BEETHOVEN: Symphony Nos. 1 & 6 – Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F./ Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Serge Koussevitzky – Pristine

The Beethoven “Nine” with Serge Koussevitzky conducting has become a recorded reality!

BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21; Symphony No. 6 in F Major, Op. 68 “Pastoral” – Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F./ Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Serge Koussevitzky – Pristine Audio PASC 522, 59:55 [] *****:  

Ask, and ye shall receive! In the course of my review of PASC 515the first ever release—of Serge Koussevitzky’s conducting Beethoven’s 4th Symphony coupled with a previously unissued Seventh, I noted that, except for a reading of the Beethoven C Major, posterity could boast of a complete Beethoven Nine with Koussevitzky. Now, Andrew Rose and Pristine deliver another coup: the first ever issue of Koussevitzky’s conducting Beethoven’s 1st Symphony, this time coupled with an unissued live performance (23 October 1943) of the Sixth.

The First Symphony hails from a French radio re-broadcast of a 25 June 1950 live performance with the Orchestre National de l’O.R.T.F., obviously made on tour, after Koussevitzky had turned his long tenure with the BSO over to Charles Munch. The recording delivers reliable sound, but it does suffer from cross-talk interference from another station, allowing one to hear from time to time another piece of music bleeding through into the Koussevitzky performance. Andrew Rose has excised all but occasional frequencies of the notes in both pieces that coincide to the extent that the offending music could not be entirely removed, but these prove few and far between.

The Koussevitzky reading of the Beethoven First has great verve and fertile energy, requisite to a work, which in its own day, proved audacious:  the Adagio molto opens on a dominant chord that resolves to the subdominant, withholding the tonic key in what will prove the composer’s signature. The ensuing Allegro con brio enjoys a hefty vitality, rife with those wind and horn touches that well define Koussevitzky’s ear for color.  So, too, the Andante cantabile con moto’s second violins begin a stately tune that proceeds in canon, offset by a light-hearted secondary theme, crisply articulated.  Koussevitzky treats the Minuet as a scherzo, with little of the “courtly” in its bold demeanor. The willful play of the last movement does not escape Koussevitzky: Beethoven deliberately proffers a forte chord Adagio followed by increased notes of the scale—from three notes to the full eight—that defines the last movement’s Allegro molto e vivace. The recorded sound is a bit thin on the bass line and low winds, but the jubilant confidence of the occasion—given its historic import for this conductor’s legacy—should ensure its frequency on any collector’s music reproduction system.

It seems Beethoven’s Sixth Symphony meant much to Koussevitzky, but only a commercial 1928 recording testifies to its having often been programmed in Boston. The previously unissued performance here restored gives us an opening first movement bucolic but fiercely aggressive, with the orchestral choirs—and in particular, the flute of Georges Laurent—in fine fettle. Koussevitzky’s natural penchant for the low strings provides us some potent energies to support the lustrous, heroic top line. The marvelous 12/8 Andante, whose figures invoke a sparkling stream, define that “Koussevitzky tone” he spent twenty-five years to refine. The ensuing variations become a demonstration-piece for the BSO ensemble, often achieving a rapture of luminous finesse. The rustic Scherzo quickly transforms into a mighty mountain pageant, and the guffaws of oboe and bassoon really do not tone down the level of intensity, almost in anticipation of the powerful thunderstorm that erupts, what Berlioz called “apocalyptic.” The BSO tympani adds its own excitement to the shimmering proceedings, in what Koussevitzky engineers as a colossal eddy of etched sound, barely contained by the recording process. The Hymn of Thanksgiving that emerges as the storm clouds diminish more than once recalls moments in Haydn’s The Seasons. The BSO brass—their worthy note long overdue, given the French horn work throughout—rings as passionately as the exalted BSO strings. Critic Virgil Thomson once disparaged the BSO under Koussevitzky as “overtrained,” suggesting their expressive power lacked authenticity; but this Pastoral bespeaks an ensemble in total command of its communicative force.

Now, might the Pristine forces conspire to give us another long-awaited, complete “Nine,” these from Dimitri Mitropoulos. Meanwhile, some entrepreneur might box the Koussevitzky set, now that it exists as a fait accompli.

—Gary Lemco

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