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SERGEI KOUSSEVITZKY by Victor Yuzefovich

Volume 2: The Paris Years

Chapter 10 - Europe-wide fame

More tours to Great Britain. English music in Koussevitzky's programmes. Interpretation of the classics. Rivalry with Weingartner. Approach to the Romantics. At the head of British orchestras. The BBC Festivals.

"The first London concert was genuinely a colossal success. At the end of the last movement the audience went mad, and for a second I thought: am I, perhaps, truly a great, great artist?"
~ Sergei Koussevitzky[1]

In comparison with the episodic nature of his appearances in the various musical centres of continental Europe, Koussevitzky's visits to Great Britain took on a more regular pattern. His first tours to London after emigrating from Russia, with their succession of all-Russian programmes, later repeated in Paris, have been detailed above.

The tours were arranged by the most influential concert agency in London, run by Harold Holt. Gregor Piatigorsky remembers him as a man with a great appetite for life, although '… with as much understanding of music as I have of diamond mines – the source of his parents' wealth.'[2]

Until 1925 Koussevitzky appeared in Britain every season, sometimes twice, conducting around thirty programmes in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow and Edinburgh. Subsequently, in 1933 and 1935, he returned to Albion to take part in music festivals in London. He loved the city, with its shop windows no less splendid than they had been before the war. Edinburgh, beautiful in itself, made a particular impression by contrast with dirty, smoky Glasgow. 'What a wonderful town Edinburgh is,' he wrote to Natalie in 1923, 'how marvellously laid out with its stunning architecture; it reminds me strongly of Petersburg.'[3] Another facet of life in Britain in which he rejoiced was the sturdy spiritual life of the English. 'English people never suffer degeneration,' he declared, 'because they never lose contact with nature.'[4]

Koussevitzky's British concerts attracted wide press coverage, and musicians came to hear them in great numbers. So did fellow-conductors like Henry Wood and Eugene Goossens; at one rehearsal Albert Coates turned up to renew their former acquaintance in Russia.

London's concert life in the 1920s was distinguished by its intensity and variety. Felix Weingartner, Wilhelm Furtwängler and Albert Coates were all regularly to be heard leading or guest-conducting its orchestras. After Koussevitzky's first season of concerts, English critics, nevertheless, noted that the Russian conductor '…is becoming a great favorite with audiences there.'[5]

Koussevitzky himself wrote to his wife in February 1923 after one concert in the Queen's Hall: ' … I heard applause such as I have never in my life heard before – they screamed, they stamped, they roared for an encore. The concert was completely sold out earlier in the day, and the hall seats 2,500.'[6] He added, jokingly, that his only rival on the touring circuit of the country was Lloyd George, but even his box office takings were no match.

More seriously, Koussevitzky was far from always being satisfied with his achievements. ' …The concert was, from my point of view, not at all good,' he wrote to Natalie after one of his appearances with the London Symphony Orchestra in May 1922. 'I was far from being on form. I sensed I was not producing what I was capable of; in short my vital juices could not be felt in the hall.'[7] A year later, on November 17th, he wrote to her: 'Today is the first of my Glasgow concerts. The rehearsal was terrible,' and then somewhat unexpectedly added: 'My misfortune is above all that I do not hear well. This saps my confidence in myself.'[8] No such complaint is to be found in any subsequent letter from the conductor.


Some of Koussevitzky's London programmes do appear overstuffed, as were some in Paris, although in London this may be ascribed more to local concert-going tradition than was the case in Paris.[9] Sometimes, when Koussevitzky's customary sense of stylistic proportion was not in evidence, the performance could suffer from a badly put together programme. When, as in London on February 5th 1923, Tchaikovsky's Francesca de Rimini overture was followed by Brahms's Third Symphony, the conductor confessed in a letter to his wife that 'I expended too much of my strength on Francesca, and to my dismay found that I had run out of 'champagne', so when I came out to conduct the Brahms I was like a damp hen.'[10]

Soloists appearing under Koussevitzky's baton in London included the pianists Alexander Borovsky, José Iturbi, Alfred Cortot and Mitya Nikisch; violinists Milan Bratza, Paweł Kochański, Erika Morini and Emil Telmanyi; singers Stepan Belina-Skupevsky and Dmitri Smirnov. Which of them were Koussevitzky's choice and which engaged by the concert organisers is hard to say, but it is reasonable to assume that Borovsky, Cortot, Kochański and both singers were there because he wanted them to be.


Koussevitzky's London concerts, unlike his Paris ones, were not studded with a cascade of world premieres. Nevertheless, plenty of contemporary composers were represented: Richard Strauss, Maurice Ravel, Ottorino Respighi, Manuel de Falla, Igor Stravinsky. We have already noted the fiasco that occurred with the premiere of Stravinsky's Symphonies of Wind Instruments on June 10th 1921, which Koussevitzky had intended to be the crowning glory of his season.

On his first visit to London in 1909, Koussevitzky looked through compositions by English composers, but few of them aroused his interest. The only one he conducted in Russia, prompted by Fritz Kreisler, was Elgar's Violin Concerto, which was heard in 1913. But when he returned to England at the beginning of the 1920s, he was delighted to find '… in England a musical movement truly admirable in extent and power. I saw numbers of composers, all of them genuine, eager, and active. I found scores exquisite in workmanship, brimful with ideas, scores which deserved to rank beside the very best that other countries have to show.'[11] He was especially impressed by the gifts of Arnold Bax, whose symphonic poem The Garden of Fand he performed several times in Britain. He also performed the Overture to Joseph Holbrooke's then unperformed opera Bronwen, and Elgar's Introduction and Allegro for String Quartet and String Orchestra. 'Elgar's mind is so completely English that even his instrumental phrases seem to have in them the rhythms of English verse and prose and the gestures of English social life, and it would be a miracle if any foreign conductor could reproduce these precisely.'[12] Nevertheless, Koussevitzky's introduction of an unfamiliar dash of Slavic sensibility lent the work, in the critic's opinion, an emotionally stirring spirit. In his June 9th 1925 concert in London, Koussevitzky yielded the baton to Elgar to conduct his Enigma Variations.

Koussevitzky maintained until the end of his life a close relationship with British music and musicians. Several British knights of the concert platform were invited to appear with the Boston Symphony, among them Thomas Beecham (1928), Arthur Bliss (1929), Henry Wood (1934) and Adrian Boult (1935 and 1946, and two further appearances at Tanglewood). All of them included at least one work by an English composer in their programmes.

Not content with this, Koussevitzky enlarged his own repertoire of English music. Boston saw, on December 19th and 20th 1924, the world premiere of Bliss's Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, and on December 13th and 14th 1929 the Second Symphony of Arnold Bax, which the composer had dedicated to him. Other first performances included: William Walton's Portsmouth Point Overture (November 19th and 20th 1926) and the oratorio Belshazzar's Feast (March 31st and April 1st 1933); Constant Lambert's The Rio Grande (April 24th and 25th 1931); Benjamin Britten's Passacaglia and Four Sea Interludes from the opera Peter Grimes (March 1st and 2nd 1946) and Spring Symphony (August 13 1949 at Tanglewood); and the Sixth Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams (August 7th 1948 at Tanglewood). With his Boston players Koussevitzky also programmed works by Frank Bridge, Eugene Goossens, Gustav Holst and Edward Elgar. Richard Burgin led the orchestra in the U.S. premiere of Vaughan Williams's Third Symphony (A Pastoral Symphony) (January 12th 1933 in Cambridge, 13th and 14th in Boston).

Koussevitzky crowned his many years of involvement in English music with Britten's opera Peter Grimes, commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation and first performed at Tanglewood in a performance conducted by Leonard Bernstein on August 6th 1946. Koussevitzky's last three London appearances were on June 1st, 8th and 11th 1950 at the Royal Albert Hall. The repertoire for these concerts included Beethoven's First and Ninth Symphonies, Brahms's Fourth, Tchaikovsky's Fifth, Sibelius's Second and Prokofiev's Classical Symphonies, as well as Debussy's La Mer and the Introduction to Musorgsky's opera Khovanshchina.


However widely applauded may have been Koussevitzky's mission to promote Russian music and the music of contemporary composers, the press judged him mainly on his interpretations of the Western classical repertoire. Pre-Beethoven composers whose music he programmed included J.S. and C.P.E. Bach, Vivaldi, Handel, Haydn, Boccherini, Locatelli, J.E. Galliard, and Mozart. More than one critic underlined his ability to inspire this music with fire and passion, but others condemned what they regarded as an excess of emotional intensity.

Similar criticism of a performance in London of Handel's Concerto Grosso in D minor on February 24th 1925 surprised him. After all, Thomas Beecham's cavalier attitude towards The Messiah had proved no barrier to his transforming Handel's masterpiece into one of the cornerstones of the English tradition. One of Koussevitzky's friends sent him the score of Messiah with Beecham's markings, identifying those numbers he would omit altogether, particularly in the second part of the oratorio, and others with cuts, as well as indications of the exceptionally fast tempi Beecham favored and the transposition of the 'Alleluia' chorus to the end of the work. Koussevitzky fully shared Beecham's view of Messiah as music awash with feelings and experiences shared by people of today, and endorsed his desire to strip the work of the accoutrements it had acquired during the 19th century of a kind of church ritual, and to return it to its proper existence in the concert hall.

Reviewers in England were kinder to Koussevitzky's approach to Haydn's Symphony No. 13 in G major than in their time Russian critics had been, accusing him of creating a vainglorious sonority.[13] Ernest Newman, reviewing the London performance on March 24th 1924, considered that the conductor '… treated the work not as a classic to be condescended to, but as if it had been written this year, and still warm with its creator's blood.'[14] Another critic felt that Haydn's Oxford Symphony No. 92 '…was played with delightful crispness and attention to light and shade in all the four movements. The beautiful slow movement was finely phrased, and the joyful humour of the Finale clearly brought out in spite of the very rapid pace.'[15]

Curiously, while in his performance of Prokofiev's Classical Symphony Koussevitzky adopted his own tempi, which were markedly different from those recommended by the composer, his speeds in Haydn symphonies provoke little controversy. In his 1929 recordings in Boston of Symphonies Nos. 94[16] and 102[17] there are no exaggerated sentiments, no hint of the tendency sometimes attributed to him '… to see the music of Viennese classics and the earlier periods through the filter of Slavonic temperament.'[18]

Such judgments were not new. A concert review from 1923 points out that in Koussevitzky's account of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik the conductor '… revealed more the intensity of the Russian than the elegance of the Viennese.' More perceptive critics, however, realised that although in Mozart, especially in his treatment of the Symphony No. 40 in G minor, Koussevitzky indulged in wayward tempi, phrasing and dynamics, '… it is his departure from cut and dried tradition, his romanticizing of the classics, that make Koussevitzky's interpretations of the old masters interesting and lend them much of youth and freshness.'[19]


Koussevitzky completed several cycles of the complete Beethoven symphonies while he was in Russia, but in Boston only one, in March 1927. There was no question of being able to perform the cycle in Paris, where he usually appeared not less than eight times a season, nor in any of his guest-conductor engagements in London. Nevertheless, Beethoven regularly featured in his European programmes. In Paris he conducted the Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies, the Overture to Egmont, Piano Concertos Nos. 1 and 4, and the Violin Concerto.[20] The same symphonies and concertos (except the Fourth Piano Concerto) and the Leonore Overture No. 2 were heard in his British concerts.[21]

As before in Russia, discussion raged about Koussevitzky's interpretations of Beethoven. Those principles which had consistently guided him at the beginning of his career, of rejecting blind adherence to performing tradition and nurturing originality of interpretation, he applied in equal measure to Beethoven's symphonies. 'I think tradition has often been very destructive to masterpieces of earlier periods than ours,' he asserted in one interview.[22]

At the same time, there was much in Koussevitzky's interpretation of Beethoven that had changed. Over the years he had dispensed with the habit of choosing excessively fast tempi for the quick movements and exaggeratedly slow ones for the slow movements, a tendency for which in his youth had been criticized. Now his tempi were more free and more flexible, and this was true of his realisation of the symphonies as a whole.

When Koussevitzky performed the Fifth Symphony in his first Paris season, Boris Schloezer wrote countering other critics' castigation of distortions to the score and a wilful approach to nuances: 'There are many things I do not agree with in his approach to the Fifth Symphony, but it is an approach that has a right to be heard because it is wonderful in its logic and coherence.'[23] Darius Milhaud was another who spoke out in defence of the conductor. In his opinion, while many second-rate conductors 'dry out' the symphony, reducing it to a document retrieved from dusty archives, Koussevitzky restored the authentic feeling that Beethoven had poured into its composition and that had so affected listeners at the time. 'I had the score in front of my eyes my eyes – all Koussevitzky did was follow scrupulously the composer's markings, but he did so with all his heart and thus restored to the symphony all its vitality.'[24]

The truth of Milhaud's observation could be tested by anyone who attended Koussevitzky's rehearsals. He was unyielding in his attempts to secure from his Paris players scrupulous attention to the smallest details of the score.

Critical response to Koussevitzky's Beethoven Fifth in London on February 2nd 1921 hailed it as 'probably the most remarkable performance ever heard in the Queen's Hall'[25]. The symphony had to be repeated, as a result of insistent public demand, at Koussevitzky's next concert, in the Royal Albert Hall on February 13th.

Of the other Beethoven works Koussevitzky included in his European programmes, most attention focussed on the Egmont Overture, the Eroica Symphony (Symphony No. 3) and the Ninth Symphony. 'Koussevitzky instilled into this music such mighty passion,' wrote Schloezer of an Egmont performance, 'such power and such bewitching freedom in tender lyrical moments … that the Overture sparkled in fresh and splendid new colors.'[26]

The same Schloezer upbraided Koussevitzky for disproportionate nuancing in the Eroica Symphony and for introducing an element of sentimentality into a score whose value consists in 'pure music and superbly shaped sonic material', resulting in 'the Wagnerization of Beethoven.'[27] Criticism in England in the 1920s drew attention to the parallels between Koussevitzky's remarkable clarity and electric vitality and the interpretations of Thomas Beecham, while at the same time reproaching the former for idiosyncratic tempi.

Many years before, the poet Samuel Coleridge had characterized the March in the Third Symphony as "like a funeral procession in deep purple'. Recalling this, one reviewer added venomously that had the celebrated poet heard the slow and unsteady tempi of Koussevitzky's performance '…I do not think that he would talk of purple, or of funerals, and I feel sure that … the word "'march" would never have come to his mind.'[28] Reviewing Koussevitzky's account of the Eroica in London in 1935, the press was unanimous in signalling the strides the conductor had made in his interpretation. 'The Eroica was presented as a magnificently organic whole, robust and dignified and of noble proportions. The growth and plan of the work rarely are in the concert room.'[29] The authoritative critic of the time Ernest Newman saluted the conductor's determination not to present the symphony as a mummy of an embalmed classic but to achieve a representation in which a contemporary audience would be as gripped by the music as it would have been in Beethoven's time. In Newman's words, Koussevitzky's Beethoven was '… how Beethoven himself must have felt when he wrote the work'[30] Of all the Beethoven symphonies the Ninth calls for the most resources in performance and thus was not often heard in Koussevitzky's programmes for his concerts either in Europe or even in America, where the need to employ a chorus invariably caused friction with the Boston orchestra's board of management. Koussevitzky conducted the work twice in London and twice in Paris. The programme booklet for the second Paris concert has a note in his hand: 250 musicians (chorus and orchestra).

The difference between Koussevitzky's and Weingartner's conceptions of Beethoven's symphonies had been noted as long ago as the former's Russian years. It was put into stark relief in London in the spring of 1924, when performances of the Ninth Symphony by the two conductors were separated by no more than a few days. Provided with such ample food for comparison, press and public split into two camps. Where the conductors were seen chiefly to diverge was in their approach to the score: Weingartner above all objective, presenting Beethoven absolutely straight, devoid of all personal 'commentary' whatsoever; Koussevitzky vividly subjective, giving the audience Beethoven's music emanating from the consciousness of a contemporary man.

Consequences flowing naturally from Weingartner's conception were utterly regular tempi which did not deviate from the first note of each movement, scrupulous consideration of even the tiniest detail of the score, and a concern to bring out every solo voice. By contrast, the effects of the Koussevitzky approach were greater flexibility of tempo and more prominent dynamic contrasts. As in the past, some critics reproached him for an excessively quick Scherzo. 'The papers have torn me to shreds,' Koussevitzky reported indignantly to Natalie. 'They write that it was Koussevitzky, not Beethoven, and that overall it was a concert by a celebrity, not a musician. What swines they are!'[31] Other critics, however, recognised that it was precisely the whirlwind tempi of the Scherzo and the Finale which gave the symphony the elemental character, the ecstatic intensity, the divine frenzy with which Beethoven had imbued his music.

Putting together these disparate critical assessments, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that Koussevitzky perceived the tempo of each musical work as a function less of speed than of character. Support for the substantive nature of this view of tempo comes from the most interesting researches by the contemporary musicologist Mikhail Mishchenko into the phenomenon of movement in music, and his conclusions that in the history of the development of music 'the concept of movement has been lost in the concept of speed', that there has taken place a disastrous substitution of the idea of movement by one of tempo. Mishchenko insists on the need to return to the notion of 'speed as a material embodiment of character,' and an understanding of tempo and character as 'two inseparable elements fused into one great whole of expression, rhythm, and form.'[32]

Nor did the effect produced on orchestral sonority by the differing conceptions of the two conductors escape the notice of critics. 'Weingartner made it sound as a hundred vivid and translucent lines, each flashing in combination with others; Koussevitzky made it one solid mass of light, blazing tremendously, so that whether it were made up of many smaller lights or all of one piece, it was impossible to tell,' wrote one. For this very reason, he considered, the symphony in Koussevitzky's interpretation '… was more brilliant and at the same time more solid than ever I have heard it.'[33]

Weingartner aficionados insisted that only his interpretation of Beethoven's music could be considered classical. But, one must ask oneself, is not Koussevitzky's approach to music that was written as a passionate, ecstatic message to humanity also classical in the true sense of the word?

'For the people who swear by some vague and perhaps mythical thing that they call (without being able to define it very rigorously) the classical tradition, Weingartner's reading was undoubtedly the ideal one. For the other people, who do not care a rap for any tradition, classical or other, who believe that a great work is just what a great player can make it, and that there are as many Hamlets as there are actors of genius to play Hamlet, Koussevitzky's performance swept Weingartner's off the board; it had twice the fire and three times the colour. … Сertainly no one who heard the Scherzo on Monday will ever forget the vitality that Koussevitzky put into it.'[34]

Clarifying his thoughts four days later, Newman declared: 'The classic, in a word, is a classic to us, but he was not a classic for himself; to himself he was a romantic, even though he may have lived in an age that did not know that word. The 'classical' Beethoven of tradition is a beautiful figure; but he is not the Beethoven that Beethoven knew.'[35] A week later the same critic, despite deploring the all too evident traces of Russian temperament in Koussevitzky's performance, acknowledged that the conductor '…sees Beethoven very much, we may be sure, as Beethoven felt when he wrote the Symphony. Koussevitzky's, that is to say, is the genuine 'classical' reading, because it sees the classic as the classic saw himself. But as the classic saw himself as romantic, this genuine classicism of performance, in contrast with the fictitious classicism of German tradition, makes of the Ninth Symphony in 1924 what it was in 1924 – a contemporary work, a romantic, but a living romantic, not the embalmed romantic of tradition.'[36]

The scores of Beethoven symphonies in Koussevitzky's possession bear traces of the meticulous pre-rehearsal preparation he undertook – what theatre directors call 'desk work'. Many of his notes refer to symphonic form. Koussevitzky's preference was for the tempo to remain unchanged throughout the duration of a movement; he did not, for example, alter the tempo for the Trio section in a Scherzo movement. He never resorted to arbitrary effects, for example taking the opening bars of the Fifth Symphony almost at half-speed, à la Furtwängler.[37]

He always insisted on repeating the Scherzo in the Sixth Symphony, indeed ensured that it was included in the recording released in 1928.[38] On the other hand, he rarely repeated first movement expositions, an exception being the Symphony No. 1, as is confirmed by the repeat's inclusion in a concert recording that was not commercially released.[39] This performance is characteristic of Koussevitzky: ideally pure 'vertical' sonorities, all voices clearly distinguishable in the tutti of the first movement Allegro, unusually carefully considered balancing, fully Mozartean in spirit, of the string quintet in the second movement, a truly Beethovenian, tempestuous dance in the Scherzo, and to conclude an enviable blend of temperament and lightness in the Finale.

Many of Koussevitzky's markings concern alterations to Beethoven's orchestration, and are designed to achieve the lightest of retouching. Some of them derive from those advocated by none other than Weingartner, with whose book on the interpretation of Beethoven's symphonies Koussevitzky became acquainted only after leaving Russia.[40]

Other innovations were Koussevitzky's own idea. For example, in the first movement of the Symphony No. 3 (the first twelve bars after letter A) the second horn part is directed to play not in unison with the first horn but an octave lower.[41] Here he was guided less by Weingartner's recommendation '… offered to the conductor for consideration'[42] than by the fact that Beethoven himself asks for it at the beginning of the development (measure 166).

Following Weingartner's advice, Koussevitzky introduces several changes to the Fifth and Seventh Symphonies.[43] In the first movement of the Fifth Symphony (eight measures after letter D) the bassoon response is given to two horns; in the Finale (at letter D) horns are added to the woodwind theme. In the first movement of the Seventh Symphony (five measures after letter A) in place of the composer's unison for the two trumpets on high D the second trumpet plays an octave lower; for one measure (the seventh after letter D) the harmonic accompaniment continues for the trumpets.

No Beethoven score is subjected to so many Koussevitzky markings as that of the Ninth Symphony.[44] In the first movement several ff tutti passages acquire doubled woodwind (twelve measures before and eleven measures after letter B, and also at letter E); in the second movement (the passage between letters C and D) the two bassoons are doubled, also the second horn with the first and the fourth with the third; in the Adagio, at the start of the l'istesso tempo section, the woodwind instruments are directed to double until the end of the movement. Many changes are introduced into the Finale, notably the four-part harmony with which the French horns bell out the 'Ode to Joy' theme at letter B.

Koussevitzky's constant concern was to bring out in the clearest possible relief the dynamics and the phrasing of the music. He blended the sonorities of the different sections of the orchestra with as much care as the most finely adjusted apothecary's scales. A typical example is the place where in the second movement of the Fifth Symphony (third measure after letter F), in order to accentuate the theme introduced by the cellos and basses, he has written ff instead of the composer's f. Changing at the same time the dynamic of the preceding tutti chord from f to mf, he ensures that the resonance of the chord will not overlay and cover the initial sounds of the new theme.

In the Ninth Symphony, as in the Seventh, there are places where he has separated two horns an octave apart, where the composer wrote a unison. At the beginning of the first movement Koussevitzky opts for muted horns, and doubles the woodwind in the first tutti (twelve measures before letter B) and in all successive tuttis (from eleven measures after letter B). In the third movement (Tempo I after Andante Moderato) the first violin part is marked 'very tender', and from the start of the L'istesso tempo section until the end of the movement all the woodwind is doubled.

The greatest number of doublings and additions is found in the last movement of the Ninth Symphony. One of them is the four-part harmony of the main horn theme at letter B. Many of the markings dealing with dynamics (crescendi from pp to p and diminuendi back from p to pp, instructions to maintain sempre p in piano passages) are accompanied by fully worked-out bowings for the strings instruments.

To look through Koussevitzky's scores is to be able to reconstruct the atmosphere of his rehearsals and recordings of Beethoven's music (all nine symphonies were recorded) and to take the measure of the demands he made on himself and on the orchestra.


In 1927 the composer Lidia Ivanova, daughter of the poet Vyacheslav Ivanov, showed Koussevitzky excerpts from her oratorio The Bearers of Fire. He told her: 'This is Romanticism. People don't write like that any more; it's not the tendency nowadays. Now you have to write as a Formalist.'[45] Was this the Romantic conductor cooling towards Romantic music? It may have been no more than a passing phase. The works of Romantic composers (mainly Western European rather than Russian) continued to appear in his programmes both in Paris and in Great Britain, attracting as before widely differing critical reactions.

His performance of Berlioz's Carnaval romain generated especial enthusiasm. Listening to the recording he made later with the Boston orchestra, one cannot fail to appreciate how marvellously the conductor has recreated the inner freedom of street life in the pulsating rhythm of the Italian saltarello.

Critics also pointed to the invariably powerful effect Koussevitzky's Funeral March from Götterdämmerung had on listeners. Only a conductor of striking originality would be capable, performing excerpts from Wagner, of preserving the grandeur of such slow tempi in the face of the almost universal tendency to hurry. At the same time, the transformation of the severe, almost coarse March from the Prelude to Die Meistersinger into a gorgeous poem did not meet with universal approval.

The most acrimonious debate raged around Koussevitzky's interpretation of Schubert's Unfinished Symphony. After performances in Edinburgh (November 19 1923) and London (April 7 1924), the conductor was accused of not trusting the music. 'He made the dramatic element, which undoubtedly is present even in this very lyrical work, more striking. This, however was not done without sacrifice, for frequently he dragged the music and interfered with the effect of its natural movement.'[46].

The same work provoked a variety of opinions six months later in Koussevitzky's first American season (December 26th and 27th 1924 in Boston, January 1st 1925 in New York). The Boston critics wrote that ' …in the first movement were perceived new depths,'[47] emphasizing that '… we were "thrilled"'and that '… never before had we heard such Schubert.'[48] In New York the critics, like their English colleagues, upbraided the conductor for excessive dramatisation of the music. They noted that Koussevitzky '… altered tempi where it did not seem necessary to do so, prolonged measures and rests in a way that doubled or tripled the calculations of the composer.'[49] Some went so far as to declare that the insertion of furious dynamic contrasts into the symphony's performance made one wonder whether the conductor had not misread the composer's name as Franz Pyotr Ilyich Schubert.[50]

Newman, happening to be in America at the time, was of the opinion that such radically opposing assessments of Koussevitzky's performance of the Unfinished Symphony were, as had been the case with his Beethoven performances, down to acceptance or rejection of the conductor's fundamental view of the musical legacy he was interpreting. 'Koussevitzky … brings the symphony up to date by taking it back to date,' he wrote. 'The whole question is: "What is a classic?" Koussevitzky gives the seemingly paradoxical, but perfectly correct answer: "A romantic. No classic was even classic to himself. He is only classic to us …"'[51] Koussevitzky's later recordings of the Unfinished delight us with the naturalness of his evocation of the music's character, its musical form, the phrasing of the melos. In the first of them, chronologically speaking, the conductor's speed for the main theme of the Allegro strikes us at first as a shade hurried (quarter-note = 116), but its undeviating rhythm carries something attractively powerful and masterful. The music assumes the character of a fateful message.[52]

After a barely detectable hesitation in the forward movement of the short motif for bassoons and French horns leading to the second subject, instead of the expected ritenuto the new theme is actually slightly faster (quarter-note = 120). This gear-change reflects the conductor's conception of a shift in the music itself from the 'dark', dramatic tonality of B minor (think of Liszt's Sonata in B minor or Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony) to the brighter key of G major.

Koussevitzky concentrates his attention on the flowing length of Schubert's song-lines. The Bostonian cellos, and after them the violins, assure a legato of wondrous plasticity which subdues the element of the song. There are few who can achieve such lyrical projection in the singing of this music.

The conductor eschews any hint of contrivance in the drama of the Unfinished. He allows the music to speak for itself. By the time we get to the development, the veiled character of the opening theme has assumed a menacing tinge. The expressive demands of the development give rise naturally to a barely noticeable quickening of the pace. With his sensitive awareness of this, the conductor guides it back perfectly to the reprise of the opening material. The brilliance and luminosity of the violins allied to the seemingly fathomless foundation of the cellos and basses appear to extend the diapason of the string quintet beyond anything we are accustomed to hear.

Conventional wisdom holds that the music of the second movement of the Unfinished subdues the emotional perturbation with which the first movement is imbued. Koussevitzky's Andante con moto, on the contrary, heightens if anything the drama. After the idyllic first melody the second subject appears as a spectral vision, as beautiful as it is unattainable. This typically Romantic conflict between dream and reality becomes ever more insistent as the summons of the wind instruments escalate the level of anxiety. If the foreshortening of the drama in the development of the first movement makes us think of the 'Fate' theme of Tchaikovsky's Fourth Symphony, here in the second movement we are reminded of the menacing tread of the murdered Commendatore as he arrives to dine with the Don in Mozart's Don Giovanni.

In Koussevitzky's second recording of the Unfinished Symphony the sharp outlines of the drama appear noticeably dimmed, beginning with the hushed sound of the cellos and basses in the opening measures.[53] Tempi are measurably slower and variations in tempo are less apparent within each movement. Even though the conductor's fortissimo in the first movement development has retained its brilliance, his chosen tempo tends to render the music at the climax more epic than dramatic. This Andante con moto is ruled by an Olympian serenity, permeated from start to finish by a truly Schubertian radiance.

Each of Koussevitzky's recordings of the Unfinished Symphony is in its own way convincing. Neither of them suggests the slightest 'mistrustfulness' of the composer.


Koussevitzky's ability to waste no time in establishing a good working relationship with orchestras has been noted above. His first appearances in London took place in 1921 with the Royal Albert Hall Orchestra. From May 1921 onwards, however, he was more often associated with the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), with whom he performed Beethoven's Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies, Schubert's Unfinished Symphony, Debussy's L'après-midi d'un faune, Scriabin's Poem of Ecstasy and Prometheus, and Stravinsky's Petrushka. Noted for their aristocratically sceptical attitude and for a certain impassivity in their playing, this orchestra's playing for Koussevitzky astonished critics with its vivid expressivity and the unfeigned enthusiasm of the musicians.

Koussevitzky bonded with the orchestra's long-serving leader, William Henry Reed, an outstanding violinist, close friend of Elgar and the first exponent of his Violin Concerto – in a semi-public performance, anticipating the work's official premiere by Kreisler. From the back desk of his section, a viola player called Bernard Shore was bending his penetrating gaze on the conductor, gathering material on his performances for his book The Orchestra Speaks. The sympathetic understanding Koussevitzky was able to develop with the orchestra is illustrated by something he wrote to his wife after one of the concerts: 'I played Rachmaninoff's Vocalise "on the violins" as if I was playing the double-bass …'[54]

The Scottish Orchestra, whom Koussevitzky conducted in Glasgow and Edinburgh, was a very different proposition. Although many famous conductors had worked with the orchestra, it was to emerge into the ranks of the best of British ensembles only after John Barbirolli became its principal conductor in 1933. Initially, Koussevitzky complained to Zederbaum, he could not 'get through' to the musicians and was bound to fail. However, later he was very pleased by their desire to give the utmost of which they were capable. 'The orchestra is mediocre, but Sergei Alexandrovich worked miracles with them,' Zederbaum wrote to Natalie after the first concert on January 30th 1922. 'It was inconceivable, at the rehearsal, that they would sound as they did that evening.'[55]

In one programme with the Scottish Orchestra Koussevitzky was down to conduct Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony and Strauss's Till Eulenspiegel. It was '… a difficult repertoire for them; they have not played these works before,' he worried in a letter to Natalie after the first rehearsal. But after the second rehearsal, he noted that '… the orchestras is settling down, at least they have taken to me and I can do what I want with them. They are very nice to me, even though I squeeze the very last drop of juice out of them at rehearsal. I worry all the time about getting tired myself, but it is quite difficult not to.'[56] Reviews of the concert drew attention to the fact that '… the players seemed inspired, and we have never heard the Orchestra play at a first concert in a manner to equal Saturday's performance.'[57] The orchestra players sent Koussevitzky a hundred photographs for him to autograph. 'You, Scots, are the first to have so warmed my heart since I left Russia,' he declared, responding in French to an address of welcome from the President of the Glasgow Musical Society Joseph Barnes. 'On arrival in Glasgow I asked … for a sunny room to be reserved for me in the hotel. I haven't seen much sun in Glasgow, but I found it on the first day I met the Scottish Orchestra.'[58]


After Koussevitzky moved to America his touring activity declined sharply. The conditions of his agreement with the Boston Symphony did not allow him to appear with other orchestras during the main concert season. Despite repeated offers of engagement from the London Symphony Orchestra and Harold Holt – who had revived the business of his concert agency – and from the manager, Thompson by name, of the new BBC Symphony Orchestra, formed in 1930 and led by Adrian Boult, he did not appear at all in England for eight years between 1925 and 1933.

The planned Festival by the BBC Symphony Orchestra could not take place in 1932 because of financial problems, and was postponed until the spring of 1933. The first three concerts were conducted by Boult, the second three by Koussevitzky (May 15, 17 and 19, in the Queen's Hall). Among other works he conducted were Tchaikovsky's Fifth and Sibelius's Seventh Symphonies, and the Classical Symphony of Prokofiev.[59]

Although Boult had prepared the orchestra for Koussevitzky's rehearsals, the first rehearsal had to be abandoned after five minutes' work on Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony. 'I am surprised at the inferior quality of the playing. I cannot understand it, because this is a recognized orchestra,' declared Koussevitzky. The leader responded on behalf of his colleagues: 'We have only just met. Give us a chance to 'collect' ourselves and become a unit under your baton.'[60] The rehearsal recommenced, and the players were soon galvanized by the energy of the conductor.

Critical response was, however, contradictory. 'The manner in which Koussevitzky handled all three [works] was nothing less than extraordinary,' declared one reviewer.[61] 'He sometimes does things that a stern critic would never dream of excusing in other conductors,' wrote Neville Cardus, reviewing for The Guardian.[62] The example this critic cites was an almost complete halt in the progress of the music before the introduction of the second theme in the first movement of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony.

In September 1934 Koussevitzky recorded in London the Third and Fifth Symphonies of Beethoven, the 40th Symphony of Mozart and the Finale of Haydn's Symphony No. 88.[63]

In May 1935 the conductor participated in the Second London Music Festival. One of his three programmes, given in the Queen's Hall on May 17th, was devoted to Western music (Overture to Mozart's opera The Marriage of Figaro, Beethoven's Symphony No. 3 and Sibelius's Symphony No. 2. Another programme (May 22nd) consisted of the Faust Symphony of Liszt, A Fugal Concerto for Flute, Oboe and Strings by Gustav Holst, and the Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis by Ralph Vaughan Williams. The third programme (May 27th) was given over entirely to Russian music (overture to Glinka's opera Ruslan and Lyudmila, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6, and Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring.)

This time the press was unanimous. The realisation of Sibelius's Second Symphony was hailed by one critic as '…one of the finest that we have yet heard … it glowed with rare vitality.'[64] The Rite of Spring received, according to another '… probably the best performance of its career.'[65] Adrian Boult noted '… the high pitch which was reached during the May Festival under the direction of Koussevitzky.'[66] The Musical Times asserted that '… Koussevitzky's three concerts would have been the outstanding memory of the 1935 season'.[67] On June 6th 1935 Koussevitzky recorded Sibelius's Symphony No. 7 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra.[68]

At this point the Festival initiated a series of four concerts by Arturo Toscanini, seen as the Festival's culmination. For this reason, it is believed, Koussevitzky declined to take part in the 1936 Festival which eventually was, in fact, cancelled.


Given the many divergences of English critical judgment on Koussevitzky, on three cardinal points there was unanimity. The first is that over the years since his first appearance in 1908 he had developed into a mature master deploying an independent command of music in different styles. The press noted that this conductor '… has no special penchant for any particular school or period and indeed nothing, old or new, provided only that is good, comes amiss to him;'[69] and laid stress on '…his sympathetic versatility in interpreting music so drastically contrasted.'[70]. In the second place, the conductor was able qualitatively to alter the sound of an orchestra and to enlarge its performing capabilities. Under his direction '…the London Symphony Orchestra played as it did in the days when no one would have dreamed of questioning its right to be considered one of the finest orchestras in the world.'[71]

Lastly, a view in which many writers covering Koussevitzky's concerts concurred, the conductor possessed colossal reserves of emotional power over his audiences. 'The extraordinary quality of Koussevitzky's conducting is shown by the fact that although we have never heard playing of such dynamic force except, perhaps, under Nikisch, nothing is sacrificed to it; there is no crudity of expression, but, on the contrary, great subtlety and variety.'[72] The essence of the pungent discussions generated among critics by Koussevitzky's concert appearances in the musical centres of Europe, far exceeded – just as it had done in his career in Russia – his individual artistic achievements as a conductor. Its roots lay in the conflicting, often sharply opposed, overall conceptions of how classical and romantic music should be performed. It is for this reason that arguments about Koussevitzky's standing and his creative legacy continue unabated to this day.

[1] S. Koussevitzky to N. Koussevitzky, undated letter after March 25 1922, Barcelona, KA-LC.
[2] 'Gregor Piatigorsky, violonchelist' in Ispolnitel'skoe iskusstvo zarubezhnykh stran, 5th edition, Muzyka, Moscow 1970 p171. Piatigorsky's inimitable autobiography, written by himself in English, is out of print but can be read online. Chapter 21 contains this passage: 'Harold Holt met me in London. A concert manager, he had chosen this profession more as an exciting pastime than anything else. He knew as little of music as I of the diamond mines that were the source of his parents' fortune. Corpulent and jovial, he believed that most artists were crazy in an interesting sort of way. He had a considerable collection of tales about them. Reluctantly I felt that somehow my personality strengthened his attitude.' (
[3] S. Koussevitzky to N. Koussevitzky, undated (1923), Edinburgh, KA-LC.
[4] S. Koussevitzky to N. Koussevitzky, undated (1923), London, KA-LC.
[5] A. Kalisch 'London Concerts', The Musical Times, March 1, 1921 p178.
[6] S. Koussevitzky to N. Koussevitzky, undated (after February 5 1923), London, KA-LC.
[7].S. Koussevitzky to N. Koussevitzky, undated (May 1922), London, KA-LC.
[8] S. Koussevitzky to N. Koussevitzky, November 17 1923, Glasgow, KA-LC.
[9] In the concert in London on June 1st 1922 the Bacchanale from Wagner's Tannhäuser was followed by the Introduction and Death of Isolde from Tristan und Isolde, and the Funeral March from Götterdämmerung. Then came the March and Scherzo from Prokofiev's Love for Three Oranges, Rimsky-Korsakov's Dubinushka and the Scherzo from The Tale of Tsar Saltan; and after all that Tchaikovsky's Sixth Symphony.
[10] S. Koussevitzky to N. Koussevitzky, undated (after February 5 1923), London, KA-LC.
[11] S. Koussevitzky speech to British Music Society (undated, 1935), KA-LC.
[12] E. Newman untitled article in Glasgow Herald, December 13 1923.
[13] See G. Conus 'Chetvërty kontsert S. Koussevitskogo' in Georgy Eduardovich Conus 1862-1933, Materialy, vospominania, pis'ma with participation of N. G. Conus, comp and ed L. A. Kozhevnikova, Sovetskii Kompozitor, Moscow 1988 p232.
[14] E. Newman 'The Filament and the Current', Sunday Times, March 30th 1924.
[15] Unidentified author, 'Third Paterson Concert. Koussevitzky's Triumph', Edinburgh Evening Dispatch, December 4 1923.
[16] Recorded on April 22 and 24 1929: LP Victor 7058-60, in album М-55, HMV D 1735-37; CD Pearl Gemm CDS 9185.
[17] Recorded on December 29 1936: LP Victor 15304-06 in album М-529, HMV DB 3125-27; CD Pearl Gemm CDS 9185.
[18] R. Layton 'Koussevitzky Conducts Classical Symphonies', liner note to Pearl Gemm CDS 9185.
[19] I. Schwerke 'Notes on the Musical World', Chicago Tribune, May 1st 1922.
[20] Symphony No. 3 on October 18 1923; No. 5 on November 10 1921 and May 21 1927; No. 7 on May 17 1923; No. 9 December 15 1921 and November 9 1922; Egmont Overture on December 1 1921 and May 24 1923; Piano Concerto No. 1 on May 4 1922 (with Alfred Cortot); No. 4 on Noember 17 1921 (Robert Casadesus); Violin Concerto on November 24 1921 (with Jacques Thibaud) and May 24 1923 (with Bronislav Huberman).
[21] Symphony No. 3 in London on December 10 1923 and May 17 1935; No. 5 in London on February 2 and 13 1921, May 18 1922 and June 9 1925, in Edinburgh on November 26 1925; No. 7 in Edinburgh on January 29 1923, in London on February 25 1923 and May 11 1925; No. 9 in London on March 24 1924 and May 25 1925; Leonore No. 2 in Edinburgh on January 30 1922; Piano Concerto No. 1 in London on May 25 1922 (with Alfred Cortot); Violin Concerto in London on March 10 1924 (with Emil Telmanyi).
[22] O. Downes 'Koussevitzky as a Magnetic Personality. Prokofiev and the Powers of Evil' New York Times, June 15 1924.
[23] B. Schloezer 'Concerts by S.A. Koussevitzky'. Poslednye Novosti (Paris) undated (KA-LC).
[24] D. Milhaud 'Concerts Koussevitzky', Courrier musical, December 1 1921.
[25] H.A. 'Beethoven Revised. Remarkable New Reading of Famous Symphony,' Evening Standard, February 3 1921.
[26] B. Schloezer 'Koussevitzky's Last Concert', Zveno (Paris), June 4 1923.
[27] B. Schloezer 'Concert by Koussevitzky', Poslednye Novosti (Paris), October 24 1923.
[28] Unidentified reviewer 'Koussevitzky in Beethoven', The Observer, December 16 1923.
[29] Unidentified writer 'Koussevitzky on the London Scene', Boston Transcript, June 1 1935.
[30] Quoted in M. Smith 'Concert and Opera in the London Halls', Boston Transcript, June 4 1935. Authoritative Newman certainly was, but at this time he had little sympathy for many aspects of contemporary music, in particular that of Prokofiev.
[31] S. Koussevitzky to N. Koussevitzky, undated (after May 11 1925), London, KA-LC.
[32] M. Mishchenko 'Kharakter ili skorost?' (Ob odnom istoricheskom nedorazumenii) [Character or Speed? On a Historical Misunderstanding] Opera musicologica St. Petersburg No. 3-4 (9-10) 2011 pp34, 51.
[33] H. Antcliffe 'Koussevitzky and Some Others', Musical News, April 5 1924.
[34] E. Newman 'Music of the Day', The Sunday Times, March 26 1924.
[35] E. Newman 'The World of Music', The Sunday Times, March 30 1924.
[36] E. Newman. "The Filament and the Current. II," The Sunday Times, April 6, 1924.
[37] Berlin Philharmonic, Heliodor Historical Series LP 2548 704.
[38] Recorded on December 18 and 19 1928, and issued on Victor 78rpm M-50 (6939-43, AM-50 (6944-48); Biddulph CD WHL-019.
[39] Live recording from a Boston Symphony concert in Symphony Hall on November 11 1939 (Library of Congress LWO 9485 R 27, and Greenough Discs No. 563a-566a).
[40] Koussevitzky's attitude to Weingartner's amendments was highly selective, as also was his view of those suggested by Wagner. Weingartner himself, although generally recommending doubling the woodwind in the Third, Fifth, Seventh and Ninth Symphonies, did not advocate doing so throughout the whole course of the work, not even in all forte passages. He saw the object of his alterations as being '… not so much to strengthen the sonority as to clarify it.' (F. Weingartner Ispolnenie klassicheskikh simfonii. Sovety dirizhëra (The Performance of Classical Symphonies, A Conductor's Advice), vol 1: Beethoven, Muzyka, Moscow 1963 p5.
[41] In the edition by Breitkopf und Härtel, Leipzig, in the Koussevitzky Collection held in Boston Public Library.
[42] Weingartner, Op. cit. p59.
[43] Also Breitkopf, BPL Koussevitzky Collection.
[44] Breitkopf, BPL Koussevitzky Collection.
[45] L. Ivanova Vospominaniya. Kniga ob otse, Atheneum, Paris 1990 p200. Also online
[46] Unidentified writer, 'Music, Schubert and Koussevitzky', Truth, April 16 1924.
[47] W.S. Smith 'Holiday Music by Symphony', Boston Post, December 27 1924.
[48] H.T. Parker 'Music of Beauty, Music of Frenzy, Music of Triele', Boston Evening Transcript, December 27 1924.
[49] O. Downes 'The Boston Symphony', New York Times, January 2 1925.
[50] L. Gilman 'Koussevitzky Conducts Schubert, Stravinsky and Others at Boston Symphony Concert', New York Herald Tribune, January 2 1925.
[51] E. Newman 'For Second Time New York Judges Mr. Koussevitzky', The Evening Post, quoted in Boston Evening Transcript, January 5 1925.
[52] RCA Victor 78 rpm 14117-19, in album M-319, recorded May 6 1936; RCA Victor LP CAL-106, CFL-104; CD Koussevitzky: Maestro risoluto, XX Century Maestros, 205260 303/A; CD Pearl Gemm 9037.
[53] Recorded on January 3 1945, RCA Victor 78rpm M-1039; RCA Victor LP LM-7, LM-9032. Tempo of the first movement is quarter-note = 108 (as against 116-120 in the earlier recording); second movement quarter-note = 76-80 (as against 92-100 in the earlier recording). Duration of the whole work is 23'15" (as against 20'37" in the earlier recording).
[54] S. Koussevitzky to N. Koussevitzky, undated (after February 5 1923), Glasgow, KA-LC.
[55] V. Zederbaum to N. Koussevitzky, January 30 1922, Edinburgh, KA-LC.
[56] S. Koussevitzky to N. Koussevitzky, undated (before November 17 1923), Glasgow, KA-LC.
[57] 'An Orchestral Success. Mr. Koussevitski as Conductor' (unsigned review) KA-LC.
[59] The gramophone record made of Sibelius's Seventh Symphony, made from a recording of the live relay of the concert on May 15, proved to be the first ever produced of this symphony: RCA Victor 79 rpm DB 1984-6, AM 394; LP LCT-1151, LVT-1015, SH 173/4, ANM-34829, Turnabout ANM-34829; CD Pearl Gemm CDS 9408; Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Serge Koussevitzky, IMG Artists, 924357512022.
[60] C. Reid John Barbiroll: A Biography, Taplinger Publishing Company, New York 1971 p112.
[61] Quoted in 'London Echoes of Dr. Koussevitzky: The Conductor as He is Heard at a Concert Across Seas', Boston Evening Transcript, May 27 1933.
[62] Quoted in unsigned article 'Considering Koussevitzky in the Round', Boston Transcript, January 3 1933.
[63] Beethoven Symphony No. 3, London Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded September 1934. 78: RCA Victor M 263; LP: CAL-102; CD: Biddulph WHL029
Beethoven Symphony No. 5, London Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded September 3-4, 1934, London. 78: RCA Victor M 245; LP: CAL-103; CD: Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Serge Koussevitzky. Performs Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Sibelius. Harris. Beethoven. IMG Artists 7243575119-20, Biddulph WHL029
Mozart Symphony No. 40 in G minor, London Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded September 1934, London. 78: RCA Victor M 293; CD: Biddulph WHL029
Haydn Symphony No. 88 in G (Finale), London Philharmonic Orchestra, recorded September 1934. 78: RCA Victor M 245; CD: Biddulph WHL029
[64] Unsigned article, Morning Post, May 18 1935.
[65] Unsigned article, Musical Times, July 1935.
[66] Quoted in N. Kenyon The BBC Symphony Orchestra: The First Fifty Years 1930-1980, BBC, London 1981 p87.
[67] ibid.
[68] 78 rpm: HMV DB1948-54, HMV DB 7788-93, World Record Club H 174, CD: Naxos Historical 8.110168, Biddulph WHL0-30 (2CDs). There is also a live concert recording of Sibelius Symphony No. 7 with the BBC Symphony Orchestra on May 17 1933 in the Queen's Hall, London: 79 rpm Victor 14552-54, in album M-394; CD: Great Conductors of the 20th Century: Serge Koussevitzky. Performs Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Liszt, Sibelius, Harris, Beethoven; IMG Artists 7243 5 75119-20.
[69] Unsigned article 'Third Paterson Concert' in Evening Dispatch (Edinburgh), December 4 1923 KA-LC.
[70] J.B. 'Scottish Orchestra. Farewell to Koussevitski,', Glasgow News, December 3 1923.
[71] E. Newman, untitled article (London, 1921) KA-LC.
[72] Unsigned, undated article 'Music of the Week', London 1921 KA-LC.

Copyright © 2015, Victor Yuzefovich - Translation by Anthony Phillips