Koussy’s Tchaikovsky

Dan Davis

[August 1998. Originally appeared in La Folia 1:3.]

TCHAIKOVSKY: Romeo and Juliet; Serenade for Strings; Waltz; Symphonies 4-6. Boston Symphony Orchestra; Serge Koussevitsky, conductor. Biddulph WHL 034/035.

Has Koussevitsky’s turn come? Overflowing CD bins feature such luminaries of the 1930s and 1940s as Toscanini, Furtwangler, Stokowski, Mengelberg, but until fairly recently Koussevitsky CDs have been hard to come by. RCA, for whom he recorded extensively, seems intent on hiding his recorded legacy from the light of day. Fortunately, Biddulph and Pearl are filling the vacuum with separate, thus far unduplicated, series of well-transferred recordings. One sure to give pleasure is a slimline two-disc all-Tchaikovsky set (Biddulph WHL 034/035) made with the orchestra he honed to perfection, the Boston Symphony.

Koussevitsky had a special affinity for his compatriot’s music, giving full due to its angst and heart-on-sleeve sentimentality within a context of modernist, streamlined swiftness. It’s all tempered by period mannerisms such as the occasional ritard that will raise an eyebrow or two among unreconstructed objectivists, although he’s not nearly as wayward as such contemporaries as Stokowski and Mengelberg. There’s also a bias toward the lower strings (Koussevitsky was a double-bass virtuoso before mounting the podium), which helps to convey the emotional impact of Tchaikovsky’s music.

The set opens with his classic performance of the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, a compelling 1936 reading that opens with gently brooding strings and is flawed only by the squashed dynamics of the original recording. The last three symphonies are also recording classics. The 1936 Fourth has a powerful first movement and a fourth movement that goes like the wind, with the Boston strings accomplishing miracles of uptempo articulation and the winds dancing like Cossacks around a campfire. Unfortunately, its marred by a huge cut in the pizzicato Scherzo movement. The Fifth, from 1944, is on a similar level with brooding winds, a slow movement that sings its sad song with barely-contained passion, and exciting outer movements marked by wide but convincing tempo swings. The 1930 Pathetique is perhaps the crowning performance of the set; passionate, dramatic, one of the finest ever waxed. Under Koussevitsky’s baton, Tchaikovsky is as at home on the Charles as on the Volga and while there’s no shortage of outstanding recordings of Tchaikovsky’s last three symphonies, these retain their impact and should be heard for musical, as well as historical, reasons. Aside from the disfiguring cut on the Fourth, the only part of this set that merits censure is the brief but heavy-footed reading of the Waltz from the Serenade for Strings.

Throughout these discs, the virtuoso orchestra Koussevitsky built during his 27 years as music director and Symphony Hall demi-god plays magnificently, with warm, yielding strings, delectable wind solos, and powerful brass. Mark Obert-Thorne’s transfers are always highly listenable despite flawed originals, and he contributes a brief note to the booklet outlining some of the problems associated with defective pressings and the shortcomings of the Victor engineers who vainly tried to capture what he rightly calls “the glorious sounds produced by Koussevitsky and his Bostonians.”

Those who want to further explore Koussevitsky’s art are directed to Biddulph WHL 019, which features a great Beethoven Pastoral Symphony and WHL 054, an all-Strauss program that includes a hair-raising Also Spach Zarathustra, a swaggering Don Juan, and a perky Till Euelenspiegel. Koussevitsky was also a champion of contemporary music, responsible for commissioning some of the 20th Century’s landmark pieces, including Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Would that today’s orchestra chiefs were as active in promoting new works as Koussevitsky was. He actively promoted American music too, and thanks to Biddulph we can hear his Appalachian Spring Suite in its first recording, along with a somewhat unidiomatic El Salon Mexico and the tedious Lincoln Portrait on WHL 050. These Copland works share the disc with Randall Thompson’s jingoistic Testament of Freedom (hey, what do you expect in 1945, Wagner?) and a couple of rousing Sousa marches. A further foray into Americana brings us Howard Hanson’s Symphony No. 3 (WHL 044) in a surprisingly fine performance that brings out the Sibelian, Nordic grandeur of that neglected composer’s work. Discmates include some terrific short Russian and French pieces done with panache.

Let’s not forget Pearl’s Koussevitsky series either, although it seems stalled (I haven’t seen any new issues lately). Pearl 9020 joins Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition; Pearl 9090, a French program featuring Debussy’s La Mer and Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2; Pearl 9185, a two-disc set of idiosyncratic but curiously compelling readings of Mozart, Haydn and Beethoven symphonies, and Pearl 9179, a compilation of short pieces including delightfully unstylish Baroque items. All are well worth your attention; all contribute handily to the long overdue Koussevitsky revival.