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Scarlatti Sonatas Vol 2


Howard HANSON (1896-1981)
Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings, Op 35 [6:11]
Leonard BERNSTEIN (1918-1990)
Symphony No. 2 ‘The Age of Anxiety’ [31:40]
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 9 [32:06]
Leonard Bernstein (piano)
Georges Laurent (flute); Bernard Zighera (harp)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky
rec. live, 12 November 1946, Woolsey Hall, New York (Hanson); Symphony Hall, Boston, 9 April 1949 (Bernstein); 10 August 1946 (Shostakovich)
Ambient Stereo

Just recently, I reviewed a recording of Bernstein’s Second Symphony, conducted by Christian Lindberg with Roland Pöntinen at the piano. That was a brand-new recording in up-to-date, excellent digital sound. What we have here is something very different. All the three works on this disc appear in what were their respective first recorded performances but the Bernstein performance is even more interesting than that. It’s the broadcast of the work’s second performance, given the day after the same artists had presented the world premiere. The 1948/49 season was Koussevitzky’s last as chief conductor of the Boston Symphony and Bernstein dedicated the score to his mentor: ‘For Serge Koussevitzky – in tribute’.

Although the Pristine documentation doesn’t make this clear, the performance uses the original score. Bernstein revised the work in 1965, significantly expanding the solo piano’s contribution to the concluding ‘Epilogue’ section. Modern recordings use the revised score but, so far as I know, the only other example on disc of a performance of the original is included in a substantial box of historic Bernstein recordings issued on the WHRA label (review).

I’ve encountered this performance before. It’s included in a de-luxe boxed set of archive recordings from 1943 – 2000 which the Boston Symphony issued in 2001 under the title ‘Symphony Hall Centennial Celebration’. I don’t know if that set and Pristine used the same source material; quite possibly not. The BSO transfer is cut at a higher level than the Pristine and it offers very much brighter up-front sound. In the ‘Masques’ movement the listener gets a very full-on, close experience which rather suits the music, but the downside is that elsewhere when the full ensemble is playing loudly the sound can appear aggressive. I think that Andrew Rose’s Pristine transfer offers a much more comfortable listening experience.

The performance itself is well worth hearing, not least because the composer himself is at the piano. As recorded, the sound of his instrument can be a bit harsh at times but this doesn’t impede appreciation of his playing. He can be suitably poetic, as in the first section of ‘The Seven Ages’ or in the concluding section of that episode. He also displays scintillating virtuosity, as in the fifth section of ‘The Seven Stages’ and, especially, in ‘Masques’. In this latter episode Lenny dazzles and he inspires the BSO percussionists and bassist to deliver the goods likewise. It may be that Bernstein wasn’t always note perfect but the overall effect of his playing throughout is terrific. Koussevitzky and the BSO are no less impressive. You get the feeling that this performance is presenting something new, vibrant and exciting. It’s an important document. Listening again to this account of the symphony makes me realise how right Bernstein was to revise the work in 1965. I don’t know what other changes he made, but he greatly expanded the role of the solo piano in the ‘Epilogue’. Here, Bernstein joins in during only the last bar or so; for the rest of the movement he’s silent and that seems odd given how crucial the piano has been elsewhere. The revision added another two or three minutes of music, including a substantial cadenza-like episode for the piano. Incidentally, full marks to Pristine for tracking every one of the work’s fourteen sections separately. The most recent modern recording I have heard doesn’t do this, but it makes such a difference for the listener.

The Shostakovich symphony wasn’t quite as hot off the press as the Bernstein but in 1946 it was still a very recent work; it was first heard, in the Soviet Union, in November 1945. Koussevitzky gave the US premiere in July 1946 and the reading that’s preserved here was the conductor’s second account of the score. The sound shows its age at times but, as in the Bernstein symphony, sonic considerations don’t impede enjoyment of what is an impressive performance. The first movement benefits from the BSO’s clean articulation but it’s in the extended second movement that the performance really takes wing. Koussevitzky leads a performance that is intense and very focussed. Much of the movement is fairly sparingly scored and that’s a help sonically; only when the dynamics are loud is the recording a bit overpowered. The third movement shows the orchestra, and the woodwinds in particular, at their nimblest. After an imposing opening brass summons the fourth movement is dominated by a long bassoon threnody. I suspect the very eloquent player here is Raymond Allard, principal bassoon from 1936 to 1953. The bassoonist leads the orchestra in at quite a pace into the Allegretto – Allegro finale and an alert, spirited traversal of the movement follows. As I said, this is an impressive account of what was then Shostakovich’s most recent symphony.

The disc opens with a performance of Howard Hanson’s short Serenade for Flute, Harp and Strings. Here, the two soloists are BSO principals. Bernard Zighera was harpist with the orchestra for an astonishing 54 years (1926-1980), serving as principal from 1928. Georges Laurent was the principal flautist from 1918 to 1952; he was the immediate predecessor of the late Doriot Anthony Dwyer. Both play very well indeed. Barber gives the flautist more opportunities to shine and Laurent makes the most of this, offering silvery-toned, agile playing: on this evidence, he was some player. The Serenade is a delightful, charming work and it functions as a very pleasing upbeat to the two symphonies.

As usual, Andrew Rose has worked his XR magic on these recordings and his transfers show these performances to best advantage. This is a significant addition to Pristine’s Koussevitzky discography.

John Quinn

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