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ClassicsOnline Home » PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf / SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 (Koussevitzky) (1950)
This disc restores to the catalogue, after an absence of more than 50 years,Koussevitzky’s second recording of Peter and the Wolf, with Eleanor Roosevelt as narrator.Taped during his last recording sessions on 29th November, 1950, Koussevitzky’s performance of Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 is given with an electricity that transcends studio conditions, yet it is not without light, shade and emotional retreat. The final such example of Koussevitzky’s art, which pertinently concludes this disc, is a rapt and expressive account of Grieg’s The Last Spring, notable for the warmth and intensity of the Boston strings.
By David Denton
By the time this recording was made, Koussevitzky’s tenure as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra had come to an end at the age of 76, just one year before his death. He had enjoyed a fruitful life in his Russian homeland as an exponent of the double bass and a growing reputation as a conductor and composer, while he was equally successful in setting up his own publishing house. He remained there after the Revolution before setting up home in Paris where he began championing composers of his time. An invitation to became conductor of the Boston orchestra in 1924 took him for the final period of his life to the United States, and it was American composers, including Copland, Piston and Harris, that were indebted to his support. Though today his name is revered, this Naxos series is one of the few that is mining his bounteous wealth of recordings. The Sibelius Second Symphony recording also dates from 1950 at a time when the composer was not fashionable. Tempos are often more urgent than we have today, but it allows a northern chill to blow through the music. The 1950’s engineering is generally clear until we come to fortissimo passages which congeal, and there is a degree of distortion. Recordings could not fully capture the orchestra’s famed double basses in the finale, but it still conveys the tremendous impact of the performance. The sumptuous reading of Grieg’s The Last Spring is a prophetic ‘encore’ as it was Koussevitsky’s last recording, and he did have just one more Spring in his life.
Great Conductors: Serge Koussevitzky (1874-1951)
PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf • SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 • GRIEG: The Last Spring
The Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky was born on 26 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. After 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, owing 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 composers 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. Those on this release were each recorded in 1950, when Koussevitzky was in his mid-seventies, and are therefore representative of his final years with the Boston Symphony and, indeed, were set down at a time when he had relinquished the office of music director, with Charles Munch already ensconced as his successor. These ‘late’ performances lack nothing in terms of passion or precision. The main works on this release are Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf and Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2; both composers were central to Koussevitzky’s conducting.
Sergey Prokofiev conceived Peter and the Wolf in 1936 as a piece for children, both as an entertaining story and as a way of introducing youngsters to the wealth of the orchestra. In essence it is a sophisticated and ageless piece appealing to children of all ages. Prokofiev not only composed the music but also wrote the words to unify a wholly appealing diversion that marked the composer’s return to Russia after a long absence. It was Serge Koussevitzky who made the first English-language recording of Peter and the Wolf (and possibly, therefore, the first recording in any language) – that was in 1939 with the Boston Symphony and with film-actor Richard Hale as narrator. In the near-seventy years that have elapsed since that 1939 version, and leaving aside the numerous adaptations of Peter and the Wolf, a multitude of personalities have essayed the narrator’s part, including Peter Ustinov, Leonard Bernstein (who also conducted his recording), Sean Connery, Richard Baker, Angela Rippon, Willie Rushton, Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, David Bowie and – “Hello Possums” – Dame Edna Everage (Naxos 8.554170).
Joining Koussevitzky as narrator on his second version of Peter and the Wolf is Eleanor Roosevelt (1884- 1962). From 1933 to 1945 she was the First Lady of the United States, married to Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was elected, unusually, to four terms as U.S. President (in 1932, 1936, 1940 and 1944), and who unusually took a third four-year term, ‘in time of war’. Eleanor was a Roosevelt by birth and marriage. Her uncle was President Theodore Roosevelt and his son, Franklin D., her future husband, was the fifth cousin of her father. “FDR”, as he was known, died in 1945. After her husband’s death Eleanor Roosevelt, a strong advocate of human rights, continued to be known for her writings and public-speaking engagements. From 1945 to 1952 she was a delegate to the United Nations General Assembly, a position conferred by incoming president, Harry S.Truman. In her narration of Peter and the Wolf, Eleanor Roosevelt may be thought something of a school ma’am (occasionally reminiscent of Joyce Grenfell’s impersonation of one), giving a lucid exposition to introduce the characters of the story and the instruments that represent them. This is a rendition free of ‘funny’ voices in which fireside story-telling is sufficient to recount the yarn, with the music, as conducted by Koussevitzky, candidly illuminating the yarn.
Sibelius’s Symphony No. 2 was first heard in 1902 when the composer was 37. It is often referred to as nationalistic and as reflecting (then) the Finns’ resistance to Russian domination. This appears not to have been Sibelius’s intention even if the conductor and Sibelius’s friend Robert Kajanus promulgated this ‘programme’. It is a notion that Sibelius dismissed. The symphony’s gestation may have begun in the Italian town of Rapallo and certainly took wing later on Sibelius’s travels. Thoughts that Sibelius had about writing a symphonic poem based on Dante distilled into a new symphony, which he mostly composed in the summer and autumn of 1901. The symphony’s première was a great success. It is cast on an expansive scale, but is tightly organised, the first two of the four movements being changeable in character and, in particular, the volatile second one may be heard as evincing struggle. The third movement is a tempestuous scherzo enclosing a trio led by a sublime melody from an oboe. The finale brings a noble outpouring, the movement journeying to a victorious peroration – it is all too easy to hear this music in the way that Kajanus described.
Koussevitzky leads an emphatic, restless and edgy-sounding account, one capricious and dramatic and with no false sentiment or heroics; but it is not unrelenting, for light, shade and emotional retreat are evident. Recorded on 29 September 1950, this raw and impulsive performance of Sibelius No. 2, given with an electricity that transcends studio conditions, is from what proved to be Koussevitzky’s last day of recording. The final such example of his art is the Nordic encore that is pertinently the last track of this disc, a rapt and expressive account of Grieg’s The Last Spring, the warmth and intensity of the Boston strings bidding a poignant ‘farewell to music’ for the players’ illustrious maestro.
The three recordings on this disc were originally mastered on tape and were released on 78 rpm (Prokofiev), LP (Prokofiev, Sibelius) and 45 rpm (all three works). The transfer of the rare Prokofiev set was taken from the best portions of four 45 rpm sets, while a combination of 45 rpm and LP sources was used for the Sibelius, which allowed for the correction of some problematic side joins which have plagued previous transfers of this recording. The Grieg was dubbed from a tape source.
The Prokofiev was only issued in the USA, and has not been available in any format for over half a century. The Grieg, taped at the tail end of the same session as the Sibelius symphony, was the last recording Koussevitzky made before his death in June, 1951.
Great Conductors: Serge Koussevitzky
PROKOFIEV: Peter and the Wolf, Op. 67
Eleanor Roosevelt, narrator
Recorded 11 August, 1950 in the Theatre-Concert Hall, Tanglewood
Matrices: E0-RC-1708 through 1713
First issued on RCA Victor DM/WDM-1437 and LM-45
SIBELIUS: Symphony No. 2 in D major, Op. 43
Recorded 29 November, 1950 in Symphony Hall, Boston
Matrices: E0-RC-1950 through 1959
First issued on RCA Victor WDM-1602 and LM-1172
GRIEG: The Last Spring (Elegiac Melody, Op. 34, No. 2)
Recorded 29 November, 1950 in Symphony Hall, Boston
First issued on RCA Victor ERA-195
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
Special thanks to Kevin Mostyn and Langdon F. Lombard for source material
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