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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891–1953) 

Peter and the Wolf, op.67 (1936) [25:27]

Jean SIBELIUS (1865–1957) 

Symphony No.2 in D, op.43 (1902) [41:30]

Edvard GRIEG (1865–1907) 

The Last Spring (Elegiac Melody, op.34/2) (1880) [5:44]

Eleanor Roosevelt (narrator)

Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky

rec. 11 August 1950, Theatre–Concert Hall, Tanglewood (Prokofiev); 29 November 1950, Symphony Hall, Boston (Grieg and Sibelius) ADD

Experience Classicsonline

Do I need to mention that Eleanor was the wife of President Franklin D Roosevelt? Perhaps not, but I do mention it because her delivery, very straightforward, direct and simple, seems to me to have the homely quality which I have read about concerning her husband’s series of radio talks, known as fireside chats, where he presented his proposals directly to the American public on air. It’s a very “mumsy” performance, and when I got over my initial shock, Eleanor does sound a little like Margaret Dumont, I thoroughly enjoyed this performance. She presents the story as if it was a special treat just for me, and I quickly warmed to her delivery. The orchestral part is played with crispness and superb clarity – the recorded sound is brilliantly clear with a wide dynamic. This was Koussevitzky’s second recording of Peter and Wolf – his first (and possibly the world premi
čre recording) dates from 1939 and has the narration spoken by actor Richard Hale. 

The other two pieces come from Koussevitzky’s last recording session, and what electrifying music making they are! The Sibelius Symphony is as fresh as it was on the day of its premičre. Koussevitzky hits exactly the right tempo for the first movement and the urgency of the ebb and flow of the music is fully realised with some big climaxes. The second movement is, surely, too fast, likewise the trio of the scherzo, but this was possibly the constraints of the the playing time of the 78 rpm side. That said, although the pizzicato opening of the slow movement seems rushed, the phrasing of the great bassoon tune is perfect, and the distant horn-calls are well placed within the soundscape. By the time we reach the faster section everything is in place and the drama and tension are unbearable. Koussevitzky keeps a tight hand on things and the first climax is explosive. The great second subject for strings is as luminous as you could wish for. The ensuing cliamxes are shattering in their power and the final pizzicati are clear and precise. 

The scherzo races along, full of life, with the trio a trifle hurried, then the great finale with its grand tune, which is handled beautifully, full bows and much passion. The ghostly march, which Sibelius uses to build the coda, and thus the final peroration, is very fine indeed, a great and glorious sound bringing the work to a rousing and most satisfactory conclusion. There is a bit of retouching of the orchestration here and there but don’t let that bother you, this is one of the finest recordings and recorded performances I’ve ever heard of this Symphony in nearly 45 years of listening. I’ve always been an Anthony Collins and Barbirolli man in this work, now I can add Koussevitzky to my pantheon. 

The Last Spring was Koussevitzky’s very last recording. It’s a touching tribute to a lifetime’s music making. 

Throughout, the orchestral playing is very good and very exciting. The direction is thoughtful and intelligent. This disk is a major achievement in terms of sound, which is as clear as any re–issue I’ve ever heard from a 78 source – was the recording made on tape and then issued on 78 I wonder? Certainly the sound has been cleaned up magnificently and there are things in the performance of the Sibelius which I have never heard before. 

This disk is not only for those interested in the history of performance – it’s essential listening for anyone who loves the Sibelius Symphony – for there is so much to enjoy in this performance – and just to hear the sincerity of the playing in, and the interpretation of, Peter and the Wolf is a wonder. 

This should be on every record shelf.

Bob Briggs

see also Review by Rob Maynard



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