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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Koussevitzky conducts Sibelius
Symphony No. 1 in E minor, Op. 39 [38:40]
Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43 [40:56]
Symphony No. 5 in E-flat major, Op. 82 [30:28]
Symphony No. 6 in D minor, Op. 104 [24:34]
Valse Triste, Op. 44 [5:30]
The Swan Of Tuonela, Op.22, No.2  [9:02]
Finlandia, Op. 26 [8:14]
Boston Symphony Orchestra
rec. live (broadcast) Boston Symphony Hall, 13 October 1945 (sy 1, Valse); 8 December 1945 (sy 2, Swan); 5 January 1946 (sy 5); 9 March 1946 (sy 6); 3 August 1948 (Finlandia)
XR Remastered by Andrew Rose
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC617 [79:35+77:47]

Wherever he lived Serge Koussevitzky performed the newest music. In his native Russia he not only championed the new composers but started a publishing house to make their works available in print. After the Revolution he moved to France, where he started the Concerts Koussevitzky and advocated for Roussel, Honegger and many other Frenchmen, without forgetting Stravinsky and Prokofieff. After assuming the leadership of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1924, he continued with the Russians and the French, but also became an almost unparalleled force in promoting the emerging American symphonic school. But in addition to all of this, he made strenuous efforts for another composer-Jean Sibelius, who himself described Koussevitzky as having “…performed my works with complete mastery”.

The performances here obviously suffer both from age and from being broadcasts, not studio recordings. But it must be pointed out immediately that Pristine Records’ presiding genius, Andrew Rose, has exceeded himself in making these broadcasts eminently listenable. These are obviously not reference recordings but they are stunning examples of Koussevitzky “live”.

All the broadcasts here, except that of Valse triste, derive from the 1945-46 season, which could be called the “Sibelius season”, in honor of his 80th birthday year. Boston Symphony broadcasts were carried on the NBC network and lasted an hour. As an example, the March 9, 1946 broadcast included the Kabalevsky Symphony No. 2 as well as the Sibelius Symphony No. 6. However, those actually in Symphony Hall in Boston heard a full concert, comprising not only these two symphonies, but Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No. 4 and Hanson’s Symphony No. 4. Koussevitzky obviously expected a lot from his audiences, and judging by the strength of the applause after each performance on these discs, they were more than willing to meet him halfway. Nb. I am indebted for much of the broadcast information here to the magisterial Serge Koussevitzky: A Complete Discography by Edward D. Young (1990). However, here I must make a minor caveat. The recording information supplied in the header is that accompanying the discs themselves. However, consulting both the Young discography and the BSO program notes, we find the dates for the performances of Finlandia and Valse triste reversed. We also find that the December 8, 1945 concert took in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, not Boston, and that the August 3, 1948 concert took place at the BSO summer home at Tanglewood in Lenox, Mass. But these are minor points.

In discussing Sibelius’ Symphony No. 1, the “hangovers” from Tchaikovsky and Borodin are usually the first things mentioned, but Koussevitzky mostly takes the approach that No. 1 is a Sibelius symphony and one should leave it at that. Koussevitzky begins rather briskly and seems to be more concerned with flow than detail, but all becomes clear in the recapitulation and his coda, as is frequently the case, is masterly. The coda of the slow movement is equally fine, preceded by beautiful phrasing. The scherzo is less percussive than some more modern versions, and this, to me, is something of a disappointment. Koussevitzky’s conception of the last movement is comprehensive, emphasizing form and dynamic control, and the audience certainly seems to agree with his choices. The broadcast of October 13, 1945 also saw a performance of The Swan of Tuonela. This rendition of the Swan is not only sad but almost eerie and the BSO strings are to the forefront, as is English Horn soloist Louis Speyer, who played the instrument in the BSO from 1918 to 1964.

The broadcast of December 8, 1945 took place on Sibelius’ actual 80th birthday and featured Finlandia and the Symphony No. 2. Koussevitzky gets a very gnarly texture from the orchestra for Finlandia and much of the drama comes from his use of dynamic contrast. With Symphony No. 2 he demonstrates one of his frequent practices-beginning a movement with what seems like a rushed tempo that eventually coalesces into a pace that makes perfect sense. The succeeding andante movement is surprisingly solemn, featuring beautiful interplay between woodwinds and strings, and again shows careful planning of an entire movement without the loss of spontaneity. There is a wonderful chamber music feel to parts of the scherzo and the transition to the last movement is subtly done, as is the final movement proper, without any blasting of the famous “big tune”.

The Symphony No. 5 is, except for the Symphony No. 7, the most organically integrated of Sibelius’ seven, and Koussevitzky stresses this element in his usual fashion But most notable is the underlying sense of anxiety he brings to the first movement. He subtly changes the mood in the slow movement to one of almost Classical refinement. The succeeding Allegro molto generates the requisite excitement but without losing sight of the interplay between its string melody and the underlying horn motif and this makes the coda all the more powerful.

In the opening of the Symphony No. 6 Koussevitzky demonstrates why the symphony is sometimes referred to as Sibelius’ Pastoral, there is plenty of “nature” music, but even more, his performance of the whole work leaves an overwhelming sense of amiability. In the slow movement Koussevitzky produces some of the most beautiful sounds on these discs, especially the magnificent string playing at the end of the movement, and also suggests connections with several of the other symphonies. I found the third movement a little fast, but one is again won over by the sense of amiability brought out by Koussevitzky, and his reading of the last movement is very powerful.

As mentioned above, the only piece not from the 1945-46 season is Valse triste, broadcast from Tanglewood on August 3, 1948. Here the BSO strings are at their best, reminiscent of their work in the classic Koussevitzky recording of the Foote Suite in E.

Most listeners will probably have at least one modern set of the complete Sibelius symphonies on their shelves and may wonder if they need these historic broadcasts as well. But as examples of Sibelius performance by one of his most favored interpreters these recordings are of prime importance, all the more so as Koussevitzky never made studio recordings of nos. 1 and 6 (see link for 2 and 5), as well as the three shorter works. Altogether, an essential for admirers of Sibelius and/or Koussevitzky, as well as the BSO.

William Kreindler

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