> Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Serge Koussevitzky [CH]: Classical CD Reviews- June2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Peter Ilych TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Symphony no. 5 in e minor, op. 64 (1)
Sergei RACHMANINOV (1873-1943)

The Isle of the Dead, op. 29 (2)
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)

Mephisto Waltz no. 1 (3)
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Symphony no. 7 in C, op. 105 (4)
Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)

Symphony no. 3 (5)
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony no. 5 in c minor, op. 67 (6)
Boston Symphony Orchestra (1, 2, 3, 5), BBC Symphony Orchestra (4), London Philharmonic Orchestra (6)/Serge Koussevitzky
Locations: Symphony Hall, Boston (1, 2, 3, 5), Queenís Hall, London (4, recorded live), Abbey Road Studios, London (6)
Dates: 22 Nov. 1944 (1), 23 April 1945 (2), 8 May 1936 (3), 1 May 1933 (4), 8 Nov. 1939 (5), 3-4 Sep. 1934 (6)
EMI CLASSICS CZS 5 75118 2 [2 CDs: 77í 36"+71í 04"]


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I remember back in my university days a fellow music student who heard Tchaikovskyís 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 Ė in Koussevitzkyís 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 Furtwänglerís (and, as with Furtwänglerís, 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 Koussevitzkyís colouring of the string chords underlying the opening clarinet melody and by the way in which the Allegro con anima starts immediately in tempo Ė 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-Walkerís 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?

Rachmaninovís dark colours get a powerfully brooding realisation, guaranteeing hours of illumination to those who have the composerís 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.

Koussevitzkyís 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 Sibeliusís 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 Berglundís, 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 Koussevitzkyís 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. Itís 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. Itís 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. Koussevitzkyís 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 wonderful music-making.

Christopher Howell


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