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Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Live Recordings 1943-1948 - Volume 2

Ralph VAUGHAN WILLIAMS (1872-1958)
Symphony No. 5 in D (1943) * [35:49]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
A Night on the Bare Mountain (1867) (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov) ** [10:54]; Khovanshchina Ė Prelude (Dawn over the Moscow River) (1880) (orch. Rimsky-Korsakov) [6:14]
Peter Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893) Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32, Symphonic Fantasy after Dante (1876) [24:49]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. Ďliveí *4 March 1947; **30 December 1944; 1943-1948


Russian music was one of the specialities of Serge Koussevitzky. He is, perhaps, less celebrated as a champion of British music. However, in the interesting note accompanying this CD Robert Matthew-Walker points out that the maestro led the American premiŤre of Waltonís Belshazzarís Feast in 1932 Ė Iíll bet that was exciting Ė and commissioned both Peter Grimes and Spring Symphony from Benjamin Britten. During his tenure of the Boston podium he conducted symphonies by Bax and Vaughan Williams. Nonetheless, I was surprised to find him leading RVWís Fifth for, superficially, Iíd have expected him to be more attuned to the more volatile Fourth or Sixth.

However, on receiving this CD for review I couldnít help but play first Francesca da Rimini. This is one of my favourite Tchaikovsky scores and Iíve heard some notable recordings of it down the years, including readings by Barbirolli and Stokowski. This urgent, incandescent reading by Koussevitzky will become another personal favourite, Iím sure, despite the inevitable sonic limitations. Koussevitzky generates tremendous excitement in the turbulent outer sections of the work. In between, the great central love melody has wonderful sweep and passion. This is a virtuoso performance by a virtuoso conductor and itís thrilling. Unfortunately the sound is cut off with an almost brutal abruptness after the last chord Ė something which afflicts all the recordings on this disc. It comes as quite a shock to have the ambience ended in this way. I wonder if this is a feature of the original sources with which the Guild transfer engineers had to work?

The Mussorgsky pieces also fare very well in Koussevitzkyís hands. He generates demonic energy in the first few minutes of A Night on the Bare Mountain. The Boston heavy brass and percussion play with great power and the high woodwinds screech away. In the visceral excitement a few momentary imprecisions are of little consequence. After the chimes of the dawn bell [7:06] thereís an uneasy calm about the performance. The principal clarinet contributes a doleful solo Ė I wonder if itís the same player who made a notable showing in the central section of Francesca? I should say that surface noise is quite intrusive in the last few minutes of this piece.

The Khovanshchina Prelude is another success. Here Koussevitzky distils excellent atmosphere and the BSO playing is highly concentrated, not least in the fine oboe solo. The hushed ending, starting with a pianissimo clarinet solo, is really well managed; itís just a shame that the Boston audience make such a bronchial contribution to the proceedings.

But, since Russian music was very much Koussevitzkyís mťtier, I suspect that for many collectors the prime interest in this release will lie, as it did for me, in the reading of the Vaughan Williams symphony. This, we are told, is one of two performances of the work that Koussevitzky gave in the 1946/7 season. One thing that itís important to note is that this performance was given within four years of the first unveiling of the work in public so Koussevitzkyís reading is, at best, lightly influenced by precedent. To me it felt very idiomatic.

The first movement has breadth but the music is also invested with the requisite flow. Perhaps there isnít quite the degree of gentle rubato, an easing here and there, that weíve become used to by hearing conductors like Boult unfold the work but it still sounds pretty convincing to me. The BSO strings sound radiant, even through the elderly recording. When, in the passage between 4:45 and 6:20 in this performance, the music becomes appreciably faster thereís admirable urgency and tautness in the playing. The main climax (from 7:24) is noble but, very rightly, Koussevitzky maintains forward impetus.

The gossamer lightness thatís essential to a successful rendition of the scherzo is splendidly realised here. The luminous string chords that usher in the glorious slow movement are weighted to perfection. The playing in this third movement is wonderful all round Ė the wind soloists are particularly distinguished Ė not for nothing is the BSO regarded as the aristocrat of American orchestras. The climax of the movement, around 8:30 is majestic and then the music ends as serenely as it began. Once again, Iím afraid, the coughers in the audience do their best to distract us.

The finale is quite fleet and thereís an urgency to the performance that I like very much and find refreshing. I admire Koussevitzkyís approach to this movement, which reminds us that even in his seventies RVW and his music still possessed great vigour. Eventually, conductor and orchestra give us a serene survey of the closing pages of the symphony (from 5:40 and, even more, from 6:18). The strings phrase generously and the very end of the work glows beautifully. Overall this is a very convincing performance of the symphony. I donít know if it has circulated on unofficial labels in the past but Iím only sorry that itís taken sixty years for this reading to become generally available.

Guild offer us here an excellent collection of Koussevitzky performances. Itís no surprise to find him in his element in Russian repertoire but itís marvellous to find him equally effective in a quintessentially English score. The sound isnít ideal but, given its age and that these are not studio recordings, itís perfectly adequate. The excellence and excitement of these performances, which I presume were all given in Symphony Hall, Boston come across very well. This valuable collection gives us another reminder of how formidable was the partnership between Serge Koussevitzky and the orchestra he led with such distinction for a quarter of a century.

John Quinn



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