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Koussevitzky premières vital works by Bartók and Piston with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
"You simply must get this disc; urgently, even insistently, recommended" - Fanfare
Serge Koussevitzky was responsible for the commissioning of a large number of important works during his time with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and the list of world premières he conducted with the orchestra is exeptionally impressive.
Although the majority of these premières went unrecorded, the regularity of the orchestra's radio appearances meant that many very early performances were broadcast, and of these broadcasts a good number have survived on disc recordings. In most cases these broadcast performances preserve the only known recordings of Koussevitzky conducting the music in question, and this appears to be the case with both works here.
The Bartok is heard in its fourth performance of six, having been first heard some thirty days earlier. Following these early outings, the composer decided to make revisions to the work, the most significant being the lengthening of the final movement. Thus we hear the first version of the Concerto - both versions are still in use today.
Walter Piston's Symphony No. 3 had been premiered by Koussevitzky at Symphony Hall in Boston on 9th January 1948, the first of ten performances given over the course of the next twelve months. The Eighth of these took place on 31 December, from which this broadcast recording was taken. Piston's composition had won the Pulizter Prize for composition in 1947, and its finale has been seen as a celebration of the end of the Second World War.
Both recordings have been reasonably well preserved, with the later Piston apparently demonstrating an early commercial use of tape technology, allowing for a much wider dynamic range and frequency response than heard in the Bartok. Although the latter is somewhat noisier, I have done my best to preserve and highlight what upper frequencies were available.
BARTÓK Concerto for Orchestra, Sz.116
Concert of 30 December 1944
- PISTON Symphony No. 3
Concert of 31 December 1948
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Serge Koussevitzky, conductor
Performed at Symphony Hall, Boston
Programme notes: Bartók Concerto for Orchestra
This Orchestral Concerto was written for the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in memory of Natalie Koussevitzky. The score is dated October 8, 1943. This orchestra gave the first performance of the Concerto December 1 and 2 last.
“The general mood of the work represents,” so writes the composer, “apart from the jesting second movement, a gradual transition from the sternness of the first movement and the lugubrious death-song of the third, to the life-assertion of the last one.” This remark is interesting, in that Béla Bartok composed the piece during the period of recovery from a serious illness.
He further explains why he has not called it a symphony: “The title of this symphony-like orchestral work is explained by its tendency to treat the single instruments or instrument groups in a 'concertant’ or soloistic manner. The ‘virtuoso’ treatment appears, for instance, in the fugato sections of the development of the first movement (brass instruments), or in the ‘perpetuum mobile’-like passage of the principal theme in the last movement (strings), and, especially, in the second movement, in which pairs of instruments consecutively appear with brilliant passages.
“As for the structure of the work, the first and fifth movements are written in a more or less regular sonata form. The development of the first contains fugato sections for brass; the exposition in the finale is somewhat extended, and its development consists of a fugue built on the last theme of the exposition. Less traditional forms are found in the second and third movements. The main part of the second consists of a chain of independent short sections, by wind instruments consecutively introduced in five pairs (bassoons, oboes, clarinets, flutes, and muted trumpets). Thematically, the five sections have nothing in common. A kind of ‘trio’ — a short chorale for brass instruments and side-drum — follows, after which the five sections are recapitulated in a more elaborate instrumentation. The structure of the fourth movement likewise is chain-like; three themes appear successively. These constitute the core of the movement, which is enframed by a misty texture of rudimentary motifs. Most of the thematic material of this movement derives from the ‘Introduction’ to the first movement. The form of the fourth movement — ‘Intermezzo interrotto’ [‘Interrupted Intermezzo’] — could be rendered by the letter symbols ‘ABA — interruption — BA.’ ”
BSO Programme notes (excerpt) on Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, 30 December 1944
Programme notes: Piston Symphony No. 3
Walter Piston completed his Third Symphony at South Woodstock, Vermont, in the summer of 1947. He composed it by commission of the Koussevitzky Music Foundation and dedicated the score "To the Memory of Natalie Koussevitzky." It was first performed by this Orchestra, January 9, 1948. It was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for a musical composition in 1948.
The orchestration is as follows: two flutes and piccolo, two oboes and English horn, two clarinets and bass clarinet, two bassoons and contra-bassoon, four horns, three trumpets, three trombones and tuba, timpani, bass drum, snare drum, cymbals, triangle, xylophone, glockenspiel, two harps, and strings.
The First Symphony by Piston was introduced by this orchestra March 8, 1938, the composer conducting. The Second Symphony was performed here March 6, 1944, when G. Wallace Woodworth was the guest conductor.
Mr. Piston has kindly provided the following analysis:
I. Andantino 5-4 — based on three thematic elements: the first heard as a melody for the oboe; the second, more sombre in character, played by horn, clarinets, and English horn; the third, soft chords for brass. These ideas are developed singly and in combination to form a prelude-like movement. Tonality C.
II. Allegro 2-4 — a scherzo, in three-part form. The theme, stated by violas and bassoons, is treated in contrapuntal, imitative fashion. The middle part is marked by the melody for flute, accompanied by clarinets and harps. Tonality F.
III. Adagio 4-4 — the movement has four large and closely connected sections, or rather "phases" of the musical development. The first of these is the statement by the strings of the theme, which is in three parts (part one by violins, part two by violas and 'celli, part three by all except basses). The second section is a variation of the theme, with woodwinds and harps predominating. The third section, starting with basses and 'celli, builds up to the climax of the movement, and the final section returns to the original form of the theme, played by solo viola, the closing cadence recalling the variation by clarinet and bassoon. Tonality G.
IV. Allegro 3-4 — a three-part form similar to that of a sonata-form movement. There are two themes, the first being developed fugally in the middle section. The second theme is march-like, first heard in oboes and bassoons, over a staccato bass, and later played by full brass at the climax of the movement. Tonality C.
BSO Programme notes on Piston's Symphony No. 3, 31 December 1948
The performance is absolutely riveting in its intensity, ranking among the very greatest of all the many recordings accorded to this extraordinary masterwork
Andrew Rose and his Pristine Classical enterprise seem poised to break the bank for my 2016 Want List, and not just for Bruno Walter items. As doubtless virtually everyone reading these lines knows, Serge Koussevitzky famously commissioned Bartók’s masterpiece, and gave its world premiere with the Boston Symphony on December 1, 1944; this broadcast from 30 days later was the fourth in a series of six performances that the conductor accorded the new score. Almost equally well known is the fact that in light of these performances the composer revised the finale, greatly strengthening it with a more extended and far more satisfactory close. The performance thus presents the original, shorter version, which does enjoy a few modern recordings as well, and it is certainly of interest to hear the composer’s initial thoughts. Far more importantly, this almost miraculous remastering is light-years ahead of all the previous incarnations that have circulated on various labels. The orchestra finally sounds like a real orchestra, not something squeezed out of a sonic toothpaste tube, revealing a range of dynamics and instrumental timbres one could only dream of before, with the double basses (Koussevitzky’s own instrument, of course) having an especially remarkable depth, heft, and bite. It should hardly require mentioning as well that the performance is absolutely riveting in its intensity, ranking among the very greatest of all the many recordings accorded to this extraordinary masterwork.
Walter Piston ranks alongside Samuel Barber as being easily one of my two favorite American composers, and I consider it nothing short of a major scandal that his symphonies and concertos are not repertory staples in his own land. Equally shocking is the failure of half of these meticulously crafted and unfailingly inventive and engaging works to obtain more than a single recording. Symphony No. 2 has had four: studio recordings by Dean Dixon (issued only on a monaural LP), Michael Tilson Thomas, and Gerard Schwarz, plus a live historic performance with Sergiu Celibidache. Symphony No. 4 has had two (by Eugene Ormandy and Schwarz), as has Symphony No. 6 (by Leonard Slatkin and Schwarz once again; the latter’s originally projected complete Piston cycle for Delos was unfortunately cancelled after these three entries). With the addition of this historic broadcast, Symphony No. 3 now has three recordings to its credit, though the premiere one by Howard Hanson has never been issued on CD (a download of it can be had from Naxos). Fortunately the modern digital recording on Albany by James Yannatos and the Harvard-Radcliffe Symphony, coupled with two attractive works composed by Yannatos himself, is superior in every way to the roughly played and harsh-sounding Hanson version.
This live performance was the eighth in a series of 10 that Koussevitzky vouchsafed Piston’s score over a 12-month period, beginning with the world premiere on January 9, 1948. (O, for the days when new compositions were given multiple performances to introduce them properly to the public! But then, O for the days when more composers crafted substantive new works worthy of such attention, instead of sterile academic sonic abstractions or gimmicky gimcrack pastiches!) If this performance has circulated in a commercially available form before, I am not aware of it; in any case, it is an indispensable must-have acquisition for anyone who values American music and music-making. The work itself, cast in a standard four-movement framework with a scherzo in second position (though the first movement is unusually an Andantino), has all of Piston’s trademark fingerprints: a solidly Neoclassical aesthetic framework, well-crafted themes developed and explored with impeccable compositional technique, and colorful orchestration, with great rhythmic vitality in fast movements and refined lyricism in slow ones. The recorded sound, while not up to the best studio recordings of its era, is a step forward on the Bartók and quite listenable. Unless you are allergic to any 20th-century music more harmonically advanced than Puccini, Rachmaninoff, and Richard Strauss, you simply must get this disc; urgently, even insistently, recommended.
James A. Altena
This article originally appeared in Issue 39:6 (July/Aug 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.
An oral history about the dress rehearsal for the premiere of the Concerto for Orchestra has been passed down through generations of Boston Symphony musicians. I heard it from trombonist Douglas Yeo in 1990: “Bartók sat in the balcony ... furiously writing on a pad all the things he wanted to tell Koussevitzky at the break. The two men sat in the conductor’s room, and after the break SK mounted the podium and, looking up at Bartók in the balcony, announced to the orchestra that ‘Gentlemen, Mr. Bartók is very pleased!’”
That premiere took place on December 1, 1944; this is a broadcast recording of the fourth performance, 29 days later. It first appeared on a terrible-sounding LP and then—sounding much better—in the BSO’s 12-CD historical collection “Symphony Hall Centennial Celebration.” That led, in short order, to several pirate CD issues. Producer Andrew Rose does not identify the source for his remastering (i.e., whether it was original acetates or the BSO set), but—as usual—he has done a wonderful job. Cellos and double basses glow, violins shiver, right from the opening measures; the flute soars. The oboe solo from 154 is gorgeous. Trumpets are messy, but that’s the performance more than the recorded sound. There is still much distortion and a good deal of audience noise. Rose has chosen to preserve the music-making rather than quieting things down, and I’m with him all the way. The whole has an exciting feeling of being there, incredible as that may be, given the rusty provenance of the recording. If you prefer clean and neat, stick with the BSO set, but if you want Bartók’s spirit and color, this is the one for you.
The performance lacks many of the subtleties we have come to appreciate, right from Reiner/Chicago and Fricsay, but it exudes the Koussevitzky persona (to the old saw “a great conductor of Russian music, whether it’s Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, or Copland,” one might add Bartók) and the BSO’s glory days. All is not perfect: Clarinets can be a bit awkward in some tricky passages in the Allegro scherzando; one sour trumpet ruins the brass chords from 123. We miss the sense of tautness that characterizes much of this score, but are well compensated by the exhilarating life of this performance. The Shostakovich parody in the “Intermezzo Interrotto” is wonderfully wild and crazy. The orchestra’s obvious struggle to keep up to the pace in the finale only adds to the excitement. The original ending sounds shockingly abrupt to us today. After Koussevitzky’s series of six performances (and thus before the 1946 Reiner/Pittsburgh recording), the composer altered the final five measures and added 29 more. Both endings appear in the Boosey & Hawkes “Pocket Score” (which misidentifies the site of the premiere; it was Symphony Hall, Boston, not Carnegie Hall). There have been recordings which give us both endings, including one by Leonard Slatkin and the St. Louis Symphony on RCA.
I can’t say enough for what Andrew Rose has done here. In the BSO set, I found the Bartók an interesting, important historical issue; here I am once again blown away by this masterpiece—and reminded that Koussevitzky was one of the greats.
The calm, classical opening of Walter Piston’s Third Symphony (Pulitzer Prize, 1948) is almost a relief after Bartók’s frenzied conclusion. Piston (1894–1976) taught composition at Harvard for 34 years; among his many students were Elliott Carter and Leonard Bernstein. Piston became almost a house composer for the BSO, which premiered 11 of his works; it also recorded two of his symphonies: the Second under Michael Tilson Thomas and the Sixth with Charles Munch. The Third’s premiere was April 9, 1948; this was its seventh performance, so Koussevitzky must have thought highly of the score. It opens with a graceful Andantino that rises slowly from silence; Ives’s Third Symphony is recalled; there are even suggestions of Roy Harris. The remaining three movements are Allegro, Adagio, and Allegro. Despite the classical elements, Piston throws in an occasional 12-tone phrase, while concentrating on pure tonality. It comes off as a gimmick, clouding the honesty that Piston’s music radiates. Koussevitzky’s BSO gives its all, but the Third Symphony remains an odd duck. I’ve not heard this recording before; it’s hard to imagine a 1948 monaural radio broadcast sounding better. An important document, then, but not the breathtaking experience that is the Bartók.
James H. North
This article originally appeared in Issue 40:1 (Sept/Oct 2016) of Fanfare Magazine.