MUSSORGSKY-RAVEL:  Pictures at an Exhibition (rec. Oct.28-30, 1930).  RAVEL:  Rapsodie espagnole (rec. April 23-25, 1945). Ma Mére l'Oye (rec. Oct. 29, 1947).  Boléro (rec. Aug. 13, 1947).
Boston Symphony Orch/Serge Koussevitzky, cond.

NAXOS 8.110154 (B) (ADD) TT:  76:08 

SIBELIUS:  Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 (rec. Jan. 24, 1935).  Symphony No. 5 in E Flat, Op. 82 (rec. Dec. 29, 1936).
Boston Symphony Orch/Serge Koussevitzky, cond.

NAXOS 8.110170 (B) (ADD) TT:  71:1


If anyone claims (or if you read) that the Great French Orchestra was the Boston Symphony during Charles Munch's regime, they're either very young or exceedingly dumb. It was the Boston Symphony during Koussevitzky's 25 years, which ended with his resignation in 1949 because, in part, many of the key players he brought with him in 1924 from his Paris orchestras were retiring or dying. In its prime, however, "Koussie's" BSO was arguably the greatest orchestra in the world—with a sonorous bass bedrock that reflected the conductor's "first" career as a double-bass virtuoso, and a brilliance on top that was quintessentially French in the best sense. He was not, however, a conductor for all seasons or all repertory: Mozart could be leaden, like a potato dumpling from the other side of the Rhine. Beethoven usually eluded his grasp, yet he was a masterful interpreter of Haydn's symphonies. It was the Romantic era, however, followed by Impressionism (irrespective of nationality), that engaged Koussevitzky indelibly in his prime. Even in his eighth decade, when he'd begun to slow somewhat, the sonority was still there along with the discipline. His BSO was the last American orchestra to join James Caesar Petrillo's AFM, simply because it paid the players well above union scale, although the quid pro quo was more services per week (i.e. extra rehearsal time; "Koussie" was no more a master of the baton than Furtwängler).

With the single exception of a Roy Harris First Symphony air-check that American Columbia issued, the BSO was already a Victor orchestra under Karl Muck, although during an era when Leopold Stokowski in Philadelphia and Toscanini's NYPhil (and later on inferior NBCSO) were physically closer to RCA's mother-churches in Camden, NJ, and NYC. Thus one waits impatiently for the BSO to begin issuing, on its own label, Koussevitzky-era broadcast-acetates heard in lucky cities nationwide. Once converted, he became a dedicated Sibelian who recorded both symphonies on this remasterful disc from Mark Obert-Thorn (plus a Seventh in 1933 with the BBCSO for English Columbia that still raises hackles, despite an arbitrarily slow tempo before a Vivacissimo that has BBC players sweating). That was the first recording ever of No. 7, completing the project begun by Robert Kajanus in 1930-32, and completed with Beecham (No. 4) and Georg Schneevoight (No. 6 at a maniacal clip) for the Sibelius Society, organized by EMI, which did the same for Hugo Wolf's songs and Schnabelâs pioneer recording of all 32 Beethoven Piano Sonatas.

In the US, there were two Koussevitzky/BSO versions of No. 2, but this earlier one from 1935 took the prize—originally issued in album M/DM-272 on 11 sides as I remember, from which most stateside persons of my generation learned the music. Kajanus had completed No. 2 before his death, but neither the playing of a borrowed London orchestra nor the recording was in the BSO's class—despite Victor's use, as O-T informs us in his notes, of its original 1925 electronic equipment, before the switch in 1936 to make Symphony No. 5, and (still to come on Naxos, let us hope) Pohjola's Daughter, which shared album M/DM-474 with No. 5, and Tapiola in 1942. But let me quote the preeminent Irving Kolodin in his 1950 New Guide to Recorded Music/ International Edition on the subject of No. 5: "The sheen and tonal richness of the [BSO] have mellowed rather than faded since it was made. More particularly, Koussevitzky's affection for this score, the persuasive flexibility of his conducting, the rise and fall of emphasis, the fine curve of outline that can be discerned from beginning to end are superior to any competitive efforts...with or without LP." This despite "Koussie's" having changed the composer's metrics for the final chords to make them more steadily cumulative, and omitting the timpanist's grace-note before the first one. Still, this set is historic on plural counts, even if you have Kajanus and/or the best of many newer versions. For some of us, it is Youth Rediscovered without disenchantment. Now and again surprises, perhaps, but not disappointment: "Koussie" gave us Sibelius with grandeur.

He made only this one recording, in October 1930, of Pictures at an Exhibition in the Ravel orchestral version commissioned and premiered eight years earlier in Paris. If it sounds aged, Obert-Thorn's choice of source material has made sure it is no mere antique, and certainly more vivid than RCA's Gold Seal remastering by Ward Marston on a CD published in 1993. (In Marston's defense, be it noted that others had a later hand in the final product, although the 1944 Daphnis Suite No. 2 came from masters still in satisfactory condition, and the 1930 La valse sounds several years newer.) So many conductors have recorded Pictures since, with a myriad of tempos and nuances, that whatever the composer and his Paris audience may have heard in 1922 has become licentious worldwide. Here Catacombs is still the eeriest I know, while Boston's Parisian winds and brass are tonally B la mode. I shouldn't want to be without it at the same time I'm not giving up Reiner or Cantelli, two of RCA's later exponents. The remaining three Naxos selections came from the mid-to-later-'Î40s: Rapsodie espagnole in1945 (rhapsodic but not very espagnole), Boléro from the Music Shed at Tanglewood in 1947 (just a few seconds slower than RCA's 1930 version, which had more surface noise at the start than two snare drums could override, although the best of what followed was amazing for its age), and a lucious Ma mére lâOye from October of the same year—perhaps the last sonorously elegant, beautifully phrased and articulated hurrah by French players and their students in the Koussevitzky BSO. The 1947 trombone biffed in the fourth bar of his Boléro solo, and managed only a swipe at the grace note four bars later, but otherwise the reading (and most of the playing) replicates the 1930 version. Timing, by the way, is under 14 minutes, and the reading itself not a lot more espagnole than the Rapsodie. However, for $7, this is history I'd rather revisit than most of Toscanini's contemporaneous discs, or many of Stokowski's during a particularly willful period in his career.

R.D. (March 2002)