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Penguin Guide, January 2009

Koussevitsky’s pioneering (1933) recording of the Seventh Symphony with the then newly formed BBC Symphony Orchestra has rarely been challenged and never surpassed and, together with his Pohjola’s Daughter and Tapoila from 1936 and 1939 respectively, is among the classics recorded music. One critic spoke of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under Koussevitsky as one of the great achievements of Western civilization and, listening to them in these splendid new transfers, this scarcely seems an exaggeration.

Neeme Järvi and the Gothenburg Orchestra bring great energy and concentration to the Seventh Symphony. The only disappointment is the final climax, which is perhaps less intense than the best versions. However, it is a fine performance, and the music to Kuolema is splendidly atmospheric; Night Ride is strongly characterized. The recording exhibits the usual characteristics of the Gothenburg Concert Hall and has plenty of body and presence.

Anyone who remembers Sir Adrian Boult’s set of the Sibelius tone-poems on Pye Records from the 1950s or his broadcast form the 1940s and 1950s will have high expectations of his Seventh Symphony and will not be disappointed. It is finely shaped and superbly paced. A Festival Hall performance from 1963, it is well worth rescuing from oblivion. Good sound too.

John Quinn
MusicWeb International, February 2005

"These recordings are justly famous and demonstrate vividly why Serge Koussevitzky was so celebrated as an interpreter of Sibelius. Without exception, the performances display tremendous interpretative grip and control over the orchestra. There’s also a palpable sense of atmosphere. The transfers, by Mark Obert-Thorn, have been expertly done but, inevitably, the sound is somewhat spare. This rather suits the music.

In some ways the performance of the Seventh Symphony is the most remarkable for it was given with an orchestra with which the conductor was not familiar and, of course, it was ‘live’, before an audience. Given that the performance captured here took place over 71 years ago the amount of detail that is reported, such as quiet timpani playing, is quite remarkable. I have this in another transfer, by EMI in their "Art of Conducting" series [7243 5 65918 2 0]. That version seems to me to have just a degree more punch and presence but the difference is very marginal. In a note Mr. Obert-Thorn refers to "many restoration challenges" with this recording. All I can say is that his expert work gives us as good an impression as we could reasonably expect of Koussevitzky’s performance and what Obert-Thorn justly refers to as the "white-hot momentum" he could generate.

There’s tremendous concentration and intensity in the opening adagio section. Later I was particularly struck by the extraordinary louring power of the string figures that underpin the second of the trombone solos (track 5, 3’00"- 4’04"). This is a baleful passage and it’s tellingly done here. Not all is dark power, however. There’s a fine lightness of touch at the start of the Allegro molto moderato (track 6). The concluding few minutes, including the last trombone solo (track 7, from 1’00") are mightily impressive. Despite the sonic limitations the granite majesty of Koussevitzky’s vision of the score is readily apparent. It’s a tremendous performance and its reputation amongst collectors as a classic Sibelius reading is amply justified.

The recording of Tapiola is of similar stature. Annotator Ian Julier describes Koussevitzky’s account as "possessed of an elemental power and unity" and I wouldn’t dissent. The reading is highly charged from start to finish and the cold, dark pine forests of Scandinavia are brilliantly suggested. The interpretation has a rugged strength and it fairly crackles with tension. The storm (track 3, from 13’55") is awesome (in the true sense of the word); you can almost hear the arctic wind shrieking as the Boston players articulate the music superbly. At the end the Nordic landscape settles back into a timeless calm.

Pohjola’s Daughter is no less successful. The performance has the same virtues and standards of interpretation and performance. After a brooding start great energy is released and sustained. I found the performance tremendously exciting though superbly controlled on a tight rein. There’s real fire in the belly here. The excitement is particularly great in the passage between 6’30" and 9’20" (track 1), especially from 8’09". The quiet ending (from 10’56") is most sensitively handled, the Bostonians delivering haunting playing that is pregnant with atmosphere.

The sound on these Boston recordings is, inevitably, better than is the case with the recording of the symphony for these performances were set down under studio conditions.

The other two, shorter pieces are well played and it’s interesting to hear Koussevitzky in somewhat lighter fare. Both items benefit from sensitive phrasing and playing.

This is a CD that contains some superb music making. The collection represents great value for money and is self-recommending."

Geoff Wood
The Flying Inkpot, November 2004

"There is nothing overblown or bombastic about Koussevitzky's Sibelius performances: the overall line of each work is adumbrated with startling power and the propulsion of climaxes is overwhelming. ... The grandeur of line and gesture in which he here revels provides a refreshing change from flaccid facelessness which characterizes contemporary Sibelian interpretative trends.

The Second Symphony often sounds like wanton juvenilia but here is revealed as a masterpiece. The Russian émigré may not have been known for the incisiveness of his beat, but his personality clearly galvanized the Boston Symphony Orchestra to achieve miracles: rhythms are powerfully sprung, ensemble never falters, internal lines are etched in stunning detail. Compared to this, Colin Davis' celebrated RCA recording with the same orchestra sounds positively anaemic.

Koussevitzky's astonishing performance of the Fifth Symphony, even more than his Second, brings orchestral playing of a calibre largely lost to the earth. ... Koussevitzky's transition between first and second movements is a source of perpetual wonder, and no other conductor has built towards the final five chords with such sweep: what in most recordings comes off as an anticlimax here is paced with soul-shuddering inexorability, convincingly carrying the structure of the whole work."

James Manishen
Winnipeg Free Press, May 2004

"Koussevitzky's live 1933 BBC go of Sibelius' Seventh Symphony is among the most thrilling statements of any Sibelius symphony and is preserved here in an immaculate transfer by Mark Obert-Thorn. In spite of its years, this reading sweeps all others aside. The tone poem Tapiola is no less vivid, the wind whistling through Sibelius' mythical forest with startling presence and the playing of the Boston Symphony in clear response to the obvious electricity coming from the podium. Sibelius' earlier Pohjola's Daughter is steeped in as much drama as Grieg's The Last Spring is in nostalgia. Fiery, febrile music-making of a kind you don't get anymore. And wish you did."

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