Guild GHCD 2324, 78:13 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
We have a significant collation of live-concert Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) collaborations with his Boston Symphony, 1943-1948–some of which had appeared on pirate Italian pressings–but here restored in fine sound. The obvious jewel is the Vaughan Williams Fifth Symphony (4 March 1947), composed 1943 and dedicated to Jean Sibelius. Its lush, dark hues gain an added luster under Koussevitzky’s urgent direction, the music alternately dramatic and bucolic, with a Scherzo demanding a light hand, marked Presto misterioso. Along with the ubiquitous, mellow string tone, the Boston woodwinds provide any number of deft pipings throughout, led by Georges Laurent, flute. Sheer elegance of line for the expansive Romanza movement, which in its own, elegiac way suggests Tchaikovsky’s Third Suite. The final movement, a thrilling Passacaglia, moves with decision to a cyclical conclusion, while Koussevitzky’s own double-basses urge their palpable presence along with a blazing brass choir.
The two Moussorgsky selections–in Rimsky-Korsakov arrangements–derive from 30 December 1944. The Bare Mountain of my choice remains Stokowski’s from New York, but Koussevitzky endows it with ferocious, virtuoso panache – a real tour de force for his strings, oboe, and brass. Some wonderful Devil’s laughter from the clarinets. Each successive statement of the main theme adds a Lugosian menace to the orgy. Koussevitzky programmed the tone poem eight times in the course of his twenty-five tenure with the orchestra; he gave the Khovantschina Prelude fourteen times. A broad approach marks the Khovantschina excerpt, with Koussevitzky basking in the luxurious interplay of strings’ cascades, oboe solo, and carillons from the brass section.
The convulsive tone poem Francesca da Rimini, after Dante, had its tenth and last performance in Boston under Koussevitzky here from 1948. No recording date. The alternately hysterical and gently nostalgic episodes move with fiery relish, the music literally heaving with passion, liquid fire. Brass, tympani, and cymbals converge at the finale for a whipping peroration, another Koussevitzky fit of loving demonism. These 78 minutes of Koussevitzky pass by all too quickly.
— Gary Lemco