Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 1, op. 13, Winter Dreams (1866) [39:55] Vasily KALINNIKOV (1866-1901)
Symphony No. 1 in G minor (1894-95) [35:32]
Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra/Fabien Sevitzky
rec. 19 March 1946 (Tchaikovsky); 7-8 January 1941 (Kalinnikov), Murat Theatre, Indianapolis, Indiana. PRISTINE AUDIO PASC560 [75:21]
This is Volume 4 of Pristine’s survey of Fabien Sevitzky’s recordings with the Indianapolis Symphony. I was impressed with his account of Tchaikovsky’s Manfred Symphony in Volume 1, albeit with one or two reservations (review). The next two volumes didn’t come my way but were admired by Jonathan Woolf (Volume 2 ~ Volume 3).
The disc comes with a brief background note by Mark Obert-Thorn who, I think, is responsible for all the transfers in this Pristine Sevitzky series. He states that both of the recorded performances here were first recordings but Jonathan Woolf has identified that this isn’t the premiere recording of Winter Dreams, citing an earlier one, albeit with come cuts (review). Even if another conductor beat Sevitzky to it as regards recording the Tchaikovsky, I think both of these symphonies represented very enterprising repertoire choices. Perhaps there was an element of shrewdness, too, because, however unfairly, a provincial US orchestra was unlikely to get much attention with a recording of, say, one of the last three Tchaikovsky symphonies whereas rare repertoire was more likely to make people take notice.
Fabien Sevitzky (1891-1967) led the Indianapolis Symphony from 1937 until 1955. I believe that the recording of the Kalinnikov stems from Sevitzky’s very first recording sessions (for RCA Victor) in Indianapolis. By that time, his relationship with the orchestra was well-established and that shows in the playing, I think. He and the ISO ceased recording for RCA in 1946 – though some recordings for Capitol were made later on – so the present Tchaikovsky recording came right at the end of that relationship.
At the very start of the Tchaikovsky first movement some surface noise is audible but this soon reduces or, indeed, vanishes completely. In any case, the quality of the playing, which is fresh and lithe, makes one forget any mild surface imperfections. Sevitzky conducts very well indeed and his orchestra responds to him in a lively fashion. This is an incisive performance and in the development section there’s an abundance of energy. This is an excellent account of the movement. The slow movement is beautifully shaped and Sevitzky invests the performance with suitable romantic ardour. I thought the playing of the ISO was admirable and the interpretation is really convincing.
The Scherzo is light on its feet while the lyrical trio is delightful. Sevitzky takes the finale attacca and he generates just the right degree of tension in the Andante lugubre introduction – and even more when that material is revisited later on. The main Allegro maestoso bursts onto the scene after the Introduction, the performance full of drive. Here the recorded sound is a little fierce in the loud tuttis but not to such a level as to prevent enjoyment. The closing pages, after the reprise of the Introduction, bring the symphony to an exciting conclusion.
Vasily Kalinnikov’s G minor symphony is still too little known. There aren’t that many recordings in the catalogue though the Testament label offers a performance in a Toscanini anthology (SBT21404), which confirms that the dominant figure in US orchestral music performed the work with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. An account such as Sevitzky’s makes the neglect of the symphony hard to understand. The performance of the first movement is most attractive. The ISO’s playing is excellent and suggests enthusiasm for the task at hand. I was completely persuaded by Sevitzky’s handling of the music, which he conducts very well indeed, not least by investing the music with excellent forward momentum. In passing, I’m indebted to James A. Altena, whose review of this disc, published in Fanfare Magazine, is reproduced on the Pristine website. I infer that he has access to a score and he identifies that Sevitzky omitted the exposition repeat, thereby shortening the movement by some four minutes. Interestingly, he adds that Toscanini made the same omission in a 1943 broadcast which, I suspect may be the performance on the aforementioned Testament set.
The slow movement, marked Andante commodamente, starts in a very delicate and subdued vein and so one is conscious for a while of some surface noise. However, I soon forgot about this in the face of Kalinnikov’s fertile melodic invention and Sevitzky’s way with the music. The phrasing is flexible and highly persuasive. The following Scherzo is a spirited composition and the present performance is highly animated, benefitting from very precise playing. The short, slower trio is delicately done. Sevitzky’s traversal of the finale is dynamic, bringing out the exuberance in the writing. This performance is very committed – as is the symphony as a whole – and I liked it very much.
I really enjoyed this disc. The music making has freshness and sparkle to it. As I said earlier, these were enterprising repertoire choices for recordings in the 1940s, though if there were any justice in the world we’d hear both of these works more often. Sevitzky is a splendid advocate for both symphonies and it seems clear that he’d persuaded his orchestra of the music’s worth and had prepared them extremely well for these assignments. I’ve pointed out one or two occasions when one is conscious of issues such as surface noise but I can assure readers that those issues didn’t interfere with my enjoyment of the performances. In truth, Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers have been expertly done and bring these recordings vividly to life for us. I marvel at the clarity with which these recordings come across more than 70 years after they were made. Even if you’re normally resistant to historic recordings I’d urge you to investigate these performances if the repertoire appeals. On this evidence the partnership of the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra and Fabien Sevitzky was a formidable one.
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