BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra; PISTON: Sym. No. 3 – Boston Sym. Orch./ Serge Koussevitzky – Pristine Audio

Two Koussevitzky commissions have their day in the sun here, in performances vibrantly restored by Andrew Rose. 

BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra; PISTON: Symphony No. 3 in C – Boston Sym. Orch./ Serge Koussevitzky – Pristine Audio PASC 463, 67:34 [avail. in various formats from] ****:  

Conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) commissioned the 1943 Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, having been informed that Bartok suffered from leukemia in relatively dire poverty, and wished to instill in the composer a sense of creative purpose.  Dedicated to the memory of Natalie Koussevitzky, the music exploits the power of the individual instrumental choirs to act in a concertante mode, virtuosos within an expanded corps of virtuosi. We hear the famed BSO resonance early in this radio broadcast reading of 30 December 1944, in the first movement Introduzione – Andante non troppo, wherein flute solo Georges Laurent displays his fluent, artistic persuasion. The brass fugato section proves no less lustrous, a kind of modern Gabrieli moment in modal style.

Given the special relationship between composer and conductor, we find Koussevitzky’s whimsical charm in the second movement Giuoco delle coppie quite telling, with jabbing string pizzicatos and ritenuti observed rigorously. The muted trumpets project an eerie piety in the midst of the playfulness. The heavy bass line for the opening of the Elegia, along with the chilling winds, thrusts us into the same, gothic world as Bluebeard’s Castle. The opening motif from movement one returns, more expressive and emotionally wrought. The BSO second violin and viola tone cast their own mournfulness. Koussevitzky moves the Intermezzo interroto briskly, the emphasis on the long line. The rude intrusion of the Shostakovich Seventh motif appears completely a la burlesca, via the tuba and trombone. Georges Laurent’s heady flute sound appears once more as part of the epilogue. In this version, Bartok’s expanded last movement Pesante – Presto hustles before us, a demoniac moto perpetuo. The woodwind writing conveys any number of Bulgarian rhythmic devices and string folk effects, some sul ponticello. The brass and tympani sections of the BSO quite blaze with ecstatic energy, testifying to the composer’s claim to its life-asserting qualities.  This performance has had prior (noisier) incarnation – at least they claim the same broadcast date – on Naxos (8.110105), although that release does not credit a restoration engineer.

In his note to the recording, producer Andrew Rose provides some historical context to the Piston Third Symphony: “Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 3 had been premiered by Koussevitzky at Symphony Hall in Boston on 9th January 1948, the first of ten performances given over the course of the next twelve months. The Eighth of these took place on 31 December, from which this broadcast recording was taken. Piston’s composition had won the Pulitzer Prize for composition in 1947, and its finale has been seen as a celebration of the end of the Second World War.” The opening Andantino conveys at first a soft, bucolic ethos in various woodwinds, harp, and strings, a tri-thematic prelude in C Major. The 5/4 time signature does inject an unstable pulse that can become insistent, and does, as the music achieves a solemn monumentality.

Koussevitzky and the BSO then engage in a colorful Scherzo in F Major, 2/4, that exploits polyphony effectively. Along with busy winds and brass, the percussion section makes its bravura presence felt. The melodic content becomes elegiac and texturally thinned out, only to return, da capo, to the frenetic activity of the opening motifs. The expansive Adagio in G, 4/4, means to show off the Koussevitzky string tone. The string divisi bear some aspect of Baroque sonority, albeit in a melancholy, romantic sensibility. The music moves into variations by way of winds and harp. The meditative anguish the music contains in the string line comes to a valedictory conclusion through the solo viola and the French horn. Piston once more demonstrates his hand at counterpoint in the energetic Allegro finale, a ¾ sonata-form that we might ascribe to Copland or Randall Thompson. A martial tune strikes up against the low strings in polyphony. Both catchy and splashy, the music indulges in some bravura sonorities, the tympanist quite busy with syncopated cadences. In a tender episode, Koussevitzky elicits that BSO warmth that remains his very own. A triumphant element asserts its hegemony over all, and this elation quite sweeps us away.

—Gary Lemco

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