Mikhail GLINKA (1804-1857)
Russlan and Ludmilla
: Overture [5:13]
Nikolai RIMSKY- KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
, Op 62 [4:15]
Anatoly LIADOV (1853-1914)
Baba Yaga
, Op 56 3:51]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Waltz from Eugene Onegin [5:16]
Manfred, Op 58 [60:25]
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Fabien Sevitzky
rec. 1941-1946, Murat Theatre, Indianapolis

I confess that until I received this disc the life and career of Fabien Sevitzky (1891-1967) was completely unknown to me. Equally unknown to me was the fact that the great Serge Koussevitzky had a nephew who, like him, was a conductor who pursued his career in the USA. From Mark Obert-Thorn’s notes I learned that Fabien Koussevitzky was born in Vishny Volochyok in Russia. Like his uncle he learned to play the double bass and initially he played in orchestras in Russia and Poland. He joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1923 and cut his conducting teeth with the Philadelphia Chamber String Simfonietta – yes, the name is correctly spelled - which he founded in 1925 and continued to conduct until 1941. Pristine has already issued a collection of their recordings together (review). At some stage Fabien shortened his surname to Sevitzky at the request of his uncle to avoid any confusion. Having left the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1930, presumably to further a conducting career, Sevitzky was appointed conductor of the Indianapolis Symphony in 1937, retaining that post until 1955. After 1955 he taught at the University of Miami and continued to guest conduct.

The Indianapolis Symphony that Sevitzky joined in 1937 had been in existence only since 1930. Its previous conductor, one Ferdinand Schaefer, was a violinist based in the city and I think I’m correct in saying that the orchestra only become professional, initially for a 20-week annual season, with Sevitzky’s arrival. By 1941 the orchestra’s standard was sufficiently high that Victor began a series of recordings with them under Sevitzky’s direction and these recordings, made during the 1940s, are the source of this first volume in a projected series from Pristine Audio.

The main interest undoubtedly lies in the recording of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony. Some years ago I bought a Music & Arts set of Toscanini broadcasts from 1947 and 1948 (CD-1125) which included a February 1948 performance of Manfred in pretty boxy sound. That. I thought, was the earliest recorded performance of the symphony in existence. Little did I know that Victor had set the work down in Indianapolis under studio conditions as long ago as 27 and 28 January 1942.

There is much to admire about this Indianapolis performance. The score is a tremendous test for the orchestra, and not just in terms of duration. The finale is particularly demanding of the players’ technique and their stamina. The ISO plays very well; yes, there are a number of examples of questionable tuning, mainly among the brass and woodwind, but the 75 year-old 78s may be at least partially to blame for that. The orchestra rises to the challenge of the dramatic sections of the work and is also successful in the many passages that require finesse.

As for Sevitzky’s conducting, I think he makes a pretty good job of the big first and last movements. So far as I can tell without access to a score he makes no cuts unlike a number of conductors in the past, including Toscanini, who made a commercial recording in 1949. Sevitzky seems to have the measure of the first movement, not least its dramatic sections. I’m not so convinced by his treatment of the second movement. The marking is Vivace con spirito, not that you’d know it from the steady pace adopted at the start although the playing is nicely pointed. Mark Obert-Thorn points out that the trio (from 3:05) is marked l’istesso tempo but in fact Sevitzky slows down from his already leisurely pace. The rolling trio melody, so typical of Tchaikovsky, is simply too slow in Sevitzky’s hands and the effect is dull. Strangely, though he gradually speeds up during the trio so that when the violins sing out the melody (6:02) the speed is much more acceptable and the music has more life as a result. When the movement’s opening material returns (7:52) it’s taken appreciably faster than was the case at the outset and it’s much closer to what I’d expect.

I’m afraid I part company with Sevitzky in the slow movement. The marking is Andante con moto but what we hear is closer to an Adagio and there’s no evidence at all of con moto. The result sounds laboured and the sense of open-air Alpine innocence is absent. As in the previous movement, there are passages where Sevitzky adopts a tempo closer to what most conductors in my experience have used (for example between 6:41 and 8:40) but overall I’m unimpressed. The huge finale fares significantly better. Sevitzky’s conducting is dramatic and exciting. He makes one curious decision, though. In the bacchanal music there’s an important part for a tambourine but here a side drum is used instead. The result is not only too prominent but also the tambourine surely suggests a wild party and that’s lacking. However, the performance as a whole has great drive and vigour. Later the delicate music associated with Astarte is nicely done. At the death of Manfred (15:43) there’s no organ and the woodwind and horns deputise – Sevitzky isn’t the first to make that compromise.

Overall, this is a more than creditable account of Manfred. It’s all the more praiseworthy since the orchestra playing it was a pretty young one and at that time Manfred was scarcely familiar repertoire – in truth it still isn’t. This was a brave choice for Sevitzky and Victor and it’s very good indeed that this pioneering recording can be heard once again.

The earliest recordings here are the Glinka and Rimsky pieces, captured on consecutive days in January 1941. Both performances are confident and robust. The Liadov miniature was recorded in February 1945 and the Eugene Onegin excerpt comes from March of 1946, the last year that Victor recorded the orchestra. (There were some Capitol LP recordings in 1953 and I believe these will also feature in Pristine’s series.) All four fillers are enjoyable and worth hearing.

The recordings have been transferred from American Victor 78 rpm shellac discs. Inevitably, the fact that the source material is over 70 years old is apparent. For instance the recording can’t cope completely with the sound of the ISO giving their all as they play Manfred’s theme at the end of the first movement (from 14:38) but that’s a big, bold passage and I’d rather focus on how well it actually comes across. There’s a bit of surface noise but nothing that troubled me unduly. I’d say Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are very successful and I soon found myself able to concentrate completely on the music-making.

This is a fascinating disc. On this evidence the partnership between Fabien Sevitzky and the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra was a strong and effective one. I look forward to hearing further instalments in this promised series.

John Quinn