I remember back in my university days a fellow music
student who heard Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony for the first time in
his life during his third year of studies. As one who avidly lapped
up the standard repertoire from about the age of ten onwards, I have
always deeply envied anyone who still had before him the thrill, otherwise
reserved for those who turn to classical music later in life, of encountering
for the first time one of those standard knock-you-for-six masterpieces
I seem to know all too well. I now realise I need not have worried.
Fresh discoveries are there when you least expect them. I thought that,
between them, Mravinsky, Markevich, Mengelberg, Furtwängler, Karajan
and a few others had said all there was to say about Tchaikovsky Five.
Listening to this recording has been an overwhelming emotional experience
and I seemed to be hearing the work for the first time.
Not, I hasten to add, because Koussevitzky plays so
fast and loose with the score as to make it unrecognisable. Agogic liberties
there will always be in Tchaikovsky – in Koussevitzky’s case a tendency
to make a rallentando before climaxes and a particularly improvisatory
way with the later stages of the third movement, which is also very
slow, as was Furtwängler’s (and, as with Furtwängler’s, is
completely convincing after the initial shock). But basic tempi are
generally steady and the onward flow of the music is never lost. I was
immediately impressed by Koussevitzky’s colouring of the string chords
underlying the opening clarinet melody and by the way in which the Allegro
con anima starts immediately in tempo – so many conductors begin
it slowly and lugubriously, reaching their real tempo only with the
first climax. Koussevitzky then gives this climax an overwhelming power.
In other hands this could be dangerous since the orchestra would have
already given its maximum too early on. But Koussevitzky knew the measure
of the instrument he had built up over 19 years, he knew it could give
more and still more, so every climax caps the last. He has a particular
way of building up to climaxes so as to have you almost cowering under
your seat, waiting for the blow to fall (this is where he helps himself
out with some rallentandos), and then surging inexorably on.
But what remained in my mind above all at the end the
sheer body of the string sound, dark, pliant, brooding, soaring, and
capable of an infinite variety of dynamic shaping, always carried out
with total unanimity. This can be appreciated through a recording which
sounds reasonably well for its age. It must have been shattering to
experience such a sound live.
Robert Matthew-Walker’s excellent notes point out that
"for reasons that remain somewhat obscure" Koussevitzky never
conducted this work again in Boston during the remaining six years of
his life. The greatest artists will always tell us that, however fantastic
their performances may seem to us, they fall far short of the ideal
they have in their head. Is it possible that Koussevitzky on this occasion
came so close to his ideal performance that he preferred to let the
work rest thereafter?
Rachmaninov’s dark colours get a powerfully brooding
realisation, guaranteeing hours of illumination to those who have the
composer’s own 1929 version with the Philadelphia Orchestra to compare
it with. The Liszt is no well-whipped war-horse (it is actually fairly
moderate in tempo) but a phantasmagorically penetrating creation of
a sound-world which is revealed to be on a level with the best of Berlioz.
Koussevitzky’s long reign in Boston sometimes led to
the suggestion (as also with Ormandy) that he needed his own orchestra
to be fully effective. The second CD, mostly made in London, shows this
not to be true, but also points to some of the advantages of a longstanding
association between conductor and orchestra. Both British orchestras
have touches of old-fashioned portamento in the string playing which
are absent in Boston, so presumably Koussevitzky would have preferred
to weed them out if he could. They are obviously more disturbing in
Beethoven than in Sibelius. You also get the impression that the BBC
Symphony Orchestra is being driven over the brink to produce a volume
of sound which the Boston orchestra could take in its stride, though
this in itself contributes to the tension of the performance. In any
case this live Sibelius 7 has always been among the great Sibelius records,
its sheer electricity as stunning today as it was nearly 70 years ago.
Some time back, reviewing the Berglund Helsinki cycle, I described the
interpretations of that conductor as "in many ways those most closely
in tune with Sibelius’s new-found role as a contemporary composer".
I still stand by that and I would ultimately find my home in a more
patiently-built interpretation such as Berglund’s, or that of Sir Adrian
Boult, now available on BBC Legends. But the fact that a conductor today
would be unlikely to attempt an interpretation of this kind only adds
to the historic importance of Koussevitzky’s incandescent revelation
of what the work meant when it was still virtually new (would we could
hear how Beethoven Seven was performed a mere nine years after its composition!).
The recording is good for the date.
Perhaps it would have been more tactful to Harris not
to have placed his symphony between Sibelius and Beethoven. It’s a fine
work but it inevitably seems a bit homespun after Sibelius 7. The dark
power of the Boston strings provide strong advocacy for the piece, and
this was an advocacy which Koussevitzky unstintingly placed at the service
of many, many of his contemporary composers, both European and American.
1934 found Koussevitzky in London again to record two
Beethoven symphonies: an "Eroica" which achieved a certain
notoriety for the fact that the opening chords were played in a tempo
unrelated to that of the rest of the movement, and the present Fifth.
Those who imagine that Toscanini and Klemperer between them killed off
romantic interpretations of the four-note motive which opens this work
will be surprised to hear Koussevitzky hammering it home absolutely
in tempo. It is a grand, majestic reading (with the repeat), sufficiently
moulded to be quite different in effect from the grandeur and majesty
of Klemperer. A few slight accelerandos are allowed to creep in, but
basically this is as far distant from Furtwängler or Mengelberg
as it is from Toscanini. Trust Koussevitzky, the double-bass virtuoso,
to find a tempo for the scherzo in which the eruption of the trio is
brilliant yet with every note clear. Also, not all that many recordings
that have been made since have made it as clear as this one what the
timpani are actually doing in the transition to the finale. This last
movement (without repeat) is again grand and majestic. It’s a pity that
the string portamenti date a performance which, strong as it is, seems
a little less white-hot than everything else on these CDs. Like all
the recordings here, it sounds as well as you could expect for its date.
If Koussevitzky also recorded the symphony in Boston I should very much
like to hear it.
The abiding impression given by this set is of a conductor
who always obtained the ultimate degree of emotional intensity from
his players. We have seen in recent years the fullest imaginable investigation
into the art of Furtwängler, Toscanini, Beecham and many other
"historical" conductors. There has not, as far as I am aware,
been any similar "Koussevitzky Edition" dedicated to the complete
reissue of his many commercial recordings, and radio archive material
has similarly been investigated sporadically rather than systematically.
Koussevitzky’s contemporary reputation was not less than that of the
three conductors named above and this set tells us why. I hope it will
lead the way to something more extensive, and also that this "Great
Conductors of the Twentieth Century" will, like the "Great
Pianists" albums, stretch to second and third volumes in at least
some cases. In the meantime, an enthusiastic recommendation for some