax and Vaughan Williams. Nonetheless, I was surprised to find him leading RVW’s Fifth for, superficially, I’d have expected him to be more attuned to the more volatile Fourth or Sixth.
However, on receiving this CD for review I couldn’t help but play first Francesca da Rimini. This is one of my favourite Tchaikovsky scores and I’ve heard some notable recordings of it down the years, including readings by Barbirolli and Stokowski. This urgent, incandescent reading by Koussevitzky will become another personal favourite, I’m sure, despite the inevitable sonic limitations. Koussevitzky generates tremendous excitement in the turbulent outer sections of the work. In between, the great central love melody has wonderful sweep and passion. This is a virtuoso performance by a virtuoso conductor and it’s thrilling. Unfortunately the sound is cut off with an almost brutal abruptness after the last chord – something which afflicts all the recordings on this disc. It comes as quite a shock to have the ambience ended in this way. I wonder if this is a feature of the original sources with which the Guild transfer engineers had to work?
The Mussorgsky pieces also fare very well in Koussevitzky’s hands. He generates demonic energy in the first few minutes of A Night on the Bare Mountain. The Boston heavy brass and percussion play with great power and the high woodwinds screech away. In the visceral excitement a few momentary imprecisions are of little consequence. After the chimes of the dawn bell [7:06] there’s an uneasy calm about the performance. The principal clarinet contributes a doleful solo – I wonder if it’s the same player who made a notable showing in the central section of Francesca? I should say that surface noise is quite intrusive in the last few minutes of this piece.
The Khovanshchina Prelude is another success. Here Koussevitzky distils excellent atmosphere and the BSO playing is highly concentrated, not least in the fine oboe solo. The hushed ending, starting with a pianissimo clarinet solo, is really well managed; it’s just a shame that the Boston audience make such a bronchial contribution to the proceedings.
But, since Russian music was very much Koussevitzky’s métier, I suspect that for many collectors the prime interest in this release will lie, as it did for me, in the reading of the Vaughan Williams symphony. This, we are told, is one of two performances of the work that Koussevitzky gave in the 1946/7 season. One thing that it’s important to note is that this performance was given within four years of the first unveiling of the work in public so Koussevitzky’s reading is, at best, lightly influenced by precedent. To me it felt very idiomatic.
The first movement has breadth but the music is also invested with the requisite flow. Perhaps there isn’t quite the degree of gentle rubato, an easing here and there, that we’ve become used to by hearing conductors like Boult unfold the work but it still sounds pretty convincing to me. The BSO strings sound radiant, even through the elderly recording. When, in the passage between 4:45 and 6:20 in this performance, the music becomes appreciably faster there’s admirable urgency and tautness in the playing. The main climax (from 7:24) is noble but, very rightly, Koussevitzky maintains forward impetus.
The gossamer lightness that’s essential to a successful rendition of the scherzo is splendidly realised here. The luminous string chords that usher in the glorious slow movement are weighted to perfection. The playing in this third movement is wonderful all round – the wind soloists are particularly distinguished – not for nothing is the BSO regarded as the aristocrat of American orchestras. The climax of the movement, around 8:30 is majestic and then the music ends as serenely as it began. Once again, I’m afraid, the coughers in the audience do their best to distract us.
The finale is quite fleet and there’s an urgency to the performance that I like very much and find refreshing. I admire Koussevitzky’s approach to this movement, which reminds us that even in his seventies RVW and his music still possessed great vigour. Eventually, conductor and orchestra give us a serene survey of the closing pages of the symphony (from 5:40 and, even more, from 6:18). The strings phrase generously and the very end of the work glows beautifully. Overall this is a very convincing performance of the symphony. I don’t know if it has circulated on unofficial labels in the past but I’m only sorry that it’s taken sixty years for this reading to become generally available.
Guild offer us here an excellent collection of Koussevitzky performances. It’s no surprise to find him in his element in Russian repertoire but it’s marvellous to find him equally effective in a quintessentially English score. The sound isn’t ideal but, given its age and that these are not studio recordings, it’s perfectly adequate. The excellence and excitement of these performances, which I presume were all given in Symphony Hall, Boston come across very well. This valuable collection gives us another reminder of how formidable was the partnership between Serge Koussevitzky and the orchestra he led with such distinction for a quarter of a century
GRAMOPHONE NOVEMBER 2007 ISSUE
Many years ago BBC Radio 3 ran a series of Sunday morning broadcasts devoted to vintage American air-checks, Toscanini and Koussevitzky performances principally, among them the 1947 Vaughan Williams Fifth that Guild has just coupled with Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky. VW5 is dedicated to Sibelius and those who know Serge Koussevitzky’s high-octane Sibelius recordings will easily make the connection the overall volatility, the very French woodwind sound and a unique bloom that distinguishes the Boston Symphony Strings, at its most prominent in the third and fourth movements (the symphony’s close is quite ravishing). Sometimes I craved greater transparency, but with such an abundance of warmth on offer, I’m not complaining. There are no commercial Koussevitzky recordings of either the symphony or Mussorgsky’s A Night on the Bare Mountain, which in this 1944 reading has the pounding excitement of raw folk music. Koussevitzky did record both the Khovanhchina Prelude and Tchaikovsky;s Franncesca da Rimini but these live relays score with greater delicacy in the former and a higher degree of tension in the latter.
FANFARE – November/December 2007
Between commercial and live, off-the-air recordings, several dozen recordings of Koussevitzky and the BSO were made from the mid 1930s through 1950. Relatively little of it was re-released on LP, and that condition has unfortunately benn little remedied on CD. Guild therefore deserves a vote of thanks for its live Koussevitzky series. Though only on its second volume, these well-produced selections do a creditable job of conveying the magic that conductor and orchestra brought to Boston audiences for 25 years.
The best of the lot is the Francesca da Rimini, a passionate reading that showcases the BSO’s incisive but warm strings. Almost equally good is the Prelude from Khovanshchina, with exceptional pacing and control of dynamics. Both performances spotlight the BSO sound during that period, less sonorously blended than some other topflight American orchestras, but capable of great tonal variation. Night on the bald mountain is less flexible in its tempos than many other versions, but all the more exciting when Koussevitzky does shift gears. The BSO brass are bright and Russian sounding. A exciting reading, this, despite limitations of the original source recording.
Finally, there’s the Sllymphony No. 5 of Vaughan Williams in an emotionally committed reading. Three years earlier. Barbirolli recorded the work commercially, and the two versions differ notibaly. Glorious John’s more lyrical performance achieves a level of gossamer menace in the Scherzo that I’ve never heard matched, since; butKoussevitzky brings out a mocking, sarcastic vein (those jeering brass!) that is equally valid. Perhaps surprisingly, the BSO ties with the Barbirolli’s cherished Hallé musicians in discovering just the right sense of reflective peace in the work’s final movement.
Klassikcom Thursday September 20 2007
Überraschung aus Boston
Kritik von Erik Daumann, 20.09.2007
Wäre Serge Kussewitzky nicht gewesen, die Welt wäre um etliche Meisterwerke ärmer, denn kein Zweiter hat so viele Werke angeregt, in Auftrag gegeben oder selbst uraufgeführt wie der amerikanische Dirigent russischer Herkunft, der zunächst in Paris Station machte und schließlich von 1924 bis 1949 Chefdirigent des Boston Symphony Orchestra war. Waren es in den Pariser Jahren Werke von Skrjabin, Honegger, Strawinsky oder Prokofjews, so folgten in Amerika u.a. Bartóks ‚Konzert für Orchester’, Coplands dritte Symphonie, ‚Die Vier Temperamente’ und das Cellokonzert von Hindemith, Symphonien von Martinu und Milhaud, Piston und Schuman. Den englischen Komponisten schien sich Kussewitzky ebenfalls verbunden zu fühlen. 1932 gab er die amerikanische Premiere von William Waltons ‚Belshazzar’s Feast’ und gab nicht zuletzt bei Benjamin Britten sowohl die Oper ‚Peter Grimes’ als auch die ‚Spring Symphony’ in Auftrag. Außerdem fanden immer wieder Symphonien von Arnold Bax und Ralph Vaughan Williams Aufnahme in Kussewitzkys Konzertprogramme. ‚Guild historical’ hat Live-Aufnahmen Kussewitzkys der Jahre 1943 bis 1948 mit russisch-englischem Repertoire herausgebracht.
Mussorgskijs ‚Nacht auf dem Kahlen Berg’ und das ‚Khovanschina’-Vorspiel waren in Kussewitzkys Konzerten frequentiert zu hören. Während seiner Bostoner Jahre dirigierte er Ersteres achtmal, Letzteres gar vierzehnmal. Auch Tschaikowskys ‚Francesca da Rimini’ war zehnmal unter Kussewitzkys Leitung dort aufgeführt worden. Trotz der klangtechnischen Unzulänglichkeiten, die die Tontechnik der 40er Jahre nun mal aufweist, lässt sich dennoch das Boston Symphony Orchestra mit seiner von Kussewitzky so profund herausgearbeiteten dichten, noblen Klangsättigung hören, elegant im Streichersatz und markig in den Blechbläsern, und immer in Betonung der Schönheit der Phrase. So kennt man Kussewitzkys Interpretationen des russischen Repertoires, insbesondere der Symphonien von Tschaikowsky, die auf Tonträger greifbar sind. Die eigentliche Überraschung ist Kussewitzkys Interpretation der fünften Symphonie von Ralph Vaughan Williams in einem Konzert vom 4. März 1947. Da war die Symphonie gerade vier Jahre alt. Vaughan Williams hatte sie 1943 bei den Londoner Proms selbst uraufgeführt und schon ein Jahr später hat John Barbirolli das Werk für die Schallplatte eingespielt – gleichsam als Gradmesser für weitere Interpreten, die sich mit diesem Werk auseinander setzten.
Einer gewissen Skepsis an der Überzeugungskraft von Kussewitzkys Interpretation kann man sich kaum erwehren, solange man seine Lesart noch nicht gehört hat. Hat man sie aber erst einmal gehört, sind alle Zweifel ausgeräumt: Kussewitzkys Live-Aufnahme von Vaughan Williams’ fünfter Symphonie zählt zum Besten, was derzeit auf dem Plattenmarkt an Aufnahmen dieser Symphonie erhältlich ist. Der Grund ist nicht, dass Kussewitzky die Symphonie so gründlich gegen den Strich bürsten würde, dass allein dies exzeptionell wäre. Was an seiner Interpretation so fasziniert ist, dass er sich dem Versöhnungsprozess von Epik und Dramatik, der den Symphonien Vaughan Williams’ und seiner Fünften besonders immanent ist, verweigert, dass er dieser Symphonie einen so derart hochgespannt fiebrigen dramatischen Zug verleiht, wie ihn Barbirolli in seiner freilich mustergültigen Aufnahme von 1944 gar nicht angestrebt hat. Kussewitzky und das Boston Symphony Orchestra bieten gleichsam die Kehrseite der Medaille eines Werks, das episch interpretiert genauso ‚funktioniert’ wie dramatisch ausgelotet. Hier herrschen straffere Tempi in den Ecksätzen, hier lässt Kussewitzky das Scherzo so flüchtig-schattenhaft Mahlerisch spielen, wie nirgends anders zu hören, hier gewinnen die einleitenden mediantischen Akkorde der ‚Romanza’ kaum zu überbietende Substanz. Übergänge formt Kussewitzky als Kontraste und lässt das Boston Symphony Orchestra vor allem in den Blechbläsern und im Schlagwerk das dynamische Potential voll ausschöpfen. Bögen voller Binnenspannung, selbst in den leisesten Stellen, korrespondieren mit dem Detailreichtum, den Kussewitzky der Partitur entlocken kann. Dass man dies bei all den klangtechnischen Restriktionen noch deutlich wahrnehmen kann, ist nicht nur eine Glanzleistung moderner Tonrestaurierung, sondern vor allem des Dirigats Kussewitzkys.
Das Klangbild dieser Aufnahme der 40er Jahren ist selbstredend Gewöhnungssache, ebenso die frequentiert Hüstelnden im Publikum. Ein Druckfehler im Booklet und auf dem Cover gibt Vaughan Williams zwar die Lebensdaten seines Kollegen Arnold Bax, doch sind dies Marginalien angesichts der angenehme Überraschungen, die diese Veröffentlichung bereithält.