> Great Conductors: Koussevitzky [TH]: Classical Reviews- March 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Modest MUSSORGSKY (orch. Ravel)
Pictures at an Exhibition [29.51]
Maurice RAVEL

Rapsodie espagnole [16.13]
Ma Mère I’Oye [16.23]
Boléro [13.41]
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Serge Koussevitzky
Recorded in Symphony Hall, Boston, October, 1930 (Pictures); April, 1945 (Rapsodie); October, 1947 (Ma Mère I’Oye) and Tanglewood Music Shed, Lenox, Massachusetts, August, 1947 (Bolero) Mono
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110154 [76:08]


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As the writer of the informative booklet for this disc, Ian Julier, rightly states, this was a classic recording waiting to happen. Koussevitzky had commissioned the orchestral transcription of Mussorgsky’s highly original piano suite from Ravel in 1922. He conducted the world premiere, in Paris, in October of that year, using an orchestra made up of outstanding Parisian musicians of the day. Publication of the full score in 1929 enabled this version to make swift international headway, and it quickly superseded previous attempts at orchestration by Tushmalov and Sir Henry Wood.

There is no doubting from the outset that this is great music making, even though the recording is over seventy years old. A friend of mine once made the point that listening to historic material requires a subtly different sort of listening, and in a sense you are forced into a more careful appraisal of the performances when hearing it through the inevitable layer of surface noise. In fact, the restorations that Ward Marston and, in this case, Mark Obert-Thorn, are performing for Naxos’s Historic series are nothing short of miraculous. The sound is full-bodied, detailed and wide-ranging, even in dated mono. Of course, part of the success is down to Koussevitzky, whose ear for orchestral balancing was legendary. The splendidly sonorous brass opening is an indicator of fine things to come, and when the strings enter one realizes why they were famous; the burnished tone and weight, from top to bottom, is awesome. The Samuel Goldenberg episode is as fine as I’ve heard and shows cellos and basses to rival anyone. The chattering woodwind in the Ballad of the Chicks is a delight, and, needless to say, the final Great Gate of Kiev crowns the whole reading magnificently. Every lover of mainstream classical music will have a version of this perennially popular work, but I guarantee this classic account will make you hear with fresh ears.

The Koussevitzky Pictures has been available before, of course, and in many ways with the most appropriate coupling of all, Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, another of his commissions and world premiere recordings. But these Ravel fill-ups are also highly desirable, appropriate, and in much better sound than Pictures, coming from a good fifteen or more years later. Many of the orchestra members were still there, and the refinement of timbre and virtuosity all but silence criticism. Sample the heady sound-world Koussevitzky conjures up in the Rapsodie espagnole’s opening Prélude à la nuit; his fabled reputation as a colourist is also amply borne out in the wonderful Malagueña, one of Ravel’s most inspired creations.

Mother Goose is as magical as any on the market, and my only gripe concerns Boléro. The hypnotic rhythmic pattern that Ravel creates, and which has to have an inexorable feel about it, sounds a little ‘lumpy’, as if Koussevitzky were not entirely convinced about the piece. Maybe this subconsciously transmits to some of the players, as not all the solos are as persuasive as one would like; sample the sloppy, rather tentative trombone entry (around 7.28) to hear what I mean (there are more). Having said that, when those glorious strings enter at 8.54, one can forgive almost anything.

A classic disc, then, and transferred with loving care and craftsmanship. Admirers of this great musician will need no convincing, and anyone who cares remotely about great orchestral playing need not hesitate, especially at the giveaway price.

Tony Haywood

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