About this Recording
8.110105 - BARTOK: Concerto for Orchestra / MUSSORGSKY: Pictures at an Exhibition (Koussevitzky) (1943-1944)

Bela Bartok (1881-1945): Concerto fc for Orchestra

Bela Bartok (1881 - 1945): Concerto for Orchestra

Modest Petrovich Mussorgsky (1839 - 1881): Pictures at an Exhibition


Sergey Alexandrovich Koussevitzky hailed from a period when flamboyant maestri ruled the world's orchestras and the art of recording was still in its infancy. Born in Kalinin in 1874, Koussevitzky began his career as a double-bass soloist (he gave at least one recital at London's Wigmore Hall) and founded the influential publishing house 'Editions Russes de Musique'. He conducted the Berlin Philharmonic in 1908, left Russia after the Revolution then, in 1924, took over the conductorship of the Boston Symphony, a position he held until his retirement in 1949. Koussevitzky died in 1951.

Koussevitzky's legacy of commissions, first performances and first American performances is awesome. As an interpreter, he dwarfed many of his peers. Ernest Newman once observed that "it would hardly be possible to raise some works to a higher pitch of nervous incandescence than [Koussevitzky] does, but the nervousness never gets out of hand." That incandescence can at least be sampled in the present programme, though record collectors in the know will probably have heard his October 1930 Victor recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition.


Mussorgsky's creative prompt had been a series of pictures by Victor Hartmann. The original piano suite was completed in 1874; then, 48 years on, Koussevitzky commissioned the by-now familiar Ravel orchestration for the sum of 10,000 francs. He gave the premiere in October 1922 and conducted the 'abridged' broadcast featured here (The Old Castle, Bydlo, the introduction to Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks and the fourth Promenade are all omitted) in October 1943.


The opening Promenade sports a very French-sounding trumpet (plenty of expressive vibrato), with an increase in tempo as the focus shifts to the strings, The barrel-legged Gnomus (The Gnome) is hasty and explosive, though the ominous middle section breathes rather more slowly, whereas Tuileries (quarrelling children at play) is a real helter-skelter. Vivid woodwind trilling keeps the Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks sparkling and if Goldenberg (one of 'Two Polish Jews', played by full strings) is paraded as theatrical and somewhat overweight, Schmuyle (his colleague, on a jittering trumpet) marks a total contrast. Thrusting cellos bring added character to the market women at Limoges, there's some bellowing brass among Catacombs and plenty of cut and thrust to the witch's cottage, or 'hut on fowl's legs', Baba-Yaga. The Great Gate of Kiev is resplendent, extravagant even, and significantly broader than on the relatively constrained commercial recording.

Interesting though it is to re-visit Koussevitzky's view of Pictures, it is the performance of Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra that makes this release an indispensable historical document. Koussevitzky had commissioned the work in May 1943 and Bartok completed it just six months later - which was something of a miracle given that he was recuperating from a serious illness at the time. Koussevitzky's world premiere Boston Symphony performance took place on 1st December 1944, just a month before the broadcast performance issued here.

Even from the opening bars, the sound of the Boston Symphony is unmistakable. The strong double-bass line, the silvery shimmer of the violins, tremolando, the delicate flutes as they scurry off in opposite directions (note, too, the fragile sweetness of the lead flute in the little folk-style melody at 1:44). According to the published score, those first 34 bars should play for 1:38 (in Koussevitzky's performance they stretch to 2:00) while the following passage - where muted violas, divided cellos and double basses provide the accompaniment for three pianissimo trumpets - is given a timing of 1:00 (which here runs to 0:52). One presumes that these timings were aimed more to guide than to straitjacket, although Koussevitzky's overall timings are remarkably close to those prescribed. At 2:53 the strings (now with their mutes off) offer a near relation of the theme we heard on trumpets a moment ago, accelerating gradually from 3:29 into the Allegro vivace which Koussevitzky attacks without as much as a split second's pause. There is a bar's worth of molto ritenuto ('hold back a lot') at 3:56 that few later performances observe quite so literally, and the resolute string writing that follows is played with impressive forcefulness. Note the 'French' sounding Boston trombone at 4'34" (vibrato very much to the fore) which leads, via the flute, into the tranquillo oboe solo - the movement's second subject - with its gentle though irregular strings accompaniment. Listen, too, to how Koussevitzky nudges at the string accents when clarinets take over the top line. Koussevitzky's firm hand tells at the spiralling string passage from 6:12, and his penchant for expressive string voices is evident behind the clarinet solo that follows (i.e., 6:34). The movement's dramatic core arrives with the leaping string bands and fuguing brass from 712, with a powerfully sustained climax (superbly achieved here) at 8:03. After a return of – and variation on - the movement's more gentle material, basses stoke up action from 9:12, culminating in a powerful but carefully-tiered strings descent from 9:32 (where the timpanist strikes a bar too early!).

The accented side drum that opens the playful Giuoco delle coppie (Game of pairs) second movement is freer than we are used to hearing nowadays. These woodwind 'pairs' enjoy strong pizzicato support. Again, ritenuti are carefully observed and so are the jabbing string sforzandos (i.e., at 1:14). Listen to the elegant, crisply articulated muted Boston trumpets from 1:57 and the warmth of the brass choirs from 2:41 (where Bartok cues a change in meter and Koussevitzky marginally eases the pulse).


The Elegia summons the dank, cloistered world of Bartok's only opera Bluebeard's Castle. Doleful woodwind arabesques help establish the mood while the return of the opening movement's principal string theme (at 1:37) is played here with extraordinary passion. Heavily accented violas (from 3:00), marked forte espressivo legato, parade a unique tonal fibre and when the woodwinds take over the same material a few moments later, their phrasing suggests the rustic demeanour of folk music.

The centrepiece of the Intermezzo interrotto is a carping interjection, egged on by the tuba and trombone (2:02) that apes the Bolero-like marching theme from Shostakovich's Leningrad Symphony (a piece that Bartok loathed). It is a joke that, to be quite honest, took time to settle (there are more 'unbuttoned' versions of it on the market than Koussevitzky's) but the attack of the strings at the movement's opening is characteristic. Seasoned Bartokians might notice an unfamiliar grace note at bar 5 along the viola line (0:58) that was either inserted by Koussevitzky or subsequently deleted from the score by the composer.

Few would disagree that the high spot of this pioneering performance is its Finale, where the string playing generates colossal tension and important woodwind counter-material is kept well within the sound frame. Note in particular Bartok's folk-like woodwind writing at 2:48, and the bounce that Koussevitzky brings to the string choirs when they take the same theme up a few seconds later. Everyone really 'digs in' to the gutsy fugato (from 3'59) whereas a few pages later the iciness of the suI ponticello string writing (played very near the bridge) transcends even the primitive technology. The ending used is the first, and more concise, of two options, Most modem performances choose the second ending, but few conclude in such a humbling blaze of glory, Even with some distinguished later commercial Boston Symphony recordings of the Concerto for Orchestra to call on (Leinsdorf, Kubelik, Ozawa), Koussevitzky's reading provides a singularly exciting musical experience,


Rob Cowan


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