These recordings are
justly famous and demonstrate vividly
why Serge Koussevitzky was so celebrated
as an interpreter of Sibelius. Without
exception, the performances display
tremendous interpretative grip and control
over the orchestra. There’s also a palpable
sense of atmosphere. The transfers,
by Mark Obert-Thorn, have been expertly
done but, inevitably, the sound is somewhat
spare. This rather suits the music.
In some ways the performance
of the Seventh Symphony is the most
remarkable for it was given with an
orchestra with which the conductor was
not familiar and, of course, it was
‘live’, before an audience. Given that
the performance captured here took place
over 71 years ago the amount of detail
that is reported, such as quiet timpani
playing, is quite remarkable. I have
this in another transfer, by EMI in
their "Art of Conducting"
series [7243 5 65918 2 0]. That version
seems to me to have just a degree more
punch and presence but the difference
is very marginal. In a note Mr. Obert-Thorn
refers to "many restoration challenges"
with this recording. All I can say is
that his expert work gives us as good
an impression as we could reasonably
expect of Koussevitzky’s performance
and what Obert-Thorn justly refers to
as the "white-hot momentum"
he could generate.
concentration and intensity in the opening
adagio section. Later I was particularly
struck by the extraordinary louring
power of the string figures that underpin
the second of the trombone solos (track
5, 3’00"- 4’04"). This is
a baleful passage and it’s tellingly
done here. Not all is dark power, however.
There’s a fine lightness of touch at
the start of the Allegro molto moderato
(track 6). The concluding few minutes,
including the last trombone solo (track
7, from 1’00") are mightily impressive.
Despite the sonic limitations the granite
majesty of Koussevitzky’s vision of
the score is readily apparent. It’s
a tremendous performance and its reputation
amongst collectors as a classic Sibelius
reading is amply justified.
The recording of Tapiola
is of similar stature. Annotator Ian
Julier describes Koussevitzky’s account
as "possessed of an elemental power
and unity" and I wouldn’t dissent.
The reading is highly charged from start
to finish and the cold, dark pine forests
of Scandinavia are brilliantly suggested.
The interpretation has a rugged strength
and it fairly crackles with tension.
The storm (track 3, from 13’55")
is awesome (in the true sense of the
word); you can almost hear the arctic
wind shrieking as the Boston players
articulate the music superbly. At the
end the Nordic landscape settles back
into a timeless calm.
is no less successful. The performance
has the same virtues and standards of
interpretation and performance. After
a brooding start great energy is released
and sustained. I found the performance
tremendously exciting though superbly
controlled on a tight rein. There’s
real fire in the belly here. The excitement
is particularly great in the passage
between 6’30" and 9’20" (track
1), especially from 8’09". The
quiet ending (from 10’56") is most
sensitively handled, the Bostonians
delivering haunting playing that is
pregnant with atmosphere.
The sound on these
Boston recordings is, inevitably, better
than is the case with the recording
of the symphony for these performances
were set down under studio conditions.
The other two, shorter
pieces are well played and it’s interesting
to hear Koussevitzky in somewhat lighter
fare. Both items benefit from sensitive
phrasing and playing.
This is a CD that contains
some superb music making. The collection
represents great value for money and
see also review
by Rob Barnett