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Serge Koussevitzky conducts Tchaikovsky
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F Minor, Op. 36
Recorded March 11, 1949, Symphony Hall, Boston
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64
Recorded November 6, 1943, Symphony Hall, Boston
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 "Pathetique"
Recorded February 9, 1946. Symphony Hall, Boston
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky Live performances
MUSIC AND ARTS CD1138 [68:26 + 63:47]




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There were two Tchaikovsky/Koussevitzky festivals in Boston, in 1933-34 and again in 1939-40, and he set down commercial recordings of the last three symphonies Ė amongst his most deservedly famous recordings. But these three live performances, which span the years 1943-49, will be unknown to many if not most of the conductorís adherents. They are powerfully personalised, full of metrical idiosyncrasies and in parts not simply flexible (rubati and rallentandi naturally) but also remarkably quick: parts of the Fifth in particular are dramatically fleet. 

Music and Arts deal honestly with the aural problems so letís get these, majorly, out of the way now. The Fourth is really only for Koussevitzky completists. The microphone had been lifted to roof level during performance, which accounts for the sound perspective. This, in all honesty, is bizarre, Horns blare, percussion batters, the strings are semi audible and in quiet passages nothing very much is audible at all; the distance from microphone to string pianissimo was an unbridgeable one. At times it sounds like sectional rehearsals; the finale becomes an assault and battery for the percussion section. Itís difficult to make much sense of the performance, other than it sounds fluid and flexible in the best Koussevitzky manner. But I doubt that youíll listen to this more than once.  

Six years earlier in 1943 he led the Fifth Symphony. This is a nobly conceived reading with strongly etched rubati and a singing line and the strings moulded with great finesse in the slow movement where the sense of unfolding declamation is both intense and held in passionate check. The Fifth is split across the two discs, two movements to each, and itís in the Valse that we feel most keenly Koussevitzkyís powerful vesting of rhythmic impetus in Tchaikovsky. Tension is screwed up that notch or two tighter than in his commercial recording. The caveat once more the recording quality. Itís a world away from the Fourthís impossible perspectives but it does sound dampened down and muffled with constricted top frequencies. Iíve a hunch that this is to do with an attempt to limit acetate damage and scuffing but it does sound excessively filtered. 

The Sixth also sports muffled sound but this time itís rather distant as well; along the way there is some groove overload at fortes and what sound like pitch drops and wow at the end of the opening movement. These latter however are brief. The Allegro is slightly too pulled about for my own taste but there is certainly an electric charge through the performance that is compelling; the finale in particular has an evocative power that is at least the equal of his commercial recording. 

Given the sonic limitations I would have to rate this an adjunct for the commercial Koussevitzky discography. But as an adjunct of some power and distinction it offers compelling evidence of his electricity in live performance.  

Jonathan Woolf 




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