Koussevitzky conducts American Music

Author: 
Robert Layton

Koussevitzky conducts American Music

  • Suite
  • San Juan Capistrano
  • (El) salón México
  • Symphony No. 1, 'Symphony 1933'
  • Symphony No. 3

At long last there seems to be a resurgence of interest in Koussevitzky (not before time, I might add) and I hope the appearance of these records from the 1930s presages the reissue of such marvellous performances as his pioneering and incandescent Harold in Italy, Prokofiev's Fifth and Shostakovich's Ninth Symphonies. The most important of the works on the present CD are the two Harris symphonies: the classic account of the Third has never been surpassed, even by the two recordings made by Bernstein, a most devoted admirer.
Good though it is nowadays, the Boston orchestra seems a shadow of what it was in Koussevitzky's hands. If you doubt me, listen to its stunning El sal3/4n Mexico, sounding marvellous for its age and fresher than on its appearance on LP in the 1960s, when echo was added (RCA, 11/67—nla). This new transfer gives us the originals more or less straight and they have the greater bite and impact.
The celebrated account of the Roy Harris Third Symphony also sounds a good deal cleaner and better detailed than in the 1970 LP transfer (RCA, 3/70—nla) and the Pearl is certainly an improvement on the earlier LP transfer of the 1933 Symphony in three movements, which American Columbia coupled with the Seventh. This was said to be the first recording of any American symphony and was made at its first New York performance when the Columbia engineers (this was Koussevitzky's only recording for the label) missed the opening timpani note and a few bars in the Andante. A subsequent studio session covered a later part of the slow movement, with reduced forces, thanks to the Depression, and there is an inevitable change of acoustic. So much of the music Koussevitzky commissioned (Roussel's Third Symphony, Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, Prokofiev's Fourth, Honegger's First and so on) has stayed the course, and this powerful Harris 1933 Symphony is no exception. Like most of his music that I know from the 1930s it grips one from beginning to end.
The two remaining composers are less well known, at least on this side of the Atlantic. Arthur Foote had a long association with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, who premiered his unpretentious and charming Suite for strings in 1909, a work that inhabits the same world as Grieg and Dvorak. This has appeared before on LP in the United States on Turnabout, but not here; the present transfer has more top than the LP (though the latter struck me as at times tonally more pleasing, particularly in the finale). Harl McDonald's San Juan Capistrano pieces are the only disappointment; they are excellently orchestrated but not strong on individuality. I hope that some company will give us Koussevitzky's accounts of Copland's Appalachian Spring, Hanson's Third Symphony (whose slow movement can sound pure kitsch in other hands) and, if it still exists, the Harris Fifth. This CD serves as an excellent reminder of what stunning playing, what glorious music-making and extraordinary sonority this partnership achieved!'

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