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Concerto for Orchestra
Modest Petrovitch MUSSORGSKY
Pictures at an Exhibition - orchestrated Maurice Ravel
Boston Symphony Orchestra - Serge Koussevitsky
broadcast December 1944 (Bartok) & 1943 (Mussorgsky) from Symphony Hall, Boston
Naxos 8.110105 [59.29] AAD

This is a disc in Naxos's historical series of great conductors. Based upon the evidence of this disc, there is absolutely no doubt of the excellence of Koussevitsky as a conductor, or indeed of his legacy of commissions left to us through his Koussevitsky Foundation. The Bartok Concerto for Orchestra is one of the cornerstones of 20th Century orchestral repertoire, and one can only regret the Bartok had so little time left after completing it, since as with Mozart, who knows what he might have gone on to write had he survived longer.

The Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition, another of Koussevitsky's commissions, is one of those works which have been transcribed so expertly from piano solo to full symphony orchestra that one would never guess the original source of the material, effective as that is. Both works need virtuoso playing and recording for them to make maximum impact, and whilst the former is in abundance, the latter is sorely lacking. Rob Cowan's sleeve notes wax extremely lyrical about the conductor and his many abilities, and rightly so, but tend to ignore the fact that one has to be very, very tolerant with the sound quality and level of virtuosity if any idea can be obtained of just how good Koussevitsky was.

Both works are played in cut versions, the Bartok with the earlier shorter coda to the finale, and the Mussorgsky with four sections omitted.

The performances, as I have said are superb, one would have to go a very long way to hear such incandescent spine tingling life to the playing as Koussevitsky achieves here. Every so often it is clearly evident that the famous Boston Symphony Orchestra was not the technically superb instrument it was to become in later years. The other problem with the disc is the quality of the recording, which I suppose is understandable given its age. Still, there are many CDs around of a similar age where the sound no where near as bad as on this disc. The Bartok is not as good as the Mussorgsky

There is also an excellent synopsis of both works, in the case of the Bartok, a timed analysis of all five movements which I found enlightening, so full marks to Naxos for commissioning these for our pleasure.

I guess you must decide for yourself whether or not you can tolerate dim, distorted sound with a high level of surface noise, allied to a quality of playing which also is much less than we would get today. If you can, there are many revelations to be beheld here.

John Phillips



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