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Jean Sibelius

Koussevitzky conducts Sibelius’s Second Symphony

1950. Royal Albert Hall, London
This performance of Sibelius's Second Symphony was made by the London Philharmonic Orchestra under the Russian conductor Serge Koussevitzky in 1950.
Composer Jean Sibelius
Conductor Serge Koussevitzky
Ensemble London Philharmonic Orchestra
Genre Symphonic concert

“Individual, flexible, flammable, emotionally candid and utterly spontaneous”

Koussevitzky and the LPO

“It has been proven repeatedly that the executant has the right to a free interpretation of a musical piece. This right is given to him by the composer. In Bach’s works, for instance, there are hardly any nuances. Does this mean that Bach wanted his music to be performed without nuances? Definitely not.”

Such was the view of the celebrated conductor, bassist, composer, educator and music publisher Serge Koussevitzky, who was born on July 26, 1874 about 150 miles northwest of Moscow into a Jewish family of professional musicians. Koussevitzky was the epitome of a magnetic, larger than life interpreter for whom musical intuition – rather than the letter of the score – was his life’s blood.

In his fourteenth year, with just three roubles in his pocket, young Serge journeyed to Moscow. There he entered the Moscow Philharmonic School as a scholarship student specialising in double-bass (he would subsequently compose a much-admired double-bass Concerto). One of his fellow students, Vladimir Dubinsky, later recalled “one would forget he was playing the double- bass. It wasn’t a double-bass at all, it was some instrument between a cello and a bass, of unusual beauty”.

In fact, even as a mature conductor Koussevitzky often gave his bass sections the lead, as with the outsize ‘walking basses’ in the second movement of Sibelius’s Second Symphony on the present CD. He made such progress that just a year after he began his studies, he was praised by Tchaikovsky for the way he performed some of the master’s music, joining what was to prove a small legion of recorded artists who earned praise from the great composers whose music they played, the others including the child Bronisław Huberman extolled by Brahms, Mahler’s high opinion of Willem Mengelberg, Reger’s admiration for the young Adolf Busch and Prokofiev’s appreciation of Sviatoslav Richter’s musically informed virtuosity.

In 1905, Koussevitzky divorced the dancer Nadezhda Galat and married Natalie Ushkova, the daughter of a wealthy tea merchant. Early on in a career studded with spectacular achievements and initiatives (discovering Mario Lanza being one of them), Koussevitzky formed his own 85-member orchestra for the purpose of bringing great symphonic music on a chartered steamer to villages along the Volga that had never heard an orchestral concert before. This expedition began on May 4, 1910, at a personal expense of over $100,000. Koussevitzky and his orchestra travelled 2,300 miles in four months, taking their music to villages and hamlets with audiences of Persians, Turks, Tartars, Armenians, Mohammedans, Buddhists, Christians and Jews.

Memorably, he was Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1924 to 1949, turning the ensemble into a tonally rich, virtuosic class act that could embrace all manner of repertoire from Bach’s St Matthew Passion and Beethoven’s Missa solemnis (both of which he recorded) to Aaron Copland and beyond. He went out on a limb to embrace the most talented young composers of his day, performing their music in concert, recording it, and in many cases, commissioning works from them too.

Most famously, he commissioned Ravel to orchestrate Mussorgsky’s piano masterpiece Pictures at an Exhibition, recording the work some while later. Additionally, he played a central role in developing the orchestra’s internationally acclaimed summer concert and educational programmes at Tanglewood, a breath-taking forested area at Lenox, MA, where today the 5,700-seat main performance venue bears his name.

Serge Koussevitzky’s association with the London Philharmonic began before the Second World War, but that was with a quite different orchestra to the one heard here, the Orchestra having been founded by Sir Thomas Beecham and Malcolm Sargent in 1932 with the express intention of competing with the best of its European and American rivals. In this they succeeded royally, giving countless concerts and making copious recordings including an exciting Tchaikovsky Fifth under Beecham. Koussevitzky’s pre-war recordings for HMV were Mozart’s Fortieth Symphony, Beethoven’s Eroica and Fifth Symphonies and the finale from Haydn’s Symphony No.88 or ‘Letter V’ Symphony.

All the above date from 1934 and were reissued on Biddulph (transferred by Mark Obert-Thorn on WHL 029-30), coupled with an unforgettable Koussevitzky classic: Sibelius’s Seventh Symphony, recorded live with the BBC Symphony Orchestra (on May 15, 1933).

Koussevitzky’s association with the BBC Orchestra gave rise to an especially interesting exchange of letters in The Gramophone magazine. In the October 1933 issue, Mr. John F. Porte opined that while “Adrian Boult [then the orchestra’s principal conductor] is a useful trainer, a greater conductor will be necessary to bring out the orchestra to its full bloom.”Hackles rising? Stiff upper lips trembling?

Porte continued: “Gramophonists [sic] have a simple method of judging orchestras. Compare the BBC with the Boston, the Milan, the Berlin, the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, or the Vienna Philharmonic orchestras. The English players can run up at practically every point. What is missing? The magic hand of a Koussevitzky, a Mengelberg, a Toscanini, or a Beecham. Whether or not we agree with interpretations is beside the point. The great conductors give a touch of adventure to their orchestras. The BBC men, like the King’s Army in France, are too often better than their native generals; they need more inspired leadership”.

Concluding his provocative missive, Porte reveals that “In the forthcoming concert season, the BBC has taken the very wise step of engaging several guest conductors for its hungry orchestra. At the risk of horrifying Eva Mary Grew [who had opposed Porte’s viewpoint in print], I confess to a wish that the best of them may be invited to stay a little longer, and that the enterprising HMV will demonstrate orchestral playing that is equal to their recording by engaging the BBC Orchestra to make one, just one, record under a great conductor”.

Had Porte heard various airchecks of ‘live’ performances that Boult gave a few years later of Vaughan Williams’ Fourth (NBC Symphony) and Elgar’s Enigma Variations (Concertgebouw), not to mention wartime broadcasts with the BBC Orchestra from the Corn Exchange in Bedford or the rich, infinitely wise and subtle readings from his later years, he may well have revised his views.

As to Koussevitzky, David Ewen’s Musicians Since 1900 offers a rather less flattering and equally controversial viewpoint of our fêted maestro. Writes Ewen: “though he could be utterly charming to those he liked or wished to please, Koussevitzky was not a man to inspire affection from the men in his orchestra. He was the total dictator, who strode imperiously into a rehearsal, wearing a cape which was removed from his shoulders as soon as he stepped on the podium. He brooked no nonsense or levity at rehearsals; and he could be merciless in his verbal attacks in the face of improper responses to his demands. He demanded at all times unquestioning obedience and discipline.”

He continues: “Excessively vain, he was ungracious in the face of any unfavourable criticism of himself and his art and he was impatient or hostile to anyone holding an opinion differing from his. He had an explosive temper. When angry or under stress, the veins stood out prominently on his temple and his ruddy complexion became purple. He possessed the imperious nature and the snobbery of the old-world aristocrat. When a critic spoke disparagingly of one of his performances he sometimes tried to use his influence (unsuccessfully) to get the man fired. When he objected to some of the opinions and observations expressed by Moses Smith in his biography of Koussevitzky, he rushed to the law courts to sue the publisher and author for ‘invasion of privacy’ – a case he lost decisively in the Court of Appeals”2.

This portrait of the conductor as an incendiary force inevitably begs the question, often posed: could the galvanizing effect experienced while listening to these charismatic maestri be possible without waves of tension, even fear, sweeping through the hall during the actual performance or recording? ‘He could never get away with it today,’ is a common reaction but, be honest, who ‘today’ cues performances that equal those given by Koussevitzky, Toscanini, Furtwängler, Mengelberg, Beecham, de Sabata and others whose occasionally intemperate natures gave cause for discomfort? No-one.

Returning to Beecham and the London Philharmonic, post-war they gave further concerts with considerable success, but the LPO players, by now a self- governing body, declined to allow Sir Thomas the cast-iron control that he had exercised in the 1930s. If he were to become chief conductor again it would be as a paid employee of the orchestra. Not Beecham’s style that, so in 1946 he formed his own Royal Philharmonic (the pre-war RPO had been the Royal Philharmonic Society Orchestra). Thus, the LPO now had rivalry not only from the ‘new’ RPO but from the LSO and Walter Legge’s fledgling Philharmonia.

Still, even when bereft of Beecham the LPO attracted such rostrum greats as Sergiu Celibidache, Wilhelm Furtwängler, Erich Kleiber, Hans Knappertsbusch, Victor de Sabata and others. In 1947 the orchestra engaged a new principal conductor, the Dutchman Eduard van Beinum, who, because of restrictions on work permits for foreign nationals, was initially able to work with it for only six months of the year. Guest conductors stood in during his absences. Van Beinum was an exceptionally fine conductor, his musical intentions honest and direct, his ability to draw from his players keenly shaped, disciplined performances always impressive (witness his Decca recordings of Elgar).

But Koussevitzky’s concert performances with the LPO were something else again: individual, flexible, flammable, emotionally candid and utterly spontaneous. And talk about focusing the spirit. Sibelius identified two conductors in particular as favoured interpreters of his music, Beecham and Koussevitzky. Both made memorable post-war live recordings of the Second Symphony in London, extending what we had already experienced of their interpretations through commercial recordings. Koussevitzky’s 1950 LPO concert performance adds tautness and rhythmic thrust to the effulgent textures that we hear on his RCA Boston sessions from 1935 and 1950, the timpani making more of an impact in London than across the Pond.

Sibelius brought out the aspect of Koussevitzky’s character that most connected with the chilly north (think of the Bay of Finland, situated between Russia to the east and south, and Finland to the north). Take his handling of the Symphony’s sullen opening; or the development section’s combination of chilled sunshine and angst; or the urgency, almost impatience, of the second movement; the taut, machine-gun return of the full orchestra after the scherzo’s oboe-led trio, or the proud, swelling denouement that closes the work. Koussevitzky’s London Second is as comprehensive an overview of the work as we have.

As to Tchaikovsky’s Fifth, in addition to the well-known 1944 RCA recording, there are four known Boston broadcasts of the complete symphony and one from 1950 where Koussevitzky conducts the Hollywood Bowl Orchestra in only the third and fourth movements. The sheer elasticity of this highly dynamic London concert performance, heard here, is remarkable, fully on a par with readings under Willem Mengelberg (a more artfully controlled interpreter), Beecham and Yevgeny Mravinsky (in Leningrad, now St Petersburg), whose reading of the finale’s Allegro vivace on his stereo DG recording – like Kirill Petrenko’s in Berlin and Mariss Jansons’ in Oslo – approximates Tchaikovsky’s fast metronome marking much as Koussevitzky does in London and Boston.

But what marks Koussevitzky’s LPO performance as especially unique (more so in fact than its RCA Victor Boston equivalent) is its unsparing volatility, pushing the tempo forwards or pulling back in dramatic pursuit of maximum expression, especially in the outer movements while the Andante cantabile second movement honours the directive ‘con alcuna licenza’ (‘with a degree of freedom’) and adds some. The explosive climaxes leave the audience stunned, that much is obvious.

As ever, Koussevitzky takes the musical law into his own hands. Sticking to the rules was never the norm with him. As he once put it: “Nowadays we can often hear ‘authorities’ exclaim, in reviewing a performance: ‘let the music speak for itself!’ The danger of this maxim lies in its paving the way for mediocrities who simply play a piece off accurately and then maintain that they ‘let the music speak for itself’. Such a statement is not right, in any event, because a talented artist renders a work as he conceives it, according to his own temperament and insight, no matter how painstakingly he follows the score markings. And the deeper the interpreter’s insight, the greater and more vital the performance.”

This musically viable theory is borne out by a mass of recorded evidence. Among Koussevitzky’s greatest commercial recordings (all for RCA/Sony Classical) are Tchaikovsky’s Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture (utterly electric), Debussy’s La Mer, Berlioz’s Harold in Italy (with violist William Primrose, a world-première recording) and such 20th century masterpieces as Copland’s Appalachian Spring, Roy Harris’s Third Symphony (another gramophone première) and Sibelius’s Tapiola. Have any of these recorded performances been matched since? Many will say not.

At the time of Koussevitzky’s death on June 4, 1951, his protégé Leonard Bernstein flew in to Boston and the ailing Maestro presented him with his cape as a parting gift, symbolically passing the mantle from revered teacher to star pupil. A significant gesture, given that Bernstein was possibly the last link with a grand tradition that Koussevitzky represented so royally.

Rob Cowan © 2022


Jean Sibelius (1865 – 1957)

Symphony No 2 in D major

  1. Allegretto
  2. Tempo andante, ma rubato
  3. Vivacissimo
  4. Allegro moderato

This recording was made live from the Royal Albert Hall on June 8, 1950.

It is from the Music Preserved collection.

Audio Restoration is by Lani Spahr.

It has been released on CD by SOMM Recordings as part of their album devoted to Kussevitzky conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra in works by Tchaikovsky and Sibelius (ARIADNE 5017-2).  Full details from

We are very grateful to SOMM Recordings and to Rob Cowan for allowing us to use their material.

  • London Philharmonic Orchestra
  • Serge Koussevitzky

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