Koussevitzky conducts Bernstein, Hanson, & Shostakovich – Boston Symphony Orchestra – Pristine Audio

by | Oct 25, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Koussevitzky conducts = HANSON: Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings, Op. 35; BERNSTEIN: Symphony No. 2 “The Age of Anxiety”; SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 9 in E-flat Major, Op. 70 – Serge Koussevitzky/ Leonard Bernstein, piano/ Boston Symphony Orchestra – Pristine Audio PASC 573, 69:57 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Serge Koussevitzky’s often autocratic dominion of the Boston Symphony did not prevent composers from seeking his leading world premieres of music American, French, or Russian.  For the Howard Hanson Serenade for Flute, Harp, and Strings (1946), meant as a marriage proposal for the composer’s wife-to-be Margaret Elizabeth Nelson, we have restored the first broadcast recording (12 November 1946 from Woolsey Hall, Yale University), with a particularly ardent flute part from Georges Laurent.  Generally bucolic in mood and soaring in spirit, the piece does find a few clouds that soon disperse, the harp’s (Bernard Zichera) acting as an ostinato lyre to sing the lovely betrothed’s praises. Often modal in harmonic syntax, the piece casts an erotically tender gauze distantly reminiscent of Debussy’s Faun, but more ardent and ecstatic.

The picture on the cover of this ambitious collection tells the story: Bernstein and mentor Koussevitzky (the dedicatee of the Symphony No. 2) in Boston for the first recorded performance on 9 April 1949.  Bernstein had read W.H. Auden’s 1947 80-page poem “The Age of Anxiety,” a rather strained allegory depicting the cultural angst and anomie that characterizes much of the 20th Century. Writers like T.S. Eliot and Franz Kafka had already explored “the wasteland” sensibility of the times, and Mahler went so far as to characterize his short incursion into the era as “the century of death.” Despite critical rejection of the poem as a “failure,” Leonard Bernstein became “breathless” when he first read Auden’s words.  As Bernstein recalled his compulsive, thoroughly programmatic approach to the work, he claimed

The essential line of the poem (and of the music) is the record of “our difficult and problematical search for faith.” Identifying strongly with the poem, he chose to write his symphony for piano and orchestra, noting that “the pianist provides an almost ‘autobiographical protagonist’ in the quest for meaning and faith.”

What appealed most to Bernstein’s temper lies in the poem’s innate theatricality. The poem follows four lonely strangers who meet in a wartime New York bar and spend the evening ruminating on their lives and the human condition. Subtitled “a baroque eclogue” (a pastoral poem in dialogue form), the characters speak mostly in long soliloquies of alliterative tetrameter, with little distinction among the individual voices. Do we hear a moment of the Dies Irae at the end of Part One? In Part 2, the characters move to a party where some attempt occurs to translate desperate lust into something more meaningful, if only the faith that some better fate awaits us all. The piano part assumes a life of its own, moving from a kind of stream-of-consciousness dream state to a jazzy combo with the percussion instruments. Besides strict variation forms, Bernstein invokes a 12-tone row (for “the Dirge”) in consonance with the alienated sensibility of his subject. The piano part pulls away from the action for the Epilogue, detached, lonely, maybe in hope that the strings and winds achieve a unity of purpose, which, for want of a better term, we call God.

What endures in this performance lies in the colossal energies involved, the mood swings and disjunctions, and the sheer diversity of musical means.  The variations of Part One overlap and dovetail into one another, the colors ranging from bluesy jazz, to detached parlando keyboard riffs, to almost Mahlerian wails of anguish. Once more, the flute figures prominently, perhaps as a transition sound for the unconscious. The tenor of the BSO string line, perforce, has both an earthy and a cosmic character, at once. Bernstein’s keyboard technique proves eminently versatile, as would that of his own choice for the first commercial recording, Lukas Foss.

When Dmitri Shostakovich contemplated the writing of his 1945 Ninth Symphony, he knew that Stalin and the Soviet authorities expected an “apotheosis” of Stalin and the victory over Nazism. Shostakovich, consciously scoring his new symphony in E-flat Major, Beethoven’s key for his Eroica, chose to embrace humor and sarcasm as his expression of relief from the trials of bitter war and suffering. The tone of the music resists the political call for mechanical rejoicing. The Neoclassical Ninth tends to the abstract, calling for the first movement repeat of Haydn and Mozart.  The Soviet authorities banned the work from public performance for the remainder of Stalin’s life, and the music did not receive a recording in Russia until 1956.  The Koussevitzky first recorded performance (10 August 1946) captures the fleet energy and whimsical temper of a work that delights in its colors, much in the spirit of the Beethoven Eighth Symphony while its five-movement structure hearkens to Mahler.  Perhaps Shostakovich felt more akin to the spirit of Prokofiev, who had died, ironically, at the same time as his oppressor, Stalin.

The music abounds in rich solo periods, given to the flute, violin, trumpet, trombones, and bassoon.  Certainly, Koussevitzky, like his contemporary Stokowski, treasured the music as a display piece for his well honed BSO.  The heart of the music, the Largo, admits the concession to a history of sorrows.  But no less moving in this reading, the Moderato, has its moments of fierce expressivity. Here, too, the lyric tragedy in the flute of Georges Laurent enchants us. If the music would rather frolic a la Chaplin in its concluding moments, the emotional turn becomes a saving grace, a “smile even though your heart is breaking.”  Brilliantly clear sonic restoration from Andrew Rose defines the entire program.

—Gary Lemco