, April 2008
Serge Koussevitzky was a victim of his dates. Born in 1874, he retired in 1949 after 25 years at the helm of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and died only two years later.
As such, he just missed out on the huge technological advances, including the widespread adoption of stereo recording and of the LP format, that would transform the recording industry in the 1950s. Thus the bulk of his recorded legacy fell, for many years, into something like oblivion as – to consider only his American peers - Ormandy, Szell, Bernstein and others began re-recording the core repertoire in high fidelity sound.
To be sure, Koussevitzky’s memory lived vividly on among those who had been present at his concerts, but that dwindling band was not enough to keep his name in the public eye for long.
Now, though, the fashion for disinterring and remastering old recordings is uncovering some long-neglected treasures (plus, as should only have been expected, a great deal of mundane material) and thereby giving a wider audience the opportunity to reappraise some of the frequently far larger than life characters who ruled the world’s orchestras in the first half of the twentieth century.
So what does this Naxos Historical release, excellently remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn, tell us about Serge Koussevitzky?
Let us first of all be clear what it does not tell us. There is no indication here of the reason why Koussevitzky deserves to be remembered even if he had made no recordings at all: the commissioning and performing of a very wide range of new music. As Colin Anderson’s useful booklet notes remind us, many of the most important composers working at the time – including Hindemith, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Bartók, Britten, Barber, Copland, Harris, Piston and Schuman – were among the recipients of the Koussevitzky regime’s largesse.
This new release focuses instead on more conventional offerings that would, in the increasingly conservative late 1940s, have probably pleased most of the Symphony Hall audience rather more.
The bulk of what we have here is music by Wagner and I was particularly eager to listen to the disc after reading John L. Holmes’s assessment (Conductors: A record collector’s guide [Victor Gollancz, 1988]) that “Koussevitzky was less certain with Wagner, and recorded very little of the composer…”.
On the basis of these tracks it is difficult to see what Holmes’s throwaway aside is getting at. These are appealing, confident and highly musical accounts. As required, they are full of life and energy (the terrific opening of the overture to The Flying Dutchman will knock you out of your seat), majesty and spirituality (the Lohengrin and Parsifal extracts), lyricism (the Siegfried Idyll) and, when appropriate, touches of emphatic theatricality (let’s not forget that we have here extracts from three works written to be performed on an operatic stage).
The performances are also quite distinctive: the typical Koussevitzky sound is not aiming for homogeneity, let alone “beauty” for its own sake (although many passages are actually very beautiful indeed). On the contrary, here is a conductor positively revelling in opportunities for tonal contrast and for highlighting the individual strengths – and, inadvertently, some of the weaknesses - of the various sections of his orchestra.
The Brahms overture is a vigorous and thrusting account. Koussevitzky must have had a lot of spare time at the Moscow conservatory – he is said to have completed the five years course for double bass players in just five months! – and it sounds, from this account, that he certainly enjoyed student life himself.
If he had lived and worked for just a few more years (as, after all, Toscanini did) Koussevitzky might well enjoy an entirely different reputation today. As it is, this disc – once one comes to terms with the distinctly subfusc sound – is of immense interest in highlighting his distinctive characteristics as a musician and an under-appreciated conductor.