Naxos Historical – Serge Koussevitzky (Wagner & Brahms)

0 of 5 stars

Der fliegende Holländer – Overture
Lohengrin – Prelude to Act I
Parsifal – Prelude to Act I; Good Friday Music
Siegfried Idyll
Academic Festival Overture, Op.80

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Serge Koussevitzky

Recordings made between 1946 & 1949 in Symphony Hall, Boston, Massachusetts

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: May 2008
Duration: 74 minutes



The recordings that Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) made late in his career seem to have been given a consistently decent sound – well-balanced and forward, with a reasonable amount of hall ambience. However the 1947 version of the overture to “The Flying Dutchman” seems to have a less generous acoustic than in other recordings from this venue; the woodwinds are somewhat wavery at times.

There is no doubt that the original engineers did excellent work in clarifying individual instruments, but a characteristic of Koussevitzky’s conducting was an ability to achieve a wide dynamic range and this may have caused a problem because at climaxes the sound tends to compress. It is possible that, as here presented, the most powerful moments may not represent the full impact that Koussevitzky intended. For all that, the tutti sections are built-up in a remarkably tense manner and the brass imposes itself dramatically over the mightily powerful strings without ever interrupting their long melodic lines.

The sound of the 1949 vinyl-based Prelude to Act One of “Lohengrin” improves on that of the ‘Dutchman’ but it lacks the ethereal quality that RCA achieved when recording the same music with Toscanini in the early 1950s – although the intensity of Koussevitzky’s conducting is not to be denied.

It is interesting to note that the only 78 rpm sources used on Naxos Historical’s release were confined to the “Parsifal” excerpts – so competent is the re-mastering that it is not easy to recognise the difference. Good 78s can often achieve convincing purity of string tone and so it is here. These “Parsifal” selections have a surprisingly rich quality despite the use of technology that was rapidly dying. Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn treats the source material sensitively. There is no over-eagerness to abolish every trace of background noise (sometimes engineers have been known to remove music along with noise) and I suggest that the listener is left with as much music as was ever captured by the original recording team.

Although Siegfried Idyll did appear on LP, the original 45 rpm discs were used for this restoration (there are quality advantages here). Again Toscanini’s engineers had moved a step forward when RCA recorded him in this work but nevertheless Koussevitzky is well served – in particular the woodwind episodes avoid the gawky qualities with which other conductors sometimes imbue them.

The Brahms has much the same powerful impact as the ‘Dutchman’ overture – perhaps not surprising since the recordings were made within two days of each other. The same hint of gritty timbres in the strings is to be heard and the climaxes are contained with difficulty yet the vividness of the interpretation comes over. There are pointed modifications of tempo but they make excellent musical sense. Here is positive music-making – the more complex the scoring the more Koussevitzky seemed able to bring out the detail. I realise that Symphony Hall Boston must have given a far greater glow to the music than the equipment of the time was able to represent and once again there is something archaic about the sound of the woodwinds but the percussion is touched in subtly (other recordings of this period subdue it altogether).

In all, the refurbishment does not advance the sound greatly other than to modify background noise – but Koussevitzky’s flair is still evident. The recordings are of their period but I doubt if they have ever sounded better. Koussevitzky deserves attention: I was recently impressed by some ancient Haydn and Mendelssohn of his, so I look forward to further research into the archive of his recordings.

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