Serge Koussevitzky was a victim of his dates. Born in 1874, he
retired in 1949 after 25 years at the helm of the Boston Symphony
Orchestra and died only two years later.
such, he just missed out on the huge technological advances,
including the widespread adoption of stereo recording and
of the LP format, that would transform the recording industry
in the 1950s. Thus the bulk of his recorded legacy fell,
for many years, into something like oblivion as – to consider
only his American peers - Ormandy, Szell, Bernstein and others
began re-recording the core repertoire in high fidelity sound.
be sure, Koussevitzky’s memory lived vividly on among those
who had been present at his concerts, but that dwindling band
was not enough to keep his name in the public eye for long.
though, the fashion for disinterring and remastering old recordings
is uncovering some long-neglected treasures (plus, as should
only have been expected, a great deal of mundane material)
and thereby giving a wider audience the opportunity to reappraise
some of the frequently far larger than life characters who
ruled the world’s orchestras in the first half of the twentieth
what does this Naxos Historical release, excellently remastered
by Mark Obert-Thorn, tell us about Serge Koussevitzky?
us first of all be clear what it does not tell us.
There is no indication here of the reason why Koussevitzky
deserves to be remembered even if he had made no recordings
at all: the commissioning and performing of a very wide range
of new music. As Colin Anderson’s useful booklet notes remind
us, many of the most important composers working at the time
– including Hindemith, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók, Britten,
Barber, Copland, Harris, Piston and Schuman – were among the
recipients of the Koussevitzky regime’s largesse.
new release focuses instead on more conventional offerings
that would, in the increasingly conservative late 1940s, have
probably pleased most of the Symphony Hall audience rather
bulk of what we have here is music by Wagner and I was particularly
eager to listen to the disc after reading John L. Holmes’s
assessment (Conductors: A record collector’s guide [Victor
Gollancz, 1988]) that “Koussevitzky was less certain with
Wagner, and recorded very little of the composer…”.
the basis of these tracks it is difficult to see what Holmes’s
throwaway aside is getting at. These are appealing, confident
and highly musical accounts. As required, they are full of
life and energy (the terrific opening of the overture to The
Flying Dutchman will knock you out of your seat), majesty
and spirituality (the Lohengrin and Parsifal extracts),
lyricism (the Siegfried Idyll) and, when appropriate,
touches of emphatic theatricality (let’s not forget that we
have here extracts from three works written to be performed
on an operatic stage).
performances are also quite distinctive: the typical Koussevitzky
sound is not aiming for homogeneity, let alone “beauty” for
its own sake (although many passages are actually very beautiful
indeed). On the contrary, here is a conductor positively
revelling in opportunities for tonal contrast and for highlighting
the individual strengths – and, inadvertently, some of the
weaknesses - of the various sections of his orchestra.
Brahms overture is a vigorous and thrusting account. Koussevitzky
must have had a lot of spare time at the Moscow conservatory
– he is said to have completed the five years course for double
bass players in just five months! – and it sounds, from this
account, that he certainly enjoyed student life himself.
he had lived and worked for just a few more years (as, after all,
Toscanini did) Koussevitzky might well enjoy an entirely different
reputation today. As it is, this disc – once one comes to terms
with the distinctly subfusc sound – is of immense interest in
highlighting his distinctive characteristics as a musician and
an under-appreciated conductor.