Gioachino ROSSINI (1792 – 1868) Overture: La Cenerentola (1817) [8:09]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893) Symphony No.4 in F minor, op.36 (1877/1878) [40:55]
NBC Symphony Orchestra/Guido Cantelli
rec. 14 February 1954, Carnegie Hall, New York, NY. ADD

Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840 – 1893)
Symphony No.4 in F minor, op.36 (1877/1878) [41:10]
Waltz from Serenade in C, op.48 (1880) [3:41]
Serenade in C, op.48 (1880) [30:15]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. 26 April 1949 (Symphony) and 27 April 1949 (Waltz), Symphony Hall, Boston; 16 August 1949, Theatre–Concert Hall, Tanglewood (Serenade). ADD

Here are two historical documents of prime importance. They represent the old world, Koussevitzky had studied with Arthur Nikisch in Berlin, and the new, Cantelli studied at the Milan Conservatory under Arrigo Pedrollo. Both recordings were made two years before the conductors died, thus both are the work of musicians at the very end of their careers, but here’s the irony. Koussevitzky’s interpretation is the result of half a century of music-making, whereas Cantelli’s professional career was only ten years old at the time of this performance.

Both are totally electrifying, Cantelli having the edge in that his is a live performance and thus there is that added tension which one gets from such an event. Tension is the hallmark of the first movement, and Cantelli drives the music irrevocably forwards, there’s even an underlying nervousness in the jaunty second theme. It’s a hard fought battle and the end is devastating in its power. This is a very special interpretation indeed. The slow movement is richer than one might expect, and the middle section dances, not gaily but with a purpose. Some may feel that it borders on the heavy-handed but Cantelli is always just the right side of letting the music get out of hand. Whilst the winsomeness of the marvellous oboe tune is somewhat lost in the overall conception, he makes his vision work with very satisfactory results. The scherzo is delightfully fun-filled, with vibrant pizzicato strings, sparkling woodwinds and bluff brass. This is a very nicely conceived interlude before the fiery finale taken at a slightly deliberate tempo, which gives time for the fantastic runs to register cleanly and clearly. This is a fantastic performance, it’s in superb sound and we are given a little of the audience’s enthusiasm at the end – which one wants to join for one feels elated. Rossini’s La Cenerentola Overture makes for a delicious makeweight.

Whereas Cantelli, the young man, might think that fate cannot affect him and thus gives a dangerously vibrant account of Tchaikovsky’s 4th, the older Koussevitzky understands the inevitability of kismet and thus he sees the first movement as music full of nervous energy, restless, questing. Here the second subject is held back, looking for its place in the grand scheme of things. Whereas Cantelli sticks to his tempo from start to finish Koussevitzky pulls it around to suit his emotional thoughts. Both readings work equally well and it is testimony to Tchaikovsky’s skill that he can create a work which can take two such different approaches. Cantelli may have delivered a rich sound to the slow movement, but it’s as nothing compared to the death by sumptuous orchestral textures Koussevitzky gives us. This does go slightly over–the–top, but there’s sincerity in every bar and thus we know that it’s well meant and has been considered prior to recording. The scherzo is fast, almost too fast, and there is the slight feeling of discomfort from the poor strings who pluck as fast as they can – excitement seems to be on Koussevitzky’s agenda for this movement, rather than playfulness. But again, with all three elements of the music taken into consideration it’s obviously exactly how the conductor sees the music, and one cannot argue with a well thought out interpretation. The finale is a tour de force of orchestral playing and it’s certainly exciting. The Waltz from the Serenade for Strings was issued as the coupling for the Symphony and it has a very nice dancing lilt to it.

Koussevitzky’s complete recording of the Serenade is in a closer, and drier, acoustic and this tends to emphasise the hardness of the strings. That said, it cannot disguise a very well thought out, if occasionally hard-driven, performance. Tempi are standard and unsurprising, and the large string body is well captured. The upper strings have a glassy sheen to them and I don’t know if this is because of Koussevitzky or the recording engineer. This performance isn’t for the casual listener, it’s far too specialised in its outlook, and the sound might not be found to be acceptable. For a full red–bloodied account of the Serenade go to Barbirolli’s 1964 recording with the London Symphony (EMI Phoenixa 63962. coupled with a fiery account of Tchaikovsky’s 5th Symphony in a 1959 Hallé account).

As to the Symphony both these disks offer excellent performances, albeit different interpretations. The sound on Cantelli’s recording is the better of the two, and Koussevitzky offers a heavier view of the work. I will not be drawn. Buy them both, you won’t be disappointed as both performances are worthy of attention.

Bob Briggs

Both performances are worthy of attention.