To begin this week’s selection, I’ve chosen a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s brilliant first symphony. Written as a graduation piece at the Petrograd Conservatory when Shostakovich was only 19, the work brims with astonishing invention and quicksilver changes of mood, as well as displaying incredible mastery of form and orchestration. This performance by Erich Leinsdorf in 1964 forms part of a long BSO tradition of championing Shostakovich’s music, dating back to 1935. View more
To begin this week’s selection, I’ve chosen a performance of Dmitri Shostakovich’s brilliant first symphony. Written as a graduation piece at the Petrograd Conservatory when Shostakovich was only 19, the work brims with astonishing invention and quicksilver changes of mood, as well as displaying incredible mastery of form and orchestration. This performance by Erich Leinsdorf in 1964 forms part of a long BSO tradition of championing Shostakovich’s music, dating back to 1935. Koussevitzky was an especially important exponent here in the United States. And, of course, our current music director, Andris Nelsons, is soon to complete a recorded cycle for Deutsche Grammophon of all 15 symphonies.
Paul Hindemith was already established as one of the most important European composers of the early 20th century when he escaped Nazi Germany, eventually settling in the US in 1940. By this stage, Koussevitzky had premiered Hindemith’s Concert Music for Strings and Brass (commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the BSO) and was quick to invite him to become head of composition for the inaugural season of the Tanglewood Music Center – the BSO’s summer training program for young musicians. Hindemith composed his Symphony Mathis der Maler in 1934 as a type of study for his opera of the same name, based on the life of the painter Matthias Grünewald. It’s one of his most popular orchestral works. Here it receives a performance of incredible refinement by one of the most patrician conductors of last century, Carlo Maria Giulini.
The Czech composer Bohuslav Martinů (1890-1959) was living in exile in Paris in 1927 when Koussevitzky conducted the world premiere of his orchestral allegro, called La Bagarre, in Symphony Hall. This was the first of six premieres and commissions by the orchestra, and eventually prompted Martinů’s decision to move to America in 1941. The Double Concerto for Two String Orchestras, Piano, and Timpani (1939) is one of Martinů’s strongest scores – muscular in profile, with virtuosic writing for all the forces. The great Czech conductor, Rafael Kubelik, brings unique authority to this performance in January 1967.
Invariably, the name Aaron Copland is almost always linked with that of the BSO’s summer home, Tanglewood. Copland’s early career owes much of its success to the support of Koussevitzky, who invited him to head the Tanglewood Music Center in 1940, along with Hindemith. Copland remained active as a teacher and conductor at Tanglewood into the 1980s, and today there’s a striking bust of him situated in a wooded bower near the old Theater-Concert Hall – one of three sculptures by the eminent American artist Penelope Jencks, commissioned for Tanglewood by John Williams. Copland’s clarinet concerto (1948-49) was written for Benny Goodman and is in two continuous parts: the first, spacious and nocturnal in feeling; the second, highly rhythmic and jazz-inflected. Harold (Buddy) Wright was the BSO’s legendary principal clarinetist from 1970 to 1993 and was a musician of profound insights and technical command. Copland himself conducts this performance of his clarinet concerto with Mr. Wright as soloist at Tanglewood on July 5, 1980.
Serge Koussevitzky seemed to have an uncanny ability to know precisely the right moment to commission a composer to create a new score, and exactly what the scope and nature of that work could be, resulting in some of the most important musical works of the 20th century.
In the case of Olivier Messiaen’s monumental Turangalîla-Symphonie, archival correspondence suggests that Koussevitzky gave the composer almost ‘carte blanche’ as to the length, orchestration, and design for a new composition, with apparently no deadline for when the manuscript was to be delivered. These liberties gave Messiaen the freedom to create one of the most original works of all time. It’s a ten-movement orchestral celebration of love, God, and nature, which is close to 80’ in duration. Here is a note which explains the Sanskrit title and gives a guide to each of the movements.
There are two solo instruments featured in the score of Turangalîla: a virtuosic and intricate part for piano; and a prominent role for an early 20th century electronic instrument, the ondes Martenot, which produces an eerie and otherworldly sound. In the first performances in Symphony Hall in 1949 (conducted by Leonard Bernstein), these solos were performed by Messiaen’s wife and sister-in-law, respectively: Yvonne Loriod and Jeanne Loriod. Here they are 26 years later, performing Turangalîla at Tanglewood with conductor Seiji Ozawa, himself a noted champion of Messiaen’s music.
There’s perhaps no other commission by Koussevitzky that’s been more often played – and which has become such a cornerstone of orchestral repertoire – than Béla Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra. Koussevitzky proffered the opportunity of a new piece for the BSO to Bartók when the composer was living in poverty in New York and already in poor health. It resulted in this five-movement masterpiece of orchestral writing and a synthesis of all aspects of the composer’s style. Pierre Monteux (BSO music director from 1919 to 1924) conducted an enormous variety of works and styles but was famous as an interpreter of music from the early 20th century. Curiously, he conducted the Concerto for Orchestra with the BSO only once: this concert at Tanglewood in July 1956, which was followed by a performance on tour in Usher Hall, Edinburgh, Scotland, the following month. This rare recording of the NBC broadcast was found in a collection in the Library of Congress.
Finally, this week’s offerings conclude with a gripping performance by Sir Colin Davis of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ compact yet urgent fourth symphony – a portrait of the composer’s concerns for developing political tensions in Europe and of his own personal anxieties.
Enjoy this selection of musical landmarks of the 20th century, all played by the great Boston Symphony Orchestra!