Serge Koussevitzky conducts Jean Sibelius live from Boston [Pristine Audio]

Serge Koussevitzky conducts Jean Sibelius live from Boston [Pristine Audio]
4 of 5 stars

Symphony No.1 in E minor, Op.39
Symphony No.2 in D, Op.43
Symphony No.5 in E-flat, Op.82
Symphony No.6 in D minor, Op.104
Kuolema, Op.44 – I: Valse triste
Lemminkäinen Suite, Op.22 – III: The Swan of Tuonela
Finlandia, Op.26

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Serge Koussevitzky

Recorded live from Symphony Hall, Boston: 13 October 1945 [Opp.39 & 44]; 8 December 1945 [Op.43]; 5 January 1946 [Op.82]; 9 March 1946 [Op.104]; 3 August 1948 [Op.26]

XR Remastered by Andrew Rose

Reviewed by: Edward Clark

Reviewed: February 2021
CD No: Pristine Audio PASC 617 (2CDs)
Duration: 157 minutes

Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951) was probably Sibelius’s most ardent champion in the United States at the time these broadcast performances were made. It was not always the case. On June 22 1930, the critic and champion of Sibelius, Olin Downes wrote to Sibelius: “I have not told you, I think, how much Koussevitzky admires your music – now. I think I told you that when he came to America he did not like it. Now he is very enthusiastic and introduced the Sixth Symphony – which I think is one of your greatest works – with remarkable effect here this winter. He played the Second Symphony and other works, also, in Boston.” There were other keen conductors, not least Leopold Stokowski, in Philadelphia, whose first recording of the Fourth Symphony in 1932 had earlier been preceded with The Swan of Tuonela in 1929, and Finlandia in 1930.

On these special, exceptional, CDs we can hear Koussevitzky live in concert and be made aware of the special atmosphere he and his great orchestra generated for his loyal and devoted audiences.

If we start with the First Symphony we may be in for a surprise when the conductor launches the Allegro energico immediately after the quiet introduction on the solo clarinet. The marking is mf sempre but what we hear is a very loud body of violins welcoming us into the first movement proper. It really is a shock to the system! Matters settle down and there is no more exaggeration in later markings. Instead, there is a most wonderful and vibrant account of this first symphonic essay from the young and sometimes impetuous composer keen to stake his claim as Finland’s premier symphonist. He had been upset to be usurped by the much younger Finnish protégé of Max Bruch, Ernst Mielck, whose first symphony had beaten Sibelius to be acclaimed the first Finnish symphony by a year. In this recording we hear Sibelius stretching every sinew to establish his credentials over the young upstart. And so he did as Mielck died, aged 22, the year of the symphony’s premiere, 1899. One of Koussevitzky’s gifts to Sibelius is the enormous amount of feeling he obtains from his players. The great tune in the finale is spun in gold, slow and gentle at first then generating an intense feeling for everything that is right in the world. It really is an extraordinary feeling embracing both love and security.

Moving onto the Second Symphony and there is one of the most powerful performances I have heard. The timings of the movements are similar to his recording made in 1935 but the expressive additions are enormous. In the slow movement the fast pace of the initial pizz basses setting off on their journey comes as surprise. The broadcaster, Antony Hopkins, would write about his sense of this being like a Finnish long-distance runner steadily working his way through snow and ice. Here it is more like a fast jog; it makes a tremendous difference in the way we perceive Sibelius’s intentions. It follows a truly vehement first movement where no quarter is provided for any casual reminisces of a placid vision of a benign Nature. We know Sibelius fell into a deep depression while visiting Italy with his family to begin sketching for what eventually became the Second Symphony. While in Rapallo a daughter suffered from typhus, a disease that had killed an earlier daughter, Kirsty. This caused great anxiety in the family and Sibelius left to visit Rome alone. All the pent-up emotions he must have experienced seem to exist in Koussevitzky’s driven account, not only in the first movement but in the haste we hear in the slow movement and the tearing hurry in the scherzo. Only when the great heart wrenching theme that heralds the finale does the conductor move towards a feeling of reconciliation. His tempo for the remorseless, sad final theme, said to be inspired by the suicide of his sister-in-law, is perfect in conveying both loss and a spiritual awakening that erupts in the final minutes. This performance opens with a sense of trepidation but, by the end, leaves the listener in a state of exultation. It is a truly magisterial interpretation.

By the time Sibelius came to complete his Fifth Symphony in 1919 his world outlook had changed from his early symphonic efforts. The rigours of the Fourth Symphony had left him with a desire to cut free from a frenetic need to be part of the modernist world in Europe. Instead of mainstream modernism he invented his own way forward through a painful baptism of trail and error beginning in 1914 with his first experimental attempt at a Fifth Symphony. It took five long years to complete this work ending with three movements in place of the original four. Some commentators regard the Fifth as a step back from the radical Fourth Symphony. Yet the Fifth is as original as the Fourth is radical.

Koussevitzky’s conducting of this magisterial work is pure pleasure. He holds the seemingly disparate lines the composer weaves in his first movement in a firm grip, not relenting through diversion or undue haste. The arch structure is held firm and the transition from the slowly evolving opening seed planted by the mysterious horn call to the full throttle ending in a blaze of glory is marvellously projected in this live concert performance. The playing is wonderful too, confident and secure even when the conductor seems to have a sudden occasional impulse of the moment.

The slow movement, a gentle set of variations on only a hint of a melody, goes forth into the world, confident of its ability to spread a little wonder among its audience. Then the finale opens in great haste, scuttling strings preparing us for one of the greatest tunes in 20th-century music, made memorable through its simplicity. Koussevitzky holds the line firmly, not allowing undue exaggeration to intrude, the music remaining pure to its ultimate purpose of reaching a spiritual fulfilment but one in need of an unexpected closure, here beautifully controlled by the conductor obeying the composer’s careful counting of empty bars in between the six hammer blows.

The enigmatic Sixth Symphony broadcast is its first appearance on CD. Koussevitzky is close to Beecham’s timings, which means they are swift in general. He adopts a propulsive approach to the first movement, allowing a sense of freedom away from the bar line. The music simply expands from the glorious and spacious opening paragraph into the more mysterious world of strange sonorities and sounds. The second movement never seems to settle into a steady pulse as many modern-day performances do. Instead, we hear an exhilarating and questing collection of orchestral colours that point to a future style beyond Tapiola. The heady and forthright Poco vivace is a delight with whirlwind strings moving this short third movement to an affirmative end. The finale is more relaxed as if the toxicity of the earlier music is reduced allowing the interlinked sections to absorb the manifold changes in mood enshrined in this most perfect of all Sibelius’s symphonic movements.

These four symphonies, among the greatest by any composer of the 20th century, display “supreme mastery” as Sibelius so rightly wrote to Koussevitzky to congratulate him as displayed by his commercial recording of the Second Symphony. The benefit of having live time away from the studio is evident throughout the concerts. The playing is marvellous and totally in sympathy with the Nordic flavour contained within the notes.

The three smaller works also receive their due attention. Koussevitzky is a master of atmosphere in the entrancing Swan of Tuonela, the deep strings supporting the lone cor anglais singing its song on the dark waters. Nothing is routine, least of all a highly energetic Valse triste or a resplendent Finlandia.

Andrew Rose has restored what were probably quite poor original sounding broadcasts in an exceptional way. Sometimes in the Fifth Symphony the background orchestral sounds intrude above what Sibelius clearly intended to be in the foreground but that is a result of the original recording balance I imagine. He has done Koussevitzky proud throughout this set of works and we hear a master conductor inspiring his wonderful players to heights of performance that so pleased an aging composer happy to hear his music played with such power and panache.

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