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Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 (Pathétique) (1893) [46:33]
Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 (1876) [25:43]
Boston Symphony Orchestra / Serge Koussevitzky
rec. live, February and April 1946, Symphony Hall, Boston,

Pristine Audio producer Andrew Rose knows how to get the best possible sound from unpromising monaural sources, but here he had even less to work with than usual. Both works derive from concerts in Boston, transferred for broadcast to New York's ABC Studios via a telephone line! No wonder, then, that much of the time, the sound, while clear, lacks depth. The fortes are best, and wind instruments generally come through more clearly than strings, though there are exceptions: the vivid bass flourishes at the start of Francesca, and the burnished cellos in the symphony's Allegro con grazia. (Later on, however, that movement suffers a sudden drop in level.) Soft low pitches do not always register: the open fifth at the symphony’s start is not clear, and the piano tam-tam stroke in the finale is missing in action. On the other hand, I was not particularly bothered by the "peak distortions" that Rose cites in his leaflet note, save for the grainy massed strings in Francesca.

The Pathétique practically offers us two different conductors. To start, we get Koussevitzky the unbridled Romantic. The first-movement exposition tends to press forward, not always on purpose, with some iffy back-and-forth exchanges. In the three pickups to the great lyric theme, the second violins lag behind the firsts – Koussevitzky’s occasionally unclear signals somehow never achieved the notoriety of Furtwängler’s – and the conductor’s impulsive surges between phrases create a Punch-and-Judy effect. Plodding upward brasses impede the motion in the Moderato mosso episode. There is no sense of a through-line.

With the development, the conductor, after a moment of rhetoric, drops the interpretive affectations. He paces the whirling figures tautly, drives the brass into the recapitulation in tempo, moves forthrightly into the lamenting climax. The five-to-a-bar Allegro con grazia is both graceful and gracious, with minimal fussing; after the rather slower minor-key section, the main theme returns with additional uplift. The March is fleet, with sprightly dotted rhythms, but also firmly grounded, despite an occasional tendency, again, to creep forward. The opening attack of the Adagio lamentoso is a smear, which is unfortunate; but the poised second theme sings expressively, and the movement’s turbulent climax is firm.

After its ominous opening, Francesca da Rimini almost does not make it off the ground. Koussevitzky's deliberate tempo for the first theme proper makes it stiff and creaky; something similar happens in the development section. Both passages, rather late in the game, eventually work up some momentum. There are some nice details, however. The turbulent second paragraph, at 4:24, starts quietly, almost as if sneaking into the proceedings; the lyric theme is sensitively sung by the clarinet, and later picked up by plangent violas. The tuttis are exciting.

It is a worthwhile document for students of Koussevitzky, then, but hardly a basic library choice.

Stephen Francis Vasta

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