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TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 6 in B minor, Op. 74 “Pathetique”; Francesca da Rimini, Op. 32 – Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Serge Koussevitzky – Pristine Audio PASC 550, 72:16 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

If memory serves, Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) made only one commercial recording of the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 6 in B minor (1930), on shellac discs (RCA M 85).  Therefore, any more recent revival of a Koussevitzky performance of Tchaikovsky (9 February 1946) would seem to verify further the proclamation by the composer’s brother Modeste, “So long as Koussevitzky performs my brother’s compositions, my brother’s music will live.”  These performances derive from the 1946 BSO broadcasts in singularly good sound; and, according to restoration engineer Andrew Rose, a sonority “better than they have any right to.” The Pathetique displays the typical Koussevitzky strategy, beginning quite slowly with added portamento and rubato to stretch the melodic line, lingering on high notes and then slowing down the tempo.  The musical-dramatic dimensions, however, cannot be denied.  The BSO strings, Koussevitzky’s pride and joy—especially the basses—respond with tragic luster.  Even as the music approaches the coda, the main theme gathers more melancholy momentum, and the drooping strings resolve into the wind statement with a true sense of closure.  The brass chorale enjoys the same, poised dignity that Furtwaengler and Mravinsky bestow upon this procession over plucked strings.

Tchaikovsky Portrait

Peter Tchaikovsky

The famed 5/4 Allegro con grazia generates in its eccentric waltz a luxuriant patina, easily a supplement to what Koussevitzky achieves in his recording of the Serenade for Strings.  He somewhat plods the secondary theme, that over the sustained tympanic pulse, but the effect can become quite moving, the strings’ answering the various choirs with increased, ardent passion.  The fervent rendition of the scherzo, Allegro molto vivace, resounds with subdued threat as well as explosive energy, the BSO strings and brass in full tilt, especially the latter with their “fate” motif.  At full dynamic, the music thunders forward in a protest against the adversities of fate, heroic and unapologetic in those cymbal crashes. A pregnant breath and we enter the Adagio lamentoso, which so impressed Mahler as a symphonic strategy.  Koussevitzky adapts a slow, lugubriously poignant tempo, imbuing the five-note motif with sustained grief that manages not to devolve into false sentimentality. Strings and brass coordinate in a spectacular statement to the first climax, which catapults into the abyss. The remainder of the music’s personal tragedy plays out in a combination of ardor and feverish anguish, as required. Given the slow tempos, the magic remains in Koussevitzky’s not relinquishing the vital tension of the finale.  As always, connoisseurs of the conductor’s art will savor the homogeneity of tone, the very pride of the Boston Symphony under Koussevitzky. The performance proper ends at 10:46, but we get almost a full minute of audience appreciation.

Portrait Serge Koussevitzky

Serge Koussevitzky

Koussevitzky leads the BSO in Tchaikovsky’s 1876 symphonic fantasia after Dante, Francesca da Rimini (6 April 1946), another potently resonant restoration. From the opening tritone, Koussevitzky captures the “Abandon all hope” admonition that illumines the Gate of Hell.  The wild eddies and tumultuous cries of Inferno come vividly to life, given the punishment that abides in this circle of torment, where ceaseless wind s rend and deafen those who allowed themselves to be driven by carnal desire.  Koussevitzky and his expert forces deliver a stunning example of orchestral discipline, even in those passages where both rhythm and tonality threaten to knock at Schoenberg’s door.  Eventually, the wonderful melody arises, wherein Francesca—eternally beside her silent, weeping companion Paolo—expresses her heartbreaking truth to Dante and Virgil that “no memory is so sad as that of recalling times of joy in deepest sorrow.”   For those who know the text of the original, Francesca reminds Dante that well his master Virgil knows the verity of her passion, since he expressed the doom of Dido, betrayed by Aeneas. Koussevitzky elicits a marvelous rendering of the main romantic theme and its balletic variations, which must perforce yield to the merciless, trombone battery and string tempests of Divine Justice.   Highly recommended, you Tchaikovsky aficianados.

–Gary Lemco

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