Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz116 (1943) [37:05]
Walter PISTON (1894-1976)
Symphony No.3 (1947) [30:23]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. 30 December 1944 (Bartók) and 31 December 1948 (Piston), Symphony Hall, Boston

The Concerto for Orchestra was one of Koussevitzky’s most significant commissions. Premičred by the Boston Symphony on 1 December 1944, it was reprised the following day. A third performance followed and then, at the end of the month, the fourth performance of the six Koussevitzky directed of the original version. This is what has been preserved on discs cut from the broadcast and which Pristine now presents in fine sound. It is thus the first-ever recording of the work – as indeed is the case with the Piston Symphony, with which it is coupled.

Koussevitzky’s intuitive appreciation of the music’s tensile energy and character - even if the Shostakovich raspberry is somewhat downplayed - is established grippingly from the first moments. His orchestra’s French heritage and his own immersion in Parisian culture draws some strikingly personalised tonal responses, notably from the brass and winds. The Boston trumpets were not infallible, any more than their confrčres elsewhere, but all the orchestra’s choirs are on magnetic and profoundly energized form throughout. Tempi accord with ones taken by today’s conductors – Koussevitzky had an inbuilt rectitude about most tempo decisions – and this, allied to the virtuosic dynamism of the music-making, means that the performance sounds, if one can put it this way, very modern and there’s nothing half-assimilated or tentative at all about it. Individual interpretative decisions inevitably sound right - such as ritenutos and accelerandos – but the expressive high points are the Elegia and the corruscatingly executed finale – testimony alike to the orchestra and conductor’s synergetic relationship, however much some of them may have hated him.

It’s not the first time that it’s appeared – it can be found on Naxos 8.110105 yoked to the conductor’s performance of Mussorgsky’s Pictures - but its presence here as a part of a dual-premiere disc is both pertinent and valuable.

Piston’s Third Symphony was premiered in January 1948 in Boston and performed another nine times in a year by the conductor. The eighth performance was recorded on tape and is the subject of this release - and what a stunner it is. The orchestra has the piece well under its fingers by now and its corporate virtuosity and tonal finesse can be savoured in this tremendous reading. The winds’ tracery in the opening Andantino and the incremental ascent to the movement’s pivotal drama are marshalled with great skill, whilst the succeeding Allegro’s jagged, charged, brassy paragraphs are laced with percussive outbursts. Seldom can the Adagio have sounded so movingly expressive and deeply etched or the whooping trenchancy of the finale so celebratory, its exultation accompanied by some fresh-faced neo-classical vitality.

It's not merely for historical associations that listeners will want to acquaint themselves with these outstandingly vivid performances. How fortunate we are to be able to enjoy them.

Jonathan Woolf