SERGE KOUSSEVITZKY

1874-1951

Near the end of his seignorial reign as music director of the Boston Symphony (1924-49) Serge Koussevitzky conducted an all-Wagner program, music which for some reason he infrequently recorded. It included a Tannhaeuser overture which, by turns and without break in stylistic seam, was sensuous, delicate, pathétique, testy, feminine, violent, almost schmaltzy, steel-hard — note too the poco crescendo from pianissimo successfully augmenting Wagner’s dynamic plan in the first eight bars — and ultimately so powerful in its feverish eloquence as to deliver to its listeners, in Symphony Hall and next to their Philcos and Magnavoxes, the next thing to a bodily blow.

And there was a Forest Murmurs — of psychological as well as pastoral acuity while dealing from the podium with the undefined longings of the adolescent Siegfried – that sounded at times so lush in string sonority as to seem positively Yucatanian. And a terrifying Siegfried’s Funeral Music. And a Meistersinger prelude which, although beginning coldly, proceeded in its central amorous inning to register an anguish of parting clearly assignable to that proper widower Hans Sachs whose feelings for Eva must be controlled!

The adjectival bonanza set off by Koussevitzky’s Wagner indicates no lack of focus, merely a talent for orchestral drama, a drama that was couched more often than not in an elegance of instrumental conversation bespeaking a connoisseur of the exquisite — even if Koussevitzky seemed, metaphorically, to be carrying grenades in his pocket. Pianissimos, he used to say, must have substance, a fullness in other words while maintaining the proper quiet. Having begun his career as a double bass virtuoso Koussevitzky it’s safe to say built his commanding orchestral textures from the ground up, leaving few felicities unturned. A bass drum was as crucial to him as a pack of bass viols.

Let’s put ourselves in the path of Koussevitzky’s interpretive hailstorm (and calm!) in alphabetical order, beginning with: BACH (recordings made in connection with Tanglewood Festival performances summers of 1945-49) — Full emotional disclosure is typical of Koussevitzky’s handsome and drama-savvy Bach: look for starters to the FIRST BRANDENBURG CONCERTO which adds up as a near-symphonic poem. The bright staccato steps of the opening allegro indicate that straight rhythmic shooting will have a key place in these baroque proceedings. The succeeding adagio with its long-lined oboe, its violin solo impassioned almost to the point of unruliness, its journey into the most musing sort of expression, tells us there is MORE. The big concluding menuetto-cum-interludes is slow, fond, even lugubrious in a not unattractive way, consolidating the impression of a gracefully shouldered gravitas. A somewhat lower cheer level here than dear Dr. Tovey seems to find.

In the FOURTH BRANDENBURG the sighing central andante which can suggest oaken furniture rather too difficult to lift proceeds chez Boston in appealing forward waves, with a purity of tone lovely to listen to while scarcely concealing the impression of some heroic drama in the making. But this drama is child’s play compared to the big adagio ma non tanto of the SIXTH BRANDENBURG which in Koussevitzky’s hand is so heartfelt – at a rather tanto adagio – that any sensitive man, woman or child would want it played at their memorial.

BACH’S SECOND ORCHESTRAL SUITE in Koussevitzky’s hands is one delight upon another: a suave/sober/shiny grave inflected to give the impression of a conversation, an ultra-stately sarabande done with great emotion, a snappy bourrée, a guarded, almost tearful polonaise, a badinerie on ball bearings. And in the FOURTH SUITE note the baronial yet compassionate opening grave, a veritable Annunciation, played with a long line almost candy-like in its delectability. In this performance the bourrée is especially suave and dainty, Scarlet Pimpernel stuff.

BEETHOVEN’S “EROICA” SYMPHONY (9-7-34 with, like the Beethoven’s Fifth, the London Philharmonic; all other performances except the BBC Sibelius Seventh are with the BSO) – The author of a once-popular guide to recorded music dismissed this characteristically biting and sensuous performance with one pejorative, that nasty word mannered, cheating his readers of much wonderful detail, for instance the sexily plaintive manner in which Koussevitzky in the opening movement draws out Beethoven’s second theme, that theme with the repeated notes which seem to be toying with a great precipice to perhaps leap from — into some glorious Nabokovian void of course! The opening of the Funeral March is slow and warm, pouring like liquid fudge. Later with the conversion to C major the tempo lifts palpably, as if a balloon had been let into the air. And best of all: Léon Goossens’ watery-eyed, discreetly gorgeous oboe solo in the finale’s poco andante, a gold mine of expressivity in which at measure 360 a distinctly slow-moving Koussevitzky turns a curl of six sixteenth notes, two slurred and four mezzo staccato says the score, into three slurred and three half-staccato. One note makes all the difference here, swinging the phrase into a definitive lilt.

BEETHOVEN’S FIFTH SYMPHONY (9-3&4-34) – Such a magnificent and undiluted sobriety in Koussevitzky’s taut opening movement; then in the andante con moto he makes a good case for pacing which is closer to adagio, wistful as can be. Not surprising the charge of the bulls (bull fiddles, that is) in the trio of the scherzo — and note too the strangely chugging effect in the bass line in the suspense-rich transition to the finale. Willem Mengelberg take note! . . . and BEETHOVEN’S NINTH (4-27-46) – This “live” Boston performance is stronger than the 1950 Paris version recently in CD circulation. Among its treasures is the subtly throbbing intensity of the slow movement in which Koussevitzky manages to combine a poetic fragility with the near-exhibitionism of singing strings. Totally together of course, the violins play at times in a downright soloistic style, vibrato all about, suggesting with the resulting richness the sound of their brethren violas a few feet away in Symphony Hall.

BERLIOZ’ ROMAN CARNIVAL OVERTURE (11-22-44) – As light and transparent a performance as possible – where is the Symphonie Fantastique we need from Koussevitzky?

BRAHMS (all “live” performances, No. 1 at Hunter College, New York City, the others Symphony Hall, Boston) . . . With the introduction to Brahms’ FIRST (2-17-45) an angry-sounding Koussevitzky — angry, that is, in his role as Brahmsian protagonist — steers straight to the depths of pathos. Somber, warm, almost wailing: all those words fit this artistically brooding entry. The allegro that follows is slightly held back at first but propelled with a certain swing. First class sighs grace the lyric second subject which is significantly if not daringly reduced in tempo from early on. The quiet and searching passage launching the development with prominent winds rising gently in thirds carries such a charge of increasingly secretive dynamics the music seems to approach vanishing. A few heady minutes later an indubitably tragic development finds its release in a recapitulation launched at a more liberated tempo than the exposition: Koussevitzky knows how dramatic context can shift the feet under a theoretically unshakeable allegro.

An epically lyric slow movement and an innocent intermezzo of a poco allegretto e grazioso lead in this remarkable performance to a finale in which, at bar 29, just before the great horn solo, Koussevitzky knowingly or not (doubtless the latter) takes a leaf from the Mengelberg playbook and breaks into the fraught pre-horn diminuendo with an extra attack. Smashing! — as if this were some diabolical fission. A little later, following a sexy horn solo and a poetic flute, the great tune leaves the gate only after a hesitant upbeat. But my is it heading DOWN THE TRACK, seizing on Brahms’ animato well before it’s requested in the score. No need to send Boston’s maestro to traffic school, the speed is convincing.

Now one can enjoy the greater spaciousness of Symphony Hall (10-10-45) as Koussevitzky offers an appealing Brahms SECOND. The ardor incarnate of throaty cellos at the beginning of the slow movement is Exhibit A, no less the daintily rustic tone of the scherzo, the conversational element in this movement’s trio section heightened by crisp instrumental entrances. Approaching the last inning of the finale, measures 373-75, Koussevitzky pointedly slows three accented half-note chords in the full orchestra, music here which marks a curious prediction, in a reverse format, of the chords opening Brahms’ Third!

. . . And in the opening movement of the THIRD (10-8-46) Koussevitzky lets the music dance and spin. In the development he manages to be soulful amidst much orchestral bustle. The third movement, one of those light-and-shadow orchestral intermezzi Brahms obviously delighted in, Koussevitzky has the music on point, adopting an unusually forward tempo but not one precluding velvet vibrance in the strings, delightful iridescence in the winds, increasing passion overall. Then in the finale, as in Koussevitzky’s commercial recording of the Third, he palpably broadens the tempo for a highly willing second theme, opening with this richness new melodic territory.

Alas, neither in his “live” Brahms FOURTH (4-29-44) nor a commercial issue from several years earlier is Koussevitzky at his best in this symphony’s opening movement. The ’44 version is almost rowdy, an unprepossessing mixture of the glamorous and nervoso. The situation improves in a slow movement with rapt treatment of the entrancing second subject entwining cellos and violins. This time the third movement is on the slow side, an absolutely imperial grazioso. Koussevitzky rises to the occasion in the finale with a slowish flute solo achieving in a few measures a state of true tragedy. Trombones follow sculpturally, like sonic menhirs in a great Arizonan space.

BRUCKNER’S EIGHTH (12-30-47) – Koussevitzky is scarcely remembered as a Brucknerian but this “live” performance holds its own with those of the usual podium suspects. The music comes on stern, shiny and calamitous, sharp-contoured, characteristically edgy. Can we call it at times concussive? The flickering scherzo dwells on the very border of velocic safety, wherefrom Koussevitzky seems to loose upon us an army of goblins. Better Koussevitzky’s mad 152 beats-to-the-minute than the fancy 100 of a sluggish old Karajan recording, even if it sends the Boston Symphony into a thumping, indecently fast trio (Furtwaengler, meanwhile, mixes charm and dispatch nicely at 138 in his celebrated 1949 performance). You pays your money . . . And if we experience in the adagio’s long benediction with its Elysian scales and broken chords a certain hardness, Koussevitzky’s heart tucked neatly into vest pocket (while Furtwaengler’s is well out on his sleeve), well, there is at the same time chez Boston a simplicity of expression, a chromium clarity that hits the mark in this amazing passage.

COPLAND’S APPALACHIAN SPRING (Orchestral Suite) – Koussevitzky’s record as an encourager and performer of new American music is admirable, with few parallels in his time; and other times too! This recording dated 10-31-45 is relaxed, affectionate, totally idiomatic, and, dare one say it, much better than the one taken from the world premiere broadcast by Artur Rodzinski and the New York Philharmonic . . . DEBUSSY’S LA MER (12-1-38 & 11-7-39) — Even with a long time between those two recording-session sailings this is a humdinger of a La Mer, complete with a rather exuberant treatment of that up-&-down hairpin in the timpani in the middle of the first movement (sforzando pianissimo to piano and back to pp, says the score in this exposed bit just before Rehearsal No. 9) that caused a famous and emotionally impaired record critic of mid-century to cry FELONY! The opening is threatening all right, the weather report not promising and it feels very wet and slippery on deck. That sforzando at the launch of the timnpani bit was, of course, a not illogical cue for Koussy’s abandon. Well, as the composer Hindemith once said to the cellist Parisot, who was sweating to get it absolutely accurate, “Why don’t you just play my concerto the way you feel it!” . . . and FAURE, PELLEAS ET MELISANDE SUITE (3-18-40) – A Koussevitzky specialty, gleaming, impassioned, done with a ravishing delicacy. The devil in his Dior mode.

HARRIS, SYMPHONY NO. 3 (11-8-39) – Roy Harris’ landmark piece is beautifully shaped in this recording made not long after the all-in-one-movement symphony’s premiere. It makes one wonder for the nth time how it is that commentators used to raise the spectre Koussevitzky — who employed the pianist-encyclopedist-wit Nicholas Slonimsky to help him with the flood of scores crossing his studio door — couldn’t read music. If Koussevitsky couldn’t read music, conservatories should offer a course in How Not To . . . !  I had the pleasure of meeting Slonimsky once or twice, he was perhaps the funniest two legged creature to ever walk this planet. To see him play the piano with zest and accuracy while facing away from the keyboard was quelque chose.

On to HAYDN’S SYMPHONY NO. 102 (12-29-36) – Big Band Haydn, energetic and witty, it sounds as if every stand of violins was being used. No backstage poker games on December 29th! . . . and MOZART’S SYMPHONY NO. 34 (3-17&18-40) – Treasure here the steely and uniquely sostenuto rise of the trumpets at the conclusion of a playful first movement, like an announcement, not too solemn, of the grandest ceremonial.

RACHMANINOFF’S THIRD SYMPHONY (4-8-47) – We’ve talked about the composer as conductor of this piece; here, in a “live” Boston performance, is the view from outside the fold so to speak. The first Koussevitzkyan nuance occurs in the subtle throb, a misty hairpin applied to the last note of the brief lento introduction. The succeeding allegro moderato is relatively agitato, with a flow more impetuous than the semplice the composer conjured from his Philadelphia podium. Come the first movement’s development, vivid and stuttering, this Boston performance’s urgency is beyond doubt . . . RAVEL, DAPHNIS AND CHLOE, SECOND SUITE (11-15 & 12-20-28) – Koussevitzky creates an otherworldly symphonic float in this landmark recording from the early days of his Massachusetts Avenue reign. Such softness of touch! Feel no pain . . . SCHUBERT’S UNFINISHED SYMPHONY (5-6-36) – Koussevitzky’s talent for moodscaping (baton as brush?) is evident immediately in the sepulchral and angry opening of this recording. With the urgent development a few minutes on we realize we’re in a little Eroica more than a Schubertian Pastoral. In the andante con moto a good case is made for a slower tempo, threnody-like.

SCHUMANN’S SPRING SYMPHONY (11-6&8-39) – An unusually suspended opening here; it takes prudent steps in the face of an andante poco maestoso marking, as if the music were winterbound. Then before the allegro molto vivace is released happy insects seem to be out in force among the woodwinds . . . and SHOSTAKOVICH’S NINTH (11-4-46 & 4-2-47) – In the big second movement Koussevitzky appreciates especially well the deadpan misterioso of the woodwinds’ cockeyed lyricism.

SIBELIUS’ SEVENTH (5-15-33) – Absolutely in Koussevitzky’s Top Ten, this celebrated “live” performance with the BBC Symphony is notable for its brooding strength, plasticity of shaping, the full-throated string tone capped with a firmly focused vibrato. Most wondrous of all is his ultra-broad but buoyant view of the slow-waking passage ten bars after Letter A in which divided strings move in long unwieldy notes, groping almost their adagio way through antique counterpoint that looks in the score like a forest of boulders but can in sensitive hands sound like a garden of ecstasy: the music is giving birth to a hymn!

And sitting not far from Koussevitzky’s baton was Bernard Shore, that excellent first viola, who writes in The Orchestra Speaks: “Koussevitzky’s magnetism is largely conveyed by his face, which is extraordinarily expressive, lighting up instantly at any playing that touches him – and this is not infrequent – and again clouding as quickly . . .” And, writes Shore, “permeating all the rehearsal, are the phrases one must forever associate with Koussevitzky, for instance: “Zing! Ther ees no music without zingen!”

Crosscut now to Boston’s Symphony Hall in the late 1940s and Koussevitzky is rehearsing Sibelius’ Seventh. Two bars after Letter E a phrase is declared “lost” but found immediately with a podium command. Then, eight after F, the music animating in tempo and dynamics, Koussevitzky has had enough. “No, no, I have to stop you. Please, MUCH LOUDER [and he sings very energetically].” A moment later: “F, F please, I would like to ask you four bars beforrre, please, more DISPROSIVO [doubtless an arcane cousin of espressivo], Singgggg [mezza voce this word, with a little push at the start, a shooting star of a word], absolutely sing beautiful phrase . . .”

Here for a while is the relatively genial Koussy in rehearsal jacket, for to eavesdrop on the Boston rehearsals broadcast by an enlightened radio corporation post-World War II is to come in many cases in contact with the infernal workshop of an agitato autocrat shouting at his orchestra over their already deafening fortissimi in the sforzandan exhortations of a man whose very existence, one might think, were endangered. Method, of course, in this edge — it DOES keep the fire going, a tantrum-ready stance. A Koussevitzky rehearsal of Beethoven’s Ninth has been preserved too, and strangely enough it makes perfect sense when he asks for “the leetle accents, but nothing.” But I must admit to scratching my head over his telling the orchestra during a passage apparently rendered in less than ideal fashion, “It’s TOO MUCH, and NOT ENOUGH.”

And we continue our survey with: RICHARD STRAUSS’ TILL EULENSPIEGEL (1940s) – Big, broad, glamorous, and rather disappointing, a performance by no means without dash and fun and jubilation but too suave by half. It suggests a Scarlet Pimpernel played by George Sanders more than a prankish rogue.

TCHAIKOVSKY’S FOURTH SYMPHONY (3-11-49) – From just before the end of Koussevitzky’s time as BSO music director this is a “live” performance of crushing intensity. Sometimes you feel it in the chest. The overpowering tutti at the end of the first movement — which produced a spontaneous burst of applause over the Blue Network airwaves – seems to be telling the audience, You’re going to miss me! Koussevitzky of course continued at Tanglewood, guested in Paris, Los Angeles, toured with the Israel Philharmonic, but he was dead in two years. My father, an internist at San Francisco’s Stanford Hospital, happened to see him in the elevator and came home to dinner saying he’s a goner. Meanwhile studying at Moscow Conservatory was the fireball I consider Koussevitzky’s spiritual heir, Evgeny Svetlanov.

TCHAIKOVSKY’S FIFTH SYMPHONY (11-6-43) – Another “live” performance, full of detail a novelist might envy. The symphony’s opening is an uphill trudge of epical pathos, emphasizing the pesante e tenuto sempre more than the andante of Tchaikovsky’s double-barreled admonition. The endearing molto più tranquillo of the second subject is loving and time-taking, as if the prettiest girl in sight were consoling a weary protagonist. Quiet, organ-like chords with that Koussevitzkyan substance provide a magnetic pre-horn entry to the slow movement, a teeny pause after the first long note of the waltz movement’s theme deepens pathos significantly, and the concluding allegro vivace is taken at a wild and convincing 152 beats to the minute (Tchaikovsky suggests 120), shifting to a much slower tempo at measure 172 with the return of the dour motto from the symphony’s opening.

TCHAIKOVSKY’S PATHETIQUE SYMPHONY (2-9-46) – An amazingly QUIET pianissimo in the double basses launches this “live” performance. But nowhere is this Pathétique so fascinating as in the trio of the “lopsided waltz” movement wherein Koussevitzky by improving eloquently on Tchaikovsky’s dynamic markings (a gradual crescendo rather than a series of hairpin-pairs in the repeat of the first eight bars, for instance, this is not to mention the composer’s request for con dolcezza e flebile) creates the effect of some great Dostoyevskian procession working its way into the music’s fabric. Perhaps it takes a Russian . . .  And in what geography lies the affinity Koussevitzky displayed the evening of 3-4-47 when he produced as moving, urgent and idiomatic a performance of VAUGHAN WILLIAMS’ FIFTH SYMPHONY, that glowing wartime pastoral, as one will ever hear. Urgency — hear more in an uncensored rehearsal of Liszt’s Faust Symphony broadcast in the late 40s . . .