COPLAND: Appalachian Spring, A Lincoln
salón México. RANDALL THOMPSON: Testament
of Freedom. SOUSA: Semper Fidelis, Stars and Stripes Forever.
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Serge Koussevitzky, cond.
Biddulph WHL 050 (F) (ADD) TT: 79:36
(THIS CD HAS BEEN DELETED)
The irony compounds: treasures from the RCA Victor vaults remastered by
Marc Obert-Thorn and issued on British CDs at import prices. BMG,
RCA's German-owned parent company, made a few Koussevitzky contributions
to the CD catalog while Jack Pfeiffer was still living (Prokofiev, Ravel,
Richard Strauss), transferred from disc to digital tape by Ward Marston
but mastered by others. For repertory not in today's Top-50 mainstream,
remastered painstakingly from shellac 78s, we are indebted to Pearl as
well as Biddulph. and here's another collectable specimen of two
composers Serge Koussevitzky espoused during his 25-year reign (1924-49)
as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Stand for stand, it
was North America's best before a cadre of players that Koussevitzky
brought with him from Paris became aged and retired. Ormandy's
Philadelphia (which he individualized after Stokowski's departure in 1940)
was a peer group, but hadn't Boston's singular combination of French
brilliance on top of low strings as deep and sonorous as the great Russian
bassos of tsarist yore. The New York Philharmonic, Chicago, and NBC
Orchestras were medalists, but runners-up.
Koussevitsky wasn't a master of the baton, but as long as Boston paid top
dollar (and players refused all invitations to unionize) he could rehearse
until everyone including himself got it right. And he was nonpareil among
champions of contemporary American composers, Aaron Copland surely
foremost. This first recording of the Appalachian Spring Suite
from 1945 is different from all others since -- a version the composer
revised and later conducted everywhere. It includes material from the
original ballet that he subsequently excised (to advantage), and has a
few patches of shaky ensemble, rare for Koussevitzky session-recordings.
But the sheer opulence of sound, mono or no mono, wasn't replicated when
Copland himself remade it with the same (but no longer the same) orchestra,
in stereo. And Koussevitzky's heart on sleeve was uncommonly apt. He
premiered El sálon México, and made it incomparably his
own in this 1938 recording. Not Bernstein later, nor the composer, nor a
clutch of others (with Zinman and the Baltimore in last place, behind
even the '98 Orioles and Ravens) has come close to the Russian maestro.
Similarly, he was a master interpreter of Lincoln Portrait, with the
bonus of Melvyn Douglas' eloquent reading from 1946, neither actorish nor
homespun nor fake-folksy but forthrightly spoken. Only Adlai Stevenson
and Claude Rains matched him in my own experience of the music -- not very
good music, truth to tell, but the beneficiary here of Koussevitsky's
sheer belief in the piece and its maker.
He imparted the same kind and
degree of conviction to Thompson's 1942 setting of words by Thomas Jefferson,
stylistically conventional but masterfully composed, and today back in
vogue. The Harvard Glee Club hasn't sounded better on discs since, and
the recording is a marvelous replication of the sound heard in Symphony
Hall, Boston, our national equivalent of Vienna's Grosser Musikvereinsaal.
Sousa's lollipopular marches, in the fond Beecham sense, get a rousing
symphonic send-up, with a sonority I daresay would have dumbfounded John
Philip had he heard it. If Biddulph's recorded sound has a touch of
glaze here and there, 'twas ever thus from Boston, and surely preferable
to the sonic mush Philips gives us on stereo CDs, or the hard, edgy
glitter of most Munch recordings by RCA in the era after Koussevitsky.
Recommended, unless you're a diehard digitarian whose surround-system
may counterfeit mall-theater acoustics from VCR tapes or DVD discs, but
won't make superior concert-hall recordings -- from a time when they knew
how to record in good concert halls -- sound like concert hall acoustics.
R.D. (Oct. 2000)