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Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Der Fliegende Holländer (1843) - Overture [10:17]
Lohengrin (1850) - Prelude to Act I [9:09]
Parsifal (1882) – Prelude to Act I [14:58]
Parsifal (1882) – Good Friday Spell [11:46]
Siegfried Idyll (1870) [18:01]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Academic Festival Overture, op.80 (1880) [9:58]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, 4 April 1947 (Der Fliegende Holländer and Parsifal Act I prelude); Symphony Hall, Boston, 27 April 1949 (Lohengrin and Siegfried Idyll); Symphony Hall, Boston, 19 April 1946 (Parsifal Good Friday Spell); Symphony Hall, Boston, 2 April 1947 (Academic Festival Overture)


Experience Classicsonline

Naxos Historical has been doing valuable work restoring recordings of Serge Koussevitzky and the Boston Symphony to circulation. The Russian conductor has unfairly been largely forgotten in the latter-day idolizing of Furtwängler and Toscanini. Worst of all, there has been a tendency to dismiss Koussevitzky as an inferior musician, due to the fact that he couldn’t read an orchestral score very well and had to hire assistants to play through the music at the piano while he practised conducting it, until he felt that he knew it sufficiently to impose it on the orchestra with an iron will … which he did. But the truth is, I’d trade in quite a few musically sound conductors for just one with the theatrical acumen of Koussevitzky. Whatever he lacked in technical finish, he made up for in sheer panache, even in music that wasn’t central to his repertory, such as the Wagner featured here.

The opening minute of the “Overture” to Der Fliegende Holländer is easily worth the price of this super budget release. This is exactly the kind of adrenaline that modern orchestras and conductors can almost never capture. Granted, Koussevitzky’s way of capturing it was through despotic behavior so severe that the old joke used to be that the Boston Symphony had 101 players and 102 ulcers, because one man had two. But what electricity! The whole overture is propelled with swift assurance, leaving most modern performances behind in calmer waters. Particularly glorious is the sheer swagger of the fanfare around five minutes into the overture. I pulled out modern versions by Barenboim and Sinopoli for comparison, and skillfully played though they are, neither performance truly sits on the edge of its seat the way the Boston/Koussevitzky performance does. Going back a generation, Bruno Walter’s late stereo recording captures at least some of that sense of adventure in stereo sound, whereas the Koussevitzky recordings here, all from the late 1940s are in mono, but Koussevitzky is more theatrically alive than Walter. 

There is fervency, too, to Koussevitzky’s version of the “Prelude” to Act I of Lohengrin. The brightness of the Boston orchestra’s sound gives this music a heavenly shimmer that seems to me a wonderful alternative to the more usual gauzy, darkness of Germanic performances. But then again, I’ve always enjoyed French conductor Paul Paray’s Wagner recordings on Mercury, which certainly put a Gallic spin on the music, with an even brighter and drier sense of color then Koussevitzky’s. In the “Prelude” to Act I of Parsifal, Koussevitzky is amazingly broad, but he has the sheer control to pull it off and make it sound thoroughly convincing. 

It is interesting to go a little more in-depth and compare the Koussevitzky with other old recordings of the following Good Friday Spell. The earliest is very old indeed, coming from Alfred Hertz and the Berlin Philharmonic in 1913, two months before Nikisch’s recording of Beethoven’s Fifth kicked off the world of recording serious concert music seriously. Hertz’s renditions foreshadowed that bold, new approach: The music isn’t cut, nor are the string bass parts moved to tuba to better register in the acoustic recording process. The main compromise is that the Berlin Philharmonic is reduced to a band of something like 30 players. The best features of the performance are the flowing tempo and the comfortable application of portamento in the strings. The worst features are that, perhaps out of fear of the new technology, the performance is stiffer than what one would expect from a conductor closely associated with this score. The strings also seem to have more intonation problems than what one hears under Nikisch in the Beethoven recorded two months later. 

One of the first electrical recordings of the Good Friday Spell was supposed to come from Karl Muck during studio sessions held at Bayreuth in 1927, but Muck loftily refused to cut that particular selection up into the short sections required for 78-r.p.m. records. Wagner’s son Siegfried, however, decided that it would be acceptable to record it in segments, and led the orchestra himself in the selection, with Fritz Wolff and Igor Kipnis contributing magnificent vocals. The performance, a touch more spacious than Hertz’s, maintains flowing speeds while generating some real intensity. A year later, Muck decided that it was permissible, after all, to stop and start the sacred scene, and recorded it in Berlin with Gotthelf Pistor and Ludwig Hoffman singing effectively, if not with the golden sound of Wolff and Kipnis. The performance is similarly flowing, though more self-consciously reverent. The Hertz, Siegfried Wagner, and Muck recordings are all available on an essential two-disc set from Naxos {Naxos Historical 8.111283), like the present release, lovingly restored by Mark Obert-Thorn, though admittedly the sound of those early recordings is pretty dim. 

By comparison, though, those recordings seem stiff when compared to the incandescent Wilhelm Furtwängler caught in flight in a live concert in Cairo in 1951. In his best manner, Furtwängler leads the Berlin Philharmonic with great flexibility and inspiration. His tempo is only slightly broader than Hertz or Muck, but he handles phrases in a way that make it seem much more spacious. Approaching the work from outside the Germanic tradition, Koussevitzky takes it decidedly more slowly in his 1946 recording, bringing it in at 11:46, almost a minute slower than the already spacious Furtwängler. But, though the tempo is slow, the Russian conductor is able to sustain it with an intensity that suits the music. In other hands, particularly those of many modern conductors, such a tempo would sag into torpor, but whatever Koussevitzky’s technical flaws as a musician may have been, he was the real thing as a leader of orchestras. It is also worth pointing out that under Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony’s playing easily outstrips Bayreuth Festival Orchestra under Siegfried Wagner or the Berlin State Opera Orchestra under Muck. Frankly, they even give Furtwängler’s fabled bunch a run for their money. Ultimately, the Berliners’ depth of tone may win out, but the fervent shimmer of the Boston sound is beguiling. 

Getting back to the rest of the disc, it’s confession time: I’ve never much cared for Wagner’s Siegfried Idyll. I’ve always felt about this piece rather like George Eliot felt about music in general: “It’s a rider galloping past with an urgent message for someone else.” Not that Wagner’s Christmas present to his wife is all that urgent, except perhaps in the central climax. To me, the piece just seems to go on and on, cooing away happily. That Koussevitzky’s performance is on the swift, flowing side is thus fine with me. Klemperer turned in a similarly flowing performance of just over 18 minutes in his early recording with the Staatskapelle Berlin in 1927, with more traditional Germanic manner, though much less clear sound. 

As a little bonus to the Wagner program, Naxos includes a gloriously feisty performance of Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture. Eclectic composer and sometime rock star Frank Zappa used to describe characterizing musical performances as “putting the eyebrows on it,” and there can be little doubt that this overture is played here with eyebrows as big, bushy and expressive as those of Koussevitzky himself. 

Mark Obert-Thorn has done a valuable service in transferring these recordings from a number of different sources, including 78-rpm and 45-rpm records. As always in his work, he demonstrates a golden ear for how to extract maximum sound from old records with minimal interference and processing. Some listeners avoid monophonic recordings, but ones that pack this much sound into their grooves make it easy to get swept up in the music without dwelling on the age of the recording. Let’s hope Naxos will continue this Koussevitzky series.

Koussevitzky was a truly great conductor, and every fan of great conducting should hear a wide selection of his work. The sad thing for American fans, however, is that this and other Naxos releases of his work are unavailable in the United States (legally, at least) because the copyright owners neither want to license them out to other companies, nor seem to have any plans to reissue the recordings themselves. 

Mark Sebastian Jordan 

see also Review by Rob Maynard






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