About this Recording
8.110170 - SIBELIUS: Symphonies Nos. 2 and 5 (Koussevitzky) (1935-1936)

Sibelius – Symphonies 2 & 5 – Boston SO/Koussevitzky

Few musicians of the last century can rival the wide-ranging influential diversity of Sergey Koussevitzky. His career encompassed solo and orchestral performance, composition, conducting, publishing, the founding of orchestras, commissioning new music, and the establishment of a permanent endowment and repository scheme with the Library of Congress in Washington. Russian-born in 1874, his principal early studies at the Moscow Philharmonic Music School focused on the double bass. He not only gained valuable experience as an orchestral player in the bass section of the Bolshoy Theatre Orchestra, but also travelled extensively in Europe as a soloist. The shortage of repertoire for the instrument prompted him to write several modest works of his own, culminating in 1905, with some assistance from Reinhold Glière, in a full-scale concerto, which still attracts occasional advocacy to this day. 1905 was also the year in which he married Natalia Uskov, the daughter of a successful and wealthy tea merchant, thereby acquiring considerable financial security and potential to develop his career.

While in Berlin shortly afterwards, and as the young Adrian Boult was also to experience on a more formal basis, Koussevitzky was galvanised by the conducting technique of Arthur Nikisch. Although becoming well known for his prowess on the double bass, conducting clearly offered the ambitious musician far greater scope and opportunity to develop. Never slow to seize an initiative for self-promotion, and after some initial forays with a student orchestra, with characteristic self-confidence and force of personality he booked and funded his own conducting début with the Berlin Philharmonic, no less, in 1908.

The runaway success of this last venture immediately led to engagements with the London Symphony Orchestra as well as concerts all over Europe. Despite suddenly being in much demand as a conductor, Koussevitzky was quick to develop his interests in other musical fields with an explosion of activity. In 1909, he founded his own publishing house, Editions Russes de Musique, shrewdly securing contracts with established and emerging composing talents such as Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, Stravinsky, Scriabin and Medtner to distribute and promote their works in Western European territories and further abroad, as well as in their native Russia. Not content with printed dissemination, he also formed his own orchestra specifically to perform and take the music out into the smaller towns, famously transporting the entire band by riverboat on the Volga for three tours in 1910, 1912 and 1914.

Together with many other leading artistic figures in Russia, Koussevitzky left the country after the 1917 revolution. It was in this period, and particularly in Paris, that his promotion of new music began to turn on an even more positive and inspirational axis. He had already been an enthusiastic supporter of Scriabin, giving the world première of Prometheus as well the first English performance of The Poem of Ecstasy. His Parisian enterprises had brought some rare operatic ventures including Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Khovanschchina, and with typical aplomb he capitalised on Ravel’s interest and commissioned the celebrated orchestration of Pictures at an Exhibition. The rest is history, and just in terms of the works commissioned for the 1931 fiftieth anniversary of the founding of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Koussevitzky’s contribution to the musical legacy of the last century would be impressive, but when considering the additional roster of masterpieces commissioned from Ravel, Roussel, Honegger, Hindemith, Prokofiev, Copland, Gershwin, Barber, and Britten, his achievement assumes legendary status.

One of the keys to this success was Koussevitzky’s move to the United States in 1924 to take up the chief conductorship of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, where he succeeded Pierre Monteux. He was to remain at the helm of the Boston orchestra for 25 years at a time when European conductors were beginning to dominate the American musical scene in a variety of long term and artistically propitious appointments. Koussevitzky prodigiously combined Stokowski’s flamboyant sense of colour in Philadelphia with Toscanini’s detailed and rigorous New York discipline, together with an evangelical zeal for new music, albeit more specifically the works he commissioned himself.

Sibelius was a composer with whom Koussevitzky had a special relationship, and his works featured consistently at the forefront of his programming. In the early 1930s, when the composer’s popularity was at a peak, the London-based Sibelius Society had embarked upon a series of state-funded recordings with the composer’s preferred conductor, friend and compatriot, Robert Kajanus. Following Kajanus’ death in 1933, the enterprise remained incomplete, and it was Koussevitzky together with Beecham who maintained performance and recording impetus, both receiving the composer’s imprimatur and conducting complete cycles of the symphonies. It was also Koussevitzky in association with the American critic and avid Sibelius supporter, Olin Downes, who most tenaciously pursued the composer for the elusive and ultimately suppressed Eighth Symphony – one of musical history’s great might-have-beens.

The comparison with Beecham is interesting. Both conductors were among the most entrepreneurial and flamboyant musical talents of the last century, and there are marked similarities in the triumphant rhetoric they bring to the finale of the Second Symphony, but it is the grasp of the music’s structure and inner growth that compels attention, cogently revealed through a mastery of tempo flexibility and dynamic contrast that motivate harmonic crisis and resolution. The Boston strings must have been rehearsed to within an inch of their lives for the agitated accompaniment to the meandering solo bassoon in the first movement of the Fifth Symphony, yet the precision of articulation and expressive insight offer a contrasting tension, direction and purpose that lead the music inexorably forward without ever sounding mechanical. Intriguing too to witness the telescoping of the rests separating the final chords at the close of the Fifth Symphony, a precedent later adopted by Herbert von Karajan in his 1965 recording with the Berlin Philharmonic. Whether sanctioned by the composer or not, Koussevitzky’s burning sense of vision remains unique for the irresistible force of its exposé of the elemental and unpeopled Sibelian sound world.

Ian Julier

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