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Serge Koussevitzky

Serge Koussevitzky

Composers discussed in this survey:

  • Sibelius and Tchaikovsky
  • Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms
  • Debussy and Ravel
  • Prokofiev and Shostakovich
  • Other thoughts
  • Annotated bibliography
  • For more information:

  • Koussevitzky Recordings Society

  • Serge Koussevitzky's tenure at the Boston Symphony was something of a golden age for that orchestra. He was not the most capable technician (in fact, his conducting sometimes seemed more like unfocused cajoling than conducting), and also ruled with an iron hand. But his musical instincts were marvelous: in his years in France, he published first editions of new music by Stravinsky and Prokofiev, and debuted a number of these compositions in Boston. He could somehow exhort an orchestra to give some of the most phenomenally intense performances ever captured on disc (Leonard Bernstein was a protege, and picked up much of this inspired quality). And he drew one of the most sumptuous string sounds ever captured on disc from the BSO.

    Unfortunately, he died in the mid-1950's, and much of his legacy has been largely ignored by RCA, his recording company. There are some reissues out there -- a wonderful disc of Prokofiev (1st and 5th symphonies) and some Mussorgsky and Tchaikovsky on RCA. However, you'll need to turn to reissue labels like Pearl and Biddulph to get the meat of Koussevitzky's legacy.

    Sibelius and Tchaikovsky

    One fine place to start is Pearl GEMM CDS 9408, a 2-disc set of Sibelius performances from the 1930's. This includes a sumptuous 2nd Symphony and thrilling, committed performances of the 5th and 7th. But the highlight of this set may be the Boston SO recording of Tapiola. In this performance, the musical depiction of icy, wind-blown landscapes is astoundingly vivid, and I, for one, am swept along so that I forget the fact that the recording is more than 60 years old.

    In a similar vein, Koussevitzky recorded Tchaikovsky's 5th symphony with the Boston Symphony in 1944. I have this on a mid-priced reissue on the BSO's own label, though there are other issues also available. This recording swept me off my feet the first time I heard it. Koussevitzky plays fast and loose with the tempo, shaping the pacing and phrasing to serve a big-hearted romantic vision of the work. It's arresting playing, and urgently recommended.

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    Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Brahms

    Pearl GEMM CDS 9185 is a 2-CD set of classical symphonies including the Beethoven 2nd and 8th, Haydn 94th and 102nd, and Mozart 29th and 34th symphonies. The Beethoven recordings are solid, briskly paced interpretations that are good but don't stand out in heavy competition. The Haydn and Mozart are mostly very brisk. But the gem of this set is the slow movement of the Mozart 34th. It's a sensuous, gorgeously played piece for strings alone, and Koussevitzky's BSO strings explore all the nuances of dynamic range between mezzopiano and pianississimo. That movement alone is worth the price of admission, to me.

    Koussevitzky also recorded a batch of other Beethoven, including the 3rd, 6th, and 9th symphonies and the Missa Solemnis. But another unforgettable Beethoven excerpt is a rehearsal of the Egmont Overture from Tanglewood, featured in Teldec's The Art of Conducting. It's a shame that the clip doesn't include the whole overture; once again, it's a benchmark for gripping playing and palpable excitement.

    Pearl GEMM CD 9237 is a collection of the Brahms 3rd and 4th symphonies. Some swear by these performances; I'm not as convinced. There are some very lovely moments, and some astoundingly transparent orchestral detailing for 1930's 78 rpm sound. However, I don't think it quite adds up to a total, large-scale vision. Still, it is definitely interesting listening, at least.

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    Debussy and Ravel

    More than merely interesting is Pearl GEMM CD 9090, a collection of Debussy and Ravel. The highlights of the set are the larger-scale works, a suite from Ravel's Ma Mere L'Oye and Debussy's La Mer. Once again, the sumptuous BSO sound makes you forget the 1930's recording dates, from the wonderfully vulgar bassoon of Ma Mere L'Oye to the pulsing strings of La Mer. On the strength of this, any other recordings of French masters probably at least deserves investigation.

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    Prokofiev and Shostakovich

    Koussevitzky was an ardent champion of contemporary Russians such as Prokofiev and Shostakovich. RCA has issued a CD with the Prokofiev 1st and 5th symphonies, which is essential Koussevitzky. The 1st is blindingly fast, but doesn't lose any charm for the speed. The 5th was one of the first recordings made, and still one of the finest.

    Koussevitzky performed Shostakovich frequently in concert. Unfortunately, only one or two excerpts survive -- a lovely 9th symphony and the Adagio to the 8th, and those are hard to find also.

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    Americans and Live Performances

    In addition to performing a lot of music from his native Russia, Koussevitzky also actively championed music by contemporary Americans. Recordings exist of symphonic music by Aaron Copland, Lou Harris, and Henry Cowell, at least. A CRI disc of the latter's Hymn and Fuguing Tune #9 is yet another example of Koussevitzky's Boston SO strings at their shimmering best.

    Assorted concert performances exist also, in semi-pirated editions, and much worse sound. There's also a lot which has been slow to come out, possibly because of union issues involving the orchestra. I find myself wondering how this group would take Vaughan Williams's Tallis Fantasy, though I don't know if they ever did it.

    Meantime, there's plenty of wonderful stuff to get the listener started, and hopefully more to come in the future!

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    Sources of information for this essay (and further reading)

    • Leichtentritt, Hugo. Serge Koussevitzky, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the New American Music. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1946.
      A brief study of Koussevitzky which focuses on his relationship to American composers and American music. It has some interesting anecdotes about Koussevitzky's performances and is amusing at times for Leichtentritt's candidates for immortal American geniuses. (Then again, hindsight is always 20-20.)

    • Slonimsky, Nicolas, ed. Baker's Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, 8th ed. New York: Schirmer Books, 1992.
    • Slonimsky, Nicolas. Perfect Pitch: a life story. New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.
      Slonimsky worked for a few years as Koussevitzky's "rehearsal accompanist" among many other things. His memoir has a chapter with some amusingly gossipy stories about Koussevitzky's musical ability (or lack thereof); the biographical essay is somewhat more even-handed, and appears to be the source for the essay in the 2000 edition of Grove's Dictionary.

    • Smith, Moses. Koussevitzky. New York: Allen, Towne & Heath, Inc., 1947.
      This is the closest thing we have to a biographical study, created by a contemporary music critic who interviewed musicians and relatives who knew Koussevitzky back in Russia. Koussevitzky, for his part, objected to the depiction of events that might have sullied his image, and sued unsuccessfully to block its publication. Perhaps as a result, there has been no other definitive biography since, and nothing that covers the last two or three years of Koussevitzky's life.

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    Last updated: June 4, 2001 by James C.S. Liu

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