Commentary : Koussevitzky: Missing in Action

<i> Koshkin-Youritzin is an associate professor of art history at the University of Oklahoma</i>

“The most important of all Russian conductors, and still the greatest” is how the distinguished critic Harold Schonberg characterized the late Serge Koussevitzky. But today his name recognition registers near zero. Worse, in this era of high-tech compact disc reissues of magnificent old performances, there is not a single CD of Koussevitzky conducting. And on LP or cassette, all we have had in recent years are his memorable readings of the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 and the Khachaturian Piano Concerto (with Kapell), along with three virtually unobtainable pieces by Harris, Casella and Cowell.

Early in his career, Koussevitzky was a fabulously successful conductor in Russia and Europe and a pre-eminent double-bass virtuoso. His 1905 marriage to Natalie Ushkov, daughter of a tea merchant, brought him lifetime access to an immense fortune. Fleeing Russia and the Bolsheviks in 1920, he spent four triumphant years in Paris as well as other European centers, and then succeeded Pierre Monteux as conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

During the quarter of a century that Koussevitzky was its charismatic, aristocratic and egocentric maestro (from 1924 to 1949; he died in 1951) he had only two rivals in America: Toscanini and Stokowski. As relentless a perfectionist as the former, as skilled a magician with orchestral color as the latter, and having probably a wider repertory than either of them, Koussevitzky took the Boston Symphony to such heights that by 1930 New York Times music critic Olin Downes called it “an orchestra which is without a superior if it has an equal in this country.”

Almost four decades later, Schonberg wrote in “The Great Conductors” (1968), “Many thought that under his baton the Boston Symphony Orchestra was the greatest in the world, superior even to so virtuoso a group as the Philadelphia Orchestra under Stokowski.”


Why, then, is he so conspicuously missing in action? Jack Pfeiffer, executive producer of RCA’s Red Seal Artists and Repertoire, said that although the company “owns scads” of additional recordings of Koussevitzky’s performances, “the merchandising people feel it’s not the proper time and there isn’t a proper demand” to reissue them.

“But we will get around to it eventually,” Pfeiffer said, “because artistically he is great.”

Will it take nothing short of a mythical Rambo (now there’s a recognizable name) to descend into RCA’s vaults and rescue Koussevitzky? If so, what recordings could be brought back to us?

There should, for starters, be Koussevitzky’s astonishingly “wet” Debussy “La Mer” and Ravel’s 2nd “Daphnis et Chloe” Suite, both of them among history’s most legendary discs. Out should also come the amazing, peerless version of Berlioz’s “Harold in Italy” (with violist William Primrose), staggering in its emotional fervor and evocation of the fantastic.


Widely considered in his time the finest exponent of the modern French school, Koussevitzky was also renowned for his treatment of the Russians. His Rachmaninoff “Isle of the Dead” is compelling in its brooding urgency and stands second only to the composer’s own superhuman recording with the Philadelphia. Why is this not rereleased too? Moreover, there are Koussevitzky’s stunning Prokofiev “Classical” Symphony, Moussorgsky “Pictures at an Exhibition” and impassioned “Romeo and Juliet,” and 4th Symphony by Tchaikovsky, a composer with whom the conductor was virtually identified.

Together, all these recordings--and many others that should be reissued--are eloquent reminders of the passionate warmth, tenderness, imagination, sweeping grandeur and nobility that characterized Koussevitzky’s conducting. These performances, despite their age, contain an elegance of pure sound that has not been surpassed--and maybe not even rivalled--to the present day. More important, on these records we sense a constant striving for the spiritual greatness that music can represent. Like some other titans of his age, such as Klemperer, Furtwangler and Knappertsbusch, Koussevitzky conducted with a profound moral fervor.

As if Koussevitzky’s towering achievements as a conductor were not enough, he made equally lofty contributions to the development of music in the United States during the first half of this century. Aside from being the principal founder of one of America’s premier summer music festivals, Tanglewood, he almost singlehandedly created what is now the Tanglewood Music Center. Over the years the center has helped produce a virtual “Who’s Who” of the world’s current leading conductors, from Von Dohnanyi, Dutoit and Ozawa, to Mehta, Maazel and Abbado. Of course, the most famous was Leonard Bernstein, Koussevitzky’s assistant and prize protege, who once wrote to his parents that Koussevitzky “is the most marvelous man--a beautiful spirit . . . (who) inspires me terrifically.”

A messianic supporter of musical talent, Koussevitzky was long this country’s most ardent and effective proponent of such internationally important composers as Shostakovich, Scriabin, Prokofiev and Sibelius. Koussevitzky also led the battle for almost every significant young American composer, from Hanson, Harris and Piston to Barber and Copland.


After establishing the Koussevitzky Music Foundation in 1942, he was responsible for the commissioning of countless, often notable works, among them Ravel’s Piano Concerto in G and the orchestration of Moussorgsky’s “Pictures,” Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra, Roussel’s Symphony in G, Britten’s “Peter Grimes” and Stravinsky’s “Symphony of Psalms.”

About 30 years ago it was, disgracefully, almost impossible to find a recording by Wilhelm Furtwangler anywhere in America. Only recently has that conductor’s glorious discography been amply restored. Let us hope that the recording industry will similarly rerelease another of musical history’s most extraordinary figures.