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Arcangelo CORELLI (1653-1713)
Suite for string orchestra arr. Pinelli [8:44]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis and Chloe Suite No.2 (1912) [15:19]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No.5 in D minor (1937) [42:31]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1903-05) [25:05]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.5 in E minor, Op.64 (1888) [49:11]
New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. 22 February 1942 (Corelli, Ravel, Shostakovich) and 1 March 1942 (Debussy, Tchaikovsky), Carnegie Hall
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA-6049 [66:48 + 74:22]

It must have been quite something to have heard Koussevitzky in these two Carnegie Hall concerts given just over a week apart in 1942. That said, we can relive at least part of the experience, deprived of the kinetic visual quotient, via these excellent restorations made by Lani Spahr. Both concerts are previously unissued, which adds immeasurably to the excitement.
 
The first concert with the NYPSO, as it then was, begins with the hyphenated Corelli-Pinelli confection, the three-movement Suite for String Orchestra. The wide dynamics achievable in recording direct from Carnegie Hall can be measured in this performance and so too the establishment and maintenance of a strong bass line. That’s certainly the case in the opening imposing Sarabande, where most of the piece’s expressive weight falls, things becoming progressively lighter, ending with the deft well-articulated strings in the Badinerie. This is the kind of thing Beecham did with Handel, and Barbirolli with Purcell.
 
Daphnis and Chloe (Suite No.2) follows in a most exciting and successful performance. There are a few exposed wind passages, some of which are a touch awkward, and the New York strings are more Russian in tone than the French-honed Bostonians Koussevitzky customarily directed, but the results are still idiomatic. The concert concludes with Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. A number of American-based maestros all rushed to perform one or other of Shostakovich’s symphonies; one thinks of Rodzinski, Stokowski and the vacillating Toscanini, most prominently. In Koussevitzky’s case he at first turned down performance of the Fifth, leaving it instead to his Boston assistant, the fiddle-player Richard Burgin. A performance of the work by Stokowski doubtless piqued his interest and perhaps his gladiatorial instincts. In any case this is a major addition to Koussevitzky’s discography. He first performed it in Boston in 1941, but never otherwise took it into the studio. There’s real tension here. Note that a Boston performance of the Fifth under Koussevitzky, which survives in the archives of the Library of Congress, will be released in due course on WHRA. Excellent note writer Tom Godell has great regard for this New York performance but reserves even higher praise for the yet-unissued Boston one. I prefer Stokowski to Koussevitzky in this work - so far, at least.
 
The second disc houses the second concert. Both the chosen works in this 1 March performance operate on a blistering scale. There is something about the New York performance of La Mer that sets it apart from the famous studio recording Koussevitzky left of it in Boston. That ‘something’ is the sheer intensity of the thing. Koussevitzky delineates a performance that outrivals Toscanini for its hot-blooded but sensuous, indeed voluptuous power. It’s quite stunning in its impact - both weighty and yet quicksilver, surging and glistening, visceral and vertiginous. Truly remarkable. Because it’s more of a known quantity his performance of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony may not impress quite as much, but it’s really a question of degree. True, it’s less revelatory, and tends to serve to amplify his known strengths in this repertory - driving attacks, manipulation of tempos, whipped-up drama - but it’s well worth hearing, not least in the context of the outstanding La Mer.
 
Indeed this finely engineered twofer is very strong both for its excellent repertoire and often magnificent performances.
 
Jonathan Woolf

Masterwork Index: La Mer ~~ Shostakovich symphony 5 ~~ Tchaikovsky symphony 5