Serge Koussevitzky was engaged by the New York Philharmonic-Symphony
Orchestra to conduct four sets of concerts in early 1942. Unfortunately,
the sudden death of his wife, Natalie, in January compelled him to cancel
the first two weeks of his engagements – Bruno Walter and Fritz Busch
deputised. Koussevitzky resumed his schedule after a short break and
fulfilled the rest of his New York engagement, conducting the two programmes
preserved on this pair of CDs.
In his very interesting note Tom Godell relates that at this time Koussevitzky’s Boston Symphony Orchestra was locked in a dispute with the American Federation of Musicians. The BSO trustees were stoutly resisting unionisation of the orchestra and in retaliation the union’s combative president, James Petrillo, had barred the BSO from recording or broadcasting work. Apparently Koussevitzky himself was in favour of unionisation but he was a powerless bystander in the dispute. Mr Godell suggests that Koussevitzky might have been thinking of leaving Boston for New York where the NYPSO was seeking a new music director to replace the departing John Barbirolli; hence his strong interest in this early-1942 engagement.
Tom Godell’s note is very interesting in many ways but I’m afraid I must protest at one aspect of his essay. Praising Koussevitzky’s work with the NYPSO, which is fair enough, he implies strongly that Barbirolli had been a failure in New York. He refers to Barbirolli as “hapless” and states that the English conductor had “allowed performance standards to slip precipitously” from the levels attained under his predecessor, Toscanini. I thought this lazy canard had been lain to rest years ago, and not just through the writings of people such as Barbirolli’s admittedly sympathetic biographer, Michael Kennedy. Has Mr Godell heard, I wonder, any of Barbirolli’s New York recordings, both studio and off-air, that have been issued on CD in recent years? I’ve heard a quite a number of them and to my ears they don’t indicate an orchestra on its artistic knees. In his booklet note for this same label’s set of Barbirolli’s 1959 New York concerts (review
), John Canarina, a man who knows an awful lot about the American orchestral scene in the twentieth century, records that when Toscanini returned to conduct the NYPSO in 1942 he stated that “the orchestra was playing just as well as when he left it”. The truth is that Barbirolli had fallen foul of a clique of Toscanini-supporting critics, in whose eyes he could do nothing right. He left New York in 1942 partly because he was weary of the continued sniping. However, his main reasons were, firstly, that he felt it to be his duty to return home to wartime Britain and, secondly, that had he extended his contract in New York union rules would have obliged him to become a US citizen, a step which he did not wish to take. So, let’s praise the achievement of Serge Koussevitzky, as revealed in these performances, but let’s not do so by blackening gratuitously the reputation of another conductor.
That said, all was not well at the NYPSO at the time. There were troubles with some of the players and, as Tom Godell points out, a number were fired some months after these concerts, including the concertmaster and a number of principals. In his book about the orchestra, The New York Philharmonic from Bernstein to Maazel
(2010), John Canarina points out that the orchestra was famously wilful and that problems arose more than once when tough conductors, such as Toscanini or Rodzinski were succeeded by “the younger and more courteous John Barbirolli” or “the humble Mitropoulos”. So Mr Godell is quite right to say that Koussevitzky arrived to conduct an orchestra that was neither in as good shape as his Boston Symphony nor as schooled in his demanding methods.
Koussevitzky demanded and got extra rehearsals in preparation for these concerts and it seems that he really cracked the whip – and to good purpose. Though he would probably have got better results in Boston – with an orchestra that he had been moulding and drilling since 1924, it must be remembered – he still achieved a lot in a short time with the NYPSO, as these two concerts demonstrate.
Corelli’s little three-movement Suite, which opened his first concert, is pretty dull stuff, to be honest, and I’m a bit surprised that Koussevitzky bothered with it. However, he clearly didn’t share my view and he’d evidently taken trouble over it. He gets the New York strings to play it well; they offer good tone and expression in the opening Sarabande
. The third movement is a short Gigue
which receives a somewhat scrambling performance. It’s satisfactory but I’m sure Koussevitzky would have obtained tighter playing in Boston.
The Second Suite from Daphnis et Chloé
is done sans
choir, unfortunately. I’ve heard more refined accounts of the opening and Tom Godell rightly points out that the orchestral blend is not all that wonderful. However, I wonder how much that is the fault of the players and how much is down to relatively primitive engineering; for instance, is the principal flute so prominent because that’s the way he played or is an unsympathetic microphone placing partly to blame? Despite the blending, which is no better than average, the performance as a whole is quite good. Koussevitzky drives the concluding 5/4 Danse générale
pretty urgently and the players are stretched. Here the age of the recording definitely shows in the loud passages; the percussion, especially the snare drum, are not always spot-on. Nonetheless, Koussevitzky achieves a good deal of excitement.
I was intrigued to read in the notes that Koussevitzky initially underrated the Shostakovich symphony and only took it up after hearing Stokowski do it. When listening to this performance it’s important to remember that the work had only been unveiled in 1937 and this must be one of the earliest surviving recordings of it, though Stokowski had made a commercial recording as early as 1939. Thus this Koussevitzky reading comes from early in the performing history of the work. It’s a very intense performance and much of the first movement is urgently paced; the opening, for example, is taken as quickly as I can recall hearing it – it’s a real call to arms. Though Koussevitzky often presses forward more than we often hear nowadays his performance has true grip and thrust and he brings out the power and, indeed, the sometimes attritional nature of the music.
The second movement sounds quite gruff and the playing is often spiky – those comments are not made in a critical sense; that’s what the music needs. The Largo
is again quite intense; in fact, it’s the highlight of the performance. Koussevitzky gets some eloquent playing, especially from the strings, and his conducting displays great purpose and control of line. The climax at 9:36 is towering. He takes no prisoners in the finale. The speed is fast, even frenetic. The music blazes but for my taste it’s just a bit too
hectic, though there’s no denying the white hot temperature of the music-making. Koussevitzky never recorded this symphony commercially but Tom Godell’s note refers to a “magisterial” live Boston performance, a recording of which is scheduled for release by WHRA before too long; I await that with considerable interest.
The second concert coupled Debussy and Tchaikovsky. La Mer
receives an extraordinarily intense reading; in fact, I can’t recall hearing another performance like it. The playing of the NYPSO isn’t always precise – I suspect that their guest conductor’s way with the score challenged them in more ways than one – but the spirit of the interpretation is always there and, my goodness, what a spirit it is! Koussevitzky’s vision of the sea is essentially turbulent. Moreover, I’d describe it as a vision of northern hemisphere seas; there’s little by way of Mediterranean warmth or sunlight here. He really energises the players – listen, for example, to the slashing string chords between 4:55 and 5:01 in De l'aube à midi sur la mer
. In Jeux de vagues
the mental image I derive is of white flecks atop a grey, wind-driven sea. At the start of Dialogue du vent et de la mer
those figures played by the lower strings erupt explosively. In this movement everything is sharply accentuated by the players at Koussevitzky’s behest. He conjures up images of a blustery wind and a turbulent sea; it’s gripping and exciting. This is a completely individual, bracing interpretation of La Mer
but it’s fascinating and often thrilling to hear.
The Tchaikovsky symphony is characterised by the conductor’s extraordinary intensity. The introduction to the first movement, for example, is expansive and darkly powerful while much of the main allegro
has thrust and strong momentum under Koussevitzky’s direction. He’s certainly not afraid to modify the tempo in order to make an expressive point, for example in the passage from 4:56 to 5:24, which is very slow indeed. To be truthful, I find some passages rather too
expansive – 5:54 to 6:34 being a case in point. However, one should remember Koussevitzky’s Russian roots. He was nineteen when Tchaikovsky died and he received most of his musical training in Russia. Therefore, he was brought up in the Russian musical tradition and Tchaikovsky would have been a recent and vivid memory at least for his early teachers and, probably, for him also. So, one supposes there must be a fair degree of authenticity in his approach to this music. The second movement is broadly conceived and expansive. Happily the solo horn player rises to the challenge set by Koussevitzky as do the clarinettist and other woodwind principals subsequently. Again, this style might not be the way in which we’d hear it today but the interpretation is ardent and from the heart. The opening of the finale is broad and strong. When the main allegro
arrives (3:14) Koussevitzky cracks the whip and galvanises the orchestra. You sense that the players are hanging on at times but, equally, that they’re caught up in the fiery interpretation. It’s all very exciting, culminating in a deliberate, proud major-key presentation of the motto theme (9:21).
This pair of concerts shows us very clearly the impact of a charismatic conductor. You might not agree with absolutely every interpretational decision in these performances but the music-making is never dull, nor is it in any way superficial. Serge Koussevitzky was a great conductor and it’s wonderful to hear his interpretations caught on the wing. Even though he would have obtained more polished performances in Boston it’s fascinating to hear him working with an unfamiliar orchestra and galvanising them.
The recordings, which have never been issued before, have been restored by Lani Spahr. I’m not sure what source material he has used but, inevitably, the sound has its limitations. Climaxes are often rather rough and the sound of the orchestra has an edge. There are times – and La Mer
is the most obvious example – when one regrets that we can’t listen to these performances with the benefit of lustrous modern sound. That’s wishing for the moon, however, and we must be jolly grateful to have these recordings preserved for posterity and now available for a wide audience to appreciate. Despite any sonic limitations I promise you the performances transcend them. This is an important set which gives us some vivid examples of great conducting in action.