C1732. SERGE KOUSSEVITZKY Cond. Boston S.O.: Symphony #5 in E-flat - Live Performance, 5 Jan., 1946; Symphony #6 in d - Live Performance, 9 March, 1946 (both Sibelius; both Symphony Hall. (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL 78-845. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“This disc in the ongoing St. Laurent Studio series devoted to Serge Koussevitzky offers two more Sibelius rarities, one apparently a world premiere release. So far as I can determine, before the present release, the only other performance of the Fifth to be published is the one from 12/25/1943, which appeared along with this performance of the Sixth Symphony, plus ‘Finlandia’ from a concert given on tour in Milwaukee on 12/8/1945 - the only versions of those two works by Koussevitzky to survive - on AS Disc 562 in 1989, an issue that was promptly suppressed by legal action from the Boston Symphony.
To discuss the symphonies in reverse order (the order in which they are presented on the disc), the Sixth is often characterized as the unloved stepchild among the composer’s symphonies. Sibelius himself said of its austere nature: ‘Whereas most other modern composers are engaged in manufacturing cocktails of every hue and description, I offer the public pure cold water’. Almost no-one else gets the work right; typical flaws include misgauging the many complex changes in tempos, particularly in the first and fourth movements, and eviscerating the dramatic tension in the development section of the first movement by failing to accent the upbeat in the accompanying series of four-note phrases in the violins in contrast to the accented downbeat of the main thematic material in the cellos and winds.
Koussevitzky is one of the very few who truly ‘gets’ this most subtle of symphonies - and remarkably, he does so despite some unorthodox choices in tempos. His is a very fleet account; the slow introduction to the first movement is taken with unusual swiftness, and the Allegretto moderato second movement is definitely more allegro. Even so, he always makes his choices convincing….The sound - a significant improvement in this release over the AS Disc issue - is remarkably good for this vintage and venue, with little background noise and plenty of color and detail in the instrumental lines coming through. Above all, Koussevitzky generates tension and drama by purely musical means, without metaphysical overtones, a feat that surely must have pleased the composer if the broadcast ever made it to Finnish radio via transcription discs. From start to finish, there is both a hushed intensity and underlying febrile energy to the proceedings; the piano closings to the first and fourth movements are exquisitely well judged, both dying away into contemplative resignation.
The 1943 and 1946 broadcasts of the mighty Fifth Symphony are remarkable for how closely they resemble one another. The 1943 performance has less clarity of detail and is a bit less open in the higher frequencies, but has the more powerfully thundering bass register; never has Thor’s hammer swung more mightily than in its finale. The 1946 transcription discs, considerably noisier than those for the Sixth Symphony from a scant two months later, suffer from a decidedly bad patch beginning at about 6:30 in the second movement and extending into the first pages of the finale, though the overall results are still quite listenable. However, the greater clarity of the complex instrumental textures in the 1946 version over that from 1943 provides ample compensation for the slightly lesser degree of sheer visceral impact. Koussevitzky’s interpretation in both cases is one of explosive power; here nature does not just teem and buzz with rustling flora and forest insects, but instead erupts with woodland and water pagan deities surging in wild abandon, though the famous sequence of heroic concluding chords is taken in strict meter, as if to re-exert disciplined order and control in the end.
Simply put, these performances present two of the most powerfully affecting and thrilling performances of any Sibelius symphonies I have ever heard. They are absolutely indispensible acquisitions, not just for collectors of historic recordings but for all music lovers who care at all about Sibelius; urgently and emphatically recommended.”
- James A. Altena, FANFARE
“Sergey Aleksandrovich Kusevitskii (known in the West by the French spelling of his name, Serge Koussevitzky) one of the great conductors of the twentieth century American orchestral scene and a champion of newer music, closely studied the great conductors he encountered as an orchestra player and at concerts, particularly Arthur Nikisch.
During the difficult years after the 1917 Bolshevik coup and the subsequent civil war, he continued to conduct in Moscow through 1920, when he permanently left for the West. He presented a series of concerts called Concerts Koussevitzky in Paris, again featuring new music: Ravel, Honegger, Stravinsky, and Prokofiev. These concerts included the world premiere of the Ravel orchestration of Mussorgsky's PICTURES AT AN EXHIBITION; it soon became a concert staple in both Europe and America.
In 1924, Koussevitsky was chosen as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. With the BSO, he continued his tradition of championing the new music he found around him, thus giving vital exposure to great American composers, such as Copland, Barber, Bernstein, Carter, Hanson, Harris, and a host of others over the years. During the 1931 season, he commissioned a series of commemorative works for the orchestra's fiftieth anniversary, yielding a treasury that included Stravinsky's SYMPHONY OF PSALMS and Ravel's Piano Concerto in G. Beginning in 1935, he annually brought the orchestra to the summer Berkshire Festival, organized by Henry Hadley in 1934, becoming its music director and making it part of the BSO's operation. Koussevitzky established the Berkshire Music Center (now Tanglewood Music Center) in conjunction with the festival in 1940, making it into one of the premier American educational institutions where young musicians could polish their craft and network. After his wife died in 1941, Koussevitsky set up a foundation to commission works in her memory. Britten's opera PETER GRIMES was one of the first works that resulted.
Until his death in 1951, he continued to direct both the Boston Symphony Orchestra and Berkshire Festival, recording frequently.
- Joseph Stevenson, allmusic.com