COPLAND: Appalachian Spring, A Lincoln Portrait, El 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  


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)