Serge Koussevitzky conducts the London Philharmonic = TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5; SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2; Memoirs from players of the London Philharmonic and the Boston Symphony Orchestras – SOMM ARIADNE 5017-2 (2 CDS: 148:18) [Distr. By Naxos] *****:
The eminent Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) visited the London Philharmonic for concerts at the Royal Albert Hall in June, 1950: on June 1 for Sibelius, and June 8 for Tchaikovsky. Koussevitzky and the LPO were not strangers to each other, his having recorded Mozart, Beethoven and Haydn with Beecham’s newly-formed ensemble (1932) not long after its founding, in 1934. When Koussevitzky revisited the ensemble in 1950, their leader was the gifted Dutchman Eduard van Beinum, who had maintained the lustrous discipline that responds so well to Koussevitzky’s tempos and dynamics in these visceral readings.
From the throes of the opening “fate” motif in Tchaikovsky’s E Minor Symphony, the explosive nature of Koussevitzky’s cadences announce a realization that rivals anything we have from another Russian meteor in the music of Tchaikovsky, Yevgeny Mravinsky. The elastic tempos, pushed and pulled with vigor and determined focus, quickly achieve the kind of magnetism we associate with the equally willful Dutchman Willem Mengelberg, the arch-Romantic predecessor ot Beinum at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam, but without the “authorized cuts” in the last movement that, for this reviewer, diminish the dramatic effect. Even beyond the force of the music’s alternately grim or balletic impulses, the first movement coda drives forward to a grudging confrontation with destiny.
The second movement, Andante cantabile, con alcuna licenza, grants Koussevitzky full permission to imbue its melancholy love music with his own personality, adjusting his horns and winds in nuanced expression of its tragic grandeur. The patented cello and bass-fiddle line, which Koussevitzky refined in Boston, has come to the LPO in regal splendor. The emergent theme breathes, sighs, purrs, and soars in the Romantic tropes of increased intensity. The clarinet interlude invites more, lush support from the LPO strings and winds. The three pizzicato strokes prior to the cello entry, in themselves, merit the price of admission. The tutti statement that ensues, nothing less than towering, delivers the force of Tchaikovsky’s fustian sincerity. The succeeding movement, Valse: Allegro moderato, might have meant to provide balletic relief, but sinister undercurrent remain, and the clarity of the LPO string line and timpani etch the dramatic impact in sweeping line that carries us to the martial statement whose lyricism can no longer subdue the “fate” motif of movement one.
It is the heroic Finale: Andante maestoso – Allegro vivace that defines the Koussevitzky experience, as it does in his commercial RCA recording of 1944 from Boston. The unfortunate cut that both Mengelberg and Malcolm Sargent take undermines their respective last movement, despite Modeste Tchaikovsky’s approval of the edition. Once the Koussevitzky’s LPO timpani rolls in to announce the Allegro vivace, the whirlwind has been unleashed. This is a tempo feroce, no mere vivace, and the LPO pushes for all the Symphony can provide by way of drama and epic fury. Even the soft strings bear the Beethoven 5th motif, soon lifted and transported to an emotional frenzy, the trumpets’ double-tonguing impressively audible. Then, the horn call arrives, an invitation either to glory or destruction. The last three minutes of music, a resolute march, rife with impassioned self-confidence, rings out across the Royal Albert Hall, and the coda quite tears the British audience from their collective seats even before the chord has faded away.
Proceeding like an epic, dress-rehearsal for his illustrious 29 November 1950 recording of the Sibelius Second Symphony for RCA, the performance here in June has a granite majesty of its own. The opening Allegretto moves in tectonic arches over modal pedal points worthy of Bruckner. The homogeneity of sound reflects the discipline Koussevitzky could impose on fresh troops, what sub-principal horn of the LPO, Patrick Strevens, calls “the daddy of them all” when it came to guest conductors. The second movement, Tempo andante, ma rubato, plays to Koussevitzky’s trump card, with the bass pizzicatos and rumbling tympani’s rising up to support an ardent woodwind line in the Aeolian mode. Given the clear, intensely molded might of the composer’s expression, it seems inconceivable composer and critic Virgil Thomson could label this music “provincial.” When the tenor of the second movement softens, its pantheism emerges, an ardent, even convulsive, hymn to Nature as firmly rooted in faith as anything in Beethoven.
Commentator Rob Cowen mentions the “the taut, machine gun return of the full orchestra after the scherzo’s oboe-led trio.” Indeed the LPO strings, winds, and tympani prove incredibly alert to the gripping task at hand, the throttling Vivacissimo third movement. The tympani alone would command our undivided attention. While the audio restoration – by Lani Spahr – captures the intensity of the moment in Sibelius, I detect an occasional lack of orchestral definition in the Sibelius that the Tchaikovsky avoids. Koussevitzky then transitions, again in monumental gestures, to the Allegro moderato, which, like Ravel’s Bolero, will increase the dynamic level of the rising melodic line for the finale. The warmth in Sibelius’ contrapuntal lines no less contributes to the grand mystique of the last movement. The tension becomes virtually unbearable, as much for the rapt British public as for the players, executing at fever pitch through the exalted coda that explodes with audience fervor.
The narrative/demonstration items in this fine set derive from documentary efforts from John Tolansky, who includes interview commentary (between 1992 and 2017) from former players in the BSO and LPO: Harry Ellis Dickson, BSO violinist; Everett Firth, BSO timpanist; Harry Shaprio, BSO principal horn; and Patrick Strevens, LPO principal horn. The BSO members had joined the organization in 1938. Tolansky first introduces Koussevitzky as a man who “mesmerized and terrorized” his BSO, but who always reigned, all “powerful and theatrical.” The players admit the limits of Koussevitzky’s innate musicianship, his difficulty with modern scores and unusual rhythmic divisions, but Jesus-Maria Sanroma often stepped in to simplify the metrics for the Maestro. Each celebrates the wonderful clarity of the Koussevitzky sound, how “he cleared the dross, anything muddy.” What Koussevitzky sought was what he termed dolce, meaning “beautiful and good.” In an excerpt from Beethoven’s Eroica, Koussevitzky admits, “the critics will call it too slow, but when it is so beautiful, I cannot let it go.” The musical examples each constitute strong aspects of Koussevitzky’s repertory, with the splendid, all-too-brief inclusion of a rehearsal of Liszt’s Eine Faust-Symphonie, never set down for posterity. But now we have it, so seize the day.