BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 4 in B-flat Major, Op. 60; Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92 – Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Serge Koussevitzky – Pristine Audio PASC 515, 70:15 [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
Previously unreleased Beethoven performances by Koussevitzky and BSO add significant documents to that conductor’s recorded legacy.
“Rare Beethoven Symphony Recordings”: Producer and recording engineer Andrew Rose reminds us the Serge Koussevitzky (1876-1951) led the Boston Symphony in the Beethoven Fourth Symphony thirty-nine times, but until now, no recorded performance had ever been issued. This thirty-third rendition (6 March 1943, broadcast from Symphony Hall, Boston) had been withheld for various technical reasons which Rose catalogues—but the real point lies in the fact that much labor has been expended to correct pitch variations and sonic distortion, along with occasional missing notes—to produce a seamless document that we admirers of the conductor and his splendid ensemble can savor in excellent form.
Koussevitzky takes a deliberately slow, lugubrious tempo in the minor mode to open the B-flat Symphony, indeed in what seems an adumbration of a grim event. Of course, what erupts becomes a testament to Beethoven’s epic humor, rollicking and ecstatically thundering at the heavens. The gem, the Adagio, allows the BSO strings, winds, and tympani to expand its cantabile theme over a somewhat nervous bass figure. At moments the development of the theme becomes threatening, only to relent, in spite of its agitation, in order to sing most fervently in bucolic figures. The quality of the winds and brass imbue the last page with hints of a chorale. The expansively earthy Allegro vivace brings the Trio section back for another round. Its witty figures begin a third time, only to have Beethoven employ his horn section to break the spell. Koussevtizky’s athletic rendering of the Allegro man on troppo finale reminds us of his equally canny performances of Haydn, whom Beethoven clearly admires. The moto perpetuo in the rhythm finds tumbling arabesques over it from inspired strings and woodwinds, including the flute of Georges Laurent. The resonant bass line and its moments of counterpoint enjoy a divine clarity, courtesy of the conductor’s own training in the double bass. The sheer force of the tuttis warrants the price of admission.
As pungent an opening chord as you are likely to encounter anywhere opens the Symphony No. 7 from Hunter College (8 January 1944), in which the BSO seems constantly poised for an explosion. The curious—and actively nervous—progression of modulation that invests the Poco sostenuto – Vivace inducts C Major and F Major into the otherwise expected A Major tonality. Koussevitzky does not stint on hefty, visceral energy: at first, flute Georges Laurent supplies the motivic, dotted eighth-note/sixteenth impetus, then the BSO unleashes the impulse to the stratosphere. The thumping, driven rhythm achieves a mesmeric effect—suffering a bit of sonic decay at 10:30—then hurtles forward to a resounding peroration that asks the BSO high brass to make the fertile presence felt—eliciting applause, by the way.
The famous (a minor) Allegretto has gleaned the epithet—from Virgil Thomson—as “the most tragic music Beethoven ever wrote.” Given the state of the world in early 1944, the claim seems legitimate. Koussevitzky creates marvelous study in contrasts, moving from Herculean force to a grave, compressed sense of intimate space. The transition to polyphonic treatment introduces a formality upon the valediction more in keeping with the funeral mood of the Eroica second movement. The breathless Presto radiates with a life-force that warranted Wagner’s concept of the work as “the apotheosis of the dance.” The Trio section grants a repose that occurs twice. It also establishes the BSO wind section and brass as divine gifts. The natural order of harmonic relations asserts itself in the rambunctious Allegro con brio finale, in which C and F occupy visitors’ status and not usurpers’. The brightness of the sonic patina belongs to Koussevitzky, who when once complimented, rejoined, “I worked twenty-five years to get that tone.” Koussevitzky takes the repeat, adding even more manic energy to the resplendent proceedings, in which his committed ensemble relishes every fervent, accented note.
We must acknowledge what Andrew Rose and Pristine have accomplished here, granting us an almost-complete set the Beethoven Nine (minus the First) by Koussevitzky. May such a discovery ensue!