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ClassicsOnline Home » WAGNER: Opera Overtures / BRAHMS: Academic Festival Overture (Boston Symphony / Koussevitzky) (1946-1949)
Serge Koussevitzky’s tenure of the Boston Symphony lasted from 1924 to 1949, a notable time during the orchestra’s history, owing to adventurous programming and wide-ranging commissions. The recordings on this release, made between 1946 and 1949, are representative of Koussevitzky’s final years with the orchestra and, although the conductor was in his early to mid-seventies, lack nothing for energy. The opening of the Overture to The Flying Dutchman inspires a typically dramatic and intense performance. Intimacy abounds in Siegfried Idyll, a lyrically shaped account with a gentle degree of forward thrust, beguiling strings and characterful woodwind solos. Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture is given a lusty outing but not without light and shade, proof yet again that Koussevitzky’s conducting rarely if ever was without a sense of theatre and effective point-making.
By David Denton
Great Conductors: Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951)
Historical Recordings 1946 - 1949
The Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky was born on 26th July 1874, in a town outside of Moscow, into a musical family from which his first musical tuition came. Before developing his career as a conductor, which would come to fruition in 1924 when he was appointed Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Koussevitzky was a double bass player. He gave recitals on and composed a concerto for his instrument; in 1894 he also joined the Bolshoy Theatre Orchestra, becoming Principal of the double bass section in 1901 until 1905. Koussevitzky’s early days (before the 1917 Revolution) were not confined to playing in the pit: he founded a publishing house, accepted conducting engagements in the West and also formed his own orchestra to tour in Russia. Post the momentous events of the Revolution, although remaining in Russia for a while, Koussevitzky left for Paris and cultivating his conducting engagements, often leading premières of new music.
Koussevitzky’s tenure of the Boston Symphony lasted from 1924 to 1949. This was a notable time during the Boston Symphony’s history – due to adventurous programming and wide-ranging commissions: from international composers such as Hindemith (Concert Music for Strings and Brass), Honegger (Symphony No. 1), Prokofiev (Symphony No. 4, in its original version) and Stravinsky (Symphony of Psalms). American creators – such as Barber, Copland, Harris, Piston and Schuman – were also commissioned. In 1940 Koussevitzky, a dedicated teacher, established the Koussevitzky Music Center at Tanglewood (the Boston Symphony’s summer home) – where Leonard Bernstein was a pupil. Then, in 1942, in memory of his late wife, Natalie (the daughter of a successful tea merchant), Koussevitzky formed the Koussevitzky Music Foundation. This commissioned, among other notable works, Messiaen’s Turangalîla Symphony, Aaron Copland’s Symphony No. 3 (which self-quoted Fanfare for the Common Man), Britten’s opera Peter Grimes (of which Bernstein conducted the American première) and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Earlier, in 1922, it was Koussevitzky who had asked Ravel to orchestrate Mussorgsky’s piano-work Pictures at an Exhibition (which is now the most famous of the many arrangements of Mussorgsky’s original, an orchestral transcription that Koussevitzky recorded, as he did Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, both now being coupled on Naxos 8.110105).
Koussevitzky made many recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, not least of the Austro-German classics. The recordings on this release, mostly of Wagner, were recorded between 1946 and 1949 and are representative of Koussevitzky’s final years with the Boston Symphony. At the time of these recordings, Koussevitzky was in his early- to mid-70s and lacks nothing for energy – as the opening of the Overture to The Flying Dutchman testifies. Koussevitzky, a flamboyant character, inspires a typically dramatic and intense performance, the opening of the overture immediately establishing a rough-hewn and tempestuous response from one of the great orchestras of the world. Contrast is another of Koussevitzky’s trademarks – sectionalising musical passages – as the ensuing cor anglais solo demonstrates in being very slow and very expressive, but sustained through theatrical tension. This is an appropriately ‘operatic’ performance (one as much fuelled by Koussevitzky’s temperament as his experience of playing for many years in the pit of the Bolshoy Theatre) – an enactment in miniature of the story to follow, and with all the narrative power that that involves.
The ethereal strains of the Prelude to Lohengrin then make a further contrast – this time of the music itself, beatific and magical entreaties are conjured by the high-lying strings (here with perfect intonation and blend and becoming more-lustrous in sound), the winds adding a halo of light as the journey progresses to a majestic summons from the brass, stridently sounded (Koussevitzky was not afraid of making a grand gesture). Such spiritual connotations continue with the two excerpts from Wagner’s final work for the stage, Parsifal (described by Wagner as a Bühnenweihfestspiel, a sacred festival drama). The Prelude, once again displaying Koussevitzky’s ability to set and maintain a spacious tempo without sacrificing direction or with tension sagging, is an engrossed benediction, timeless in musical significance yet palpably suggesting a devout, mystical, Holy Grail-related pilgrimage – solemnly majestic and richly expressed, but not superficially beautiful. The Good Friday Music (taken from Act 3) extends these features with a powerful sense of ceremony and deep reflection, and is very sensitively played here.
Intimacy abounds in Siegfried Idyll, a gift from Wagner to his wife Cosima (Liszt’s daughter) that was first heard at the Wagners’ villa (Tribschen, on the shore of Lake Lucerne) on Christmas morning 1870, Siegfried being the Wagners’ son (1869-1930) who was also a composer. Koussevitzky’s conducting of the opening bars – expressive and rapt – also have a gentle degree of forward thrust, enough to suggest that this will not be a ‘serenade’-type of performance. So it proves, for while this account is lyrically shaped, small fluctuations of tempo and emotionalism are enough to rustle the surface and bring a restive edge to proceedings. Especially beguiling are the ‘murmuring’ of the strings and the very characterful woodwind solos, each musician a distinct personality who displays complete integrity as to Koussevitzky’s lovingly voluble direction, which vies a movement with immersed contemplation and a sense of expectancy, such lingering affection and growing ardour leading to a charged climax that features a nimble horn solo but perhaps a rather raucous one from the trumpeter before sinking back into the rêverie of earlier.
Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture, composed for Breslau University, and incorporating student songs, is given a lusty outing, incisive march-rhythms established from the very outset, a sense of purpose tempered by beguiling orchestral decoration and more-lyrical material. Koussevitzky introduces pomp and even a hint of vulgarity into this lively, ardour-filled performance, one in which detail is relished, with the Boston Symphony’s strings notably rich-toned and passionate. There’s light and shade, too, amidst the healthy spontaneous vigour. For the final triumphant bars, when the Gaudeamus Igitur is introduced, Koussevitzky makes a marked slowing, the trumpets’ edge adding a brazen quality – proof that Koussevitzky’s conducting rarely if ever was without a sense of theatre and effective point-making.
The performances presented here were made during a period of great transition in recording technology and published formats. From around 1944 until its adoption of magnetic tape late in 1949, RCA Victor recorded on two master formats: direct to 78-rpm wax matrices for commercial issue and to lacquer backup discs recorded at 33 1/3 rpm. The latter method was able to capture a wider frequency range than wax, and provided a backup for dubbing purposes in case something went wrong with the 78 masters. As new vinyl media supplanted shellac for record releases, the lacquers offered a quieter source from which to prepare transfers.
When American Columbia released the first modern LP records in 1948, RCA, unwilling at first to pay the licensing fees, countered with the 45 rpm disc. They eventually bowed to the inevitable in 1950; but during and after this interim period, there seemed to be no general rule as to the format on which a recording would be issued. For example, the Flying Dutchman Overture and the Prelude to Act 1 of Parsifal were both recorded at the same session; yet, the former was issued on a quiet, wide-frequency vinyl 45 rpm disc (as well as 78 rpm shellac) while the latter only came out on shellac 78s. Similarly, the Prelude to Act 1 of Lohengrin and the Siegfried Idyll were done at the same session, with the former released on the 45 and 78 rpm formats and the latter on 45 and LP only.
Except for the Siegfried Idyll, none of the Wagner recordings were released in the USA on LP at all. (The Flying Dutchman Overture came out in the UK on LP in the 1970s, but in a sonically compromised pseudo-stereo version.) The present disc features their CD premières. The sources for the transfers were vinyl 45 rpm discs for The Flying Dutchman and Siegfried Idyll; a mix of 45 and 78 rpm sources for the Lohengrin; all 78s for the Parsifal (their only form of issue); and an LP for the Brahms overture.
RICHARD WAGNER (1813-1883): Der fliegende Holländer (The Flying Dutchman) Recorded 4th April 1947 • First issued on RCA Victor 12-0958 Matrices: D7-RC-7407-3B and 7408-2A
Lohengrin Recorded 27th April 1949 • First issued on RCA Victor 12-1323 Matrices: D9-RC-1718-1 and 1719-2A
Parsifal, Act I: Prelude Recorded 4th April 1947 • First issued on RCA Victor 12-0146 and 12-0147 in album M-1198 Matrices: D7-RC-7409-1A, 7410-1A and 7411-1A
Parsifal, Act III: Good Friday Spell Recorded 19th April 1946 • First issued on RCA Victor 12-0147 and 12-0148 in album M-1198 Matrices: D6-RC-5716-2P, 5717-2A and 5718-1A
Siegfried Idyll Recorded 27th April 1949 • First issued on RCA Victor 49-3414 and 49-3415 in album WDM-1571 Matrices: D9-RC-1720-1A, 1721-1A, 1722-1 and 1723-1C
JOHANNES BRAHMS (1833-1897): 6 Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 Recorded 2nd April 1947 • First issued on RCA Victor 12-0377 Matrices: D7-RC-7403-2 and 7404-2A
All recordings made in Symphony Hall, Boston, USA
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Special thanks to Don Tait for providing source material
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WAGNER: Opera Overtures / BRAHMS: Academic Festiva...