Serge Koussevitzky conducts The New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra = CORELLI (arr. Pinelli): Suite for String Orchestra; RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2; SHOSTAKOVICH: Symphony No. 5 in D Minor, Op. 47; DEBUSSY: La Mer; TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64 – New York Philharmonic/ Serge Koussevitzky – WHRA-6049 (2 CDs), 66:48; 74:22 [www.westhillradioarchives.com] ****:
The arrival of Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) on the podium of the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York for concerts 22 February 1942 and 1 March 1942 involves an account of the politics of the American Federation of Musicians and the president, James C. Petrillo. In his accompanying booklet to this fine restoration, Tom Godell explains the intricacies and egos concomitant with attempting to force the Boston Symphony to join the union, to which the BSO board members objected. The sudden death of Koussevitzky’s wife Natalie compounded the emotional stress of the period, but Koussevitzky felt recovered enough in February to resume his music-making. Add to these complications the fact that the morale of the New York Philharmonic had sunk quite low, since the musicians, discontent with John Barbirolli, played with little fervor or discipline. After a brief stint by Bruno Walter’s leading the Philharmonic did Koussevitzky approach, having two weeks’ rehearsal time and extra rehearsal time to polish a now-ragged ensemble into something like a polished clone of Koussevitzky’s own Boston sound.
The programs Koussevitzky chose involve old war-horses and one major new contribution to his discography, the Shostakovich Fifth from February 22. The opening selection, Pinelli’s arrangement of a suite of Corelli pieces, collectors may know from the Boston Symphony Trust’s issue of the concert of 22 November 1944, when Koussevitzky played this lyrical but relatively innocuous work in Boston. The Ravel suite certainly has the pulse racing, the New York flute having come alive in the final dance amidst the flutter of horns, winds, and strings. But the Shostakovich proves quite compelling, given its novelty to the New York audience and critics and to Koussevitzky himself, who had remained aloof until he heard Stokowski conduct it. A mixed assortment of tempos defines this reading, with Koussevitzky hurrying some passages and deliberately slowing down, marcato, those episodes that he wants to assume Herculean power. Occasionally, a flubbed note or missed entry creeps in, but the interpretation has both glamour and conviction, especially in the esteemed Largo movement. It remains an old saw that the work derives its shape from the Mahler First, and that the last movement has come to be identified as “rejoicing under duress.” But Koussevitzky imbues the measured performance with dignity and intensity, a true sense of the composer’s originally stated purpose to portray the evolution of a personality in music.
Even given the visceral excitement Koussevitzky brings to his patented, passionately romantic Tchaikovsky Fifth – likewise duplicated in the Boston concert of 22 November 1944 – I must concur with Godell’s assessment that the Debussy La Mer stands out as an extraordinary achievement. The homogeneity of execution, the graduated tempering of dynamics, and the breathed phrasing of the thematic groups combine to deliver a broad yet subtle incarnation of Debussy’s score, one that would provide the superior model for Celibidache’s often monumentally stretched, eccentric readings. I do miss the added trumpet at the end of the Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea, an adjustment Mitropoulos made for a quite successful inscription with the New York Philharmonic, but the Koussevtizky concept of a truly turbulent force of Nature in competition with yet another irresistible object proves mesmerizing.
Koussevitzky, of course, did remain in Boston, with Petrillo’s conceding points that allowed the BSO into the American Federation of Musicians. Barbirolli eventually had a replacement in the temperamental Artur Rodzinski, who himself did not last long with the Philharmonic. But the brief legacy afforded us through these previously unissued concerts – courtesy of restoration engineer Lani Spahr – testify gloriously to what might have been.