Guild GHCD 2321, 74:57 (Distrib. Albany) ****:
A conductor of natural virtuosity and color refinement, Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) established a virtual dynasty with the Boston Symphony from 1924-1949. The performances on this Guild reissue with remasterings by Peter Reynolds testify to the volatility and versatility of the ensemble under its charismatic leader, who refined the Boston Symphony to a point that Virgil Thomason once called it “overtrained.” We open with the volcanic Don Juan tone poem by Strauss, from a performance c. 1948. The intensity of the conception evidences itself from the first, then through a series of interludes which permit the Boston strings, winds, tympani, and brass full rein. Often, the interior work in the strings and winds allows us a glimpse of the knotty metrics involved in this piece, which Koussevitzky kneads together with a strong dramatic tension. The cascades of sound broil up from a deep tympanic ostinato then urge forth in fluttering strings, pipes, and triangle. The big brass theme at the end has a graduated, inevitable peroration, an exploding fount like the sacred river Alph’s giving birth to itself.
It was Koussevitzky who commissioned Bartok to create his epic Concerto for Orchestra, and we are privy to the second performance ever of this haunting, virtuoso piece (30 December 1944). The opening chords from the BSO basses announce a depth of tonal beauty consonant with Koussevitzky’s same lavish commitment to Sibelius. Shimmers from the upper strings and warbles from the flutes and we are already in the throes of an historic event. An inexorable pulsation flows through the core of the first movement, dark, sensuous, anguished, One attendee was heard to remark, “Conditions must be terrible in Europe.” Yet a gleam of sunlight peer through the clouds, often in the guise of Georges Laurent’s superb flute solos. The conclusion of the first movement is rather brusque by today’s standards. The presentation of the pairs enjoys a sardonic temper, with sizzling string work under the flutes and clarinets. Muted horns against long notes in the strings to great effect. The funereal Elegia dominates the work, much as the same sentiment makes the Tchaikovsky Serenade for Strings what it is. Koussevitzky does not linger over sentimental phrases, but rather instills a compulsive frenzy in the somber proceedings, a converge of distressed spirits in the manner of a passacaglia. Four extended chords open the Intermezzo interroto, paced quick to move the string and harp melody, then on to the vaudevillian treatment of the Shostakovich 7th as circus camp. The perpetual mobile finale is the original, terse ending of the work; though this does not deny the vociferous treatment the music receives from the BSO, who play as men possessed.
Stravinsky composed his 1943 Ode – Elegiac Chant specifically on a commission in memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. The performance (8 October 1943) is the world premier. A sincere dirge in three movements, the music pays tribute to Stravinsky’s liturgical impulses, his background in Russian orthodox hymnody. Tender work from clarinet, flute, and viola, perhaps touched by Debussy’s late experimental sonata groups. The Eclogue has a more rhythmic, motor power. It soon becomes a kind of wind serenade, waltzy in an ungainly way. The Epitaph might pass for music by Copland, misty, again touched by Debussy, likely Nuages. The Weber Overture (4 March 1947) evinces warm delicacy and fleet virtuosity, having been a favorite of the conductor, who programmed it ten times in the course of his quarter century of stewardship of the BSO.
— Gary Lemco