Pierre Monteux (1876-1964) was a truly remarkable man.
He was one of the first conductors (arguably he was the first)
to pursue a successful career simultaneously on both sides of the Atlantic
and this well before the advent of jet aircraft.
On a couple of occasions he was the man in the right
place at the right time. Firstly he was drafted in to rehearse the premiere
of Petrushka when a much more senior conductor declined merely
to prepare the piece in order for a guest conductor to get the glory
of the actual performances. Monteux, less conscious of his dignity,
took on the assignment and so impressed during rehearsals that he was
engaged to conduct the premiere, an event that launched his conducting
career. A few years later, in 1917, his success in New York conducting
for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes led to invitations to conduct first at
the Metropolitan Opera and then as a guest at the Boston Symphony. Yes,
he was in the right places when it mattered but, crucially, he had the
talent to capitalise on those opportunities.
From 1919 to 1924 he was Chief Conductor of the Boston
Symphony. In 1929 he founded the Orchestre Symphonique de Paris, remaining
there until 1938. Before his stint in Paris came to an end he had been
lured back to America, this time to be Chief Conductor of the San Francisco
Symphony (1935-1952). This appointment was followed by another spell
at the Met (1953-56) and his last full-time post was that of Principal
Conductor of the London Symphony, a post which he took up at the age
of 86, famously insisting on a 25-year contract – with a renewal option!
In addition to all these posts Monteux was much in
demand as a guest conductor and this Tahra set celebrates one of his
most enduring relationships as a guest conductor. In October 1924 he
was asked to replace the indisposed Willem Mengelberg and conduct a
concert with the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Between that
first appearance and October 1939 Monteux conducted the Dutch orchestra
on no less than 184 occasions. The relationship was resumed after the
Second World War and between May 1948 and November 1963 Monteux and
the Concertgebouw gave another 76 concerts together. It is evident both
from the sheer number of times that Monteux was invited back and from
the quality of the music making on these discs that the relationship
was as fruitful as it was long. By a neat piece of symmetry the Berlioz
performance included here comes from the first concert that Monteux
gave with the orchestra after the war while the performance of Brahms’s
First Symphony is from his very last concert with them.
Sadly, it appears that recordings of only a few of
Monteux’s Concertgebouw concerts survive. The recordings included here
are taken from the archives of two Dutch broadcasting companies, VARA
and NCRV. Tahra tell us that the source material for three of them (the
two concerti and the Berlioz symphony) is 78-rpm records; I presume
that the remainder originate from tapes. The value of the collection
is enhanced because four items, namely the Brahms symphonies, the ‘Tragic’
Overture, and the Sibelius concerto are works which he never took into
the recording studio.
The first two discs are devoted to Brahms. The overture
and First Symphony are coupled together. In the symphony the introduction
is spacious, after which the main allegro surges strongly. While not
underplaying lyrical passages, Monteux keeps the forward momentum going
pretty consistently in an urgent, purposeful reading of the movement.
There is no over-indulgent lingering in the slow movement which, to
my mind, flows very nicely indeed. However, let me not give the impression
that this is a hasty account, shorn of tenderness. It is a fluent performance
which culminates in a properly serene coda where the solo violinist
is most distinguished.
The third movement features a slightly curious effect.
The dotted rhythm which occurs several times, firstly in bar 11 (track
4 0’15") is unusually emphasised through the use of tenuto. This
happens every time the figure occurs. I’ve never heard this done before
and I must say I found this a slight distraction. There’s also a significant
slowing up towards the end of the movement (from 4’31" onwards).
I thought the slow beginning of the finale sounded
a bit underplayed – surprisingly cool, in fact – until the famous horn
call (track 5, 2’38"). When the ‘big tune’ arrives Monteux keeps
the music on the move and, as in the first movement there’s strong momentum
in the main allegro. The final ‘dash’ for the coda is really whipped
up (track 5, 15’07") and there is no portentousness in the brass
chorale. In fact, the whole performance is as urgent a reading as I’ve
heard in some time. There are one or two rough edges which would have
been smoothed out in a studio but nothing that detracts from overall
listening pleasure. Actually I’d sum up this performance as "young
man’s Brahms", except that it was conducted by a "young man"
The same vitality and powerful forward momentum are
on display in a trenchant account of the ‘Tragic Overture’. Monteux
made a commercial recording of this piece with the Concertgebouw for
Phillips in 1962 and I guess this performance took place around the
same time. The performance is powerfully projected by the orchestra,
a few minor fallibilities of intonation notwithstanding. The sound quality
of both recordings is very acceptable.
The second disc contains a performance of Brahms’s
Violin Concerto in which the soloist is Nathan Milstein (1902-1992).
His playing of the solo part displays the same aristocratic poise and
wonderful sense of line which distinguish his very fine 1953/4 studio
recording with William Steinberg and the Pittsburgh Symphony. (This
recording is now one of EMI’s Great Recordings of the Century which
I reviewed enthusiastically a while ago.) The present performance features
finely judged, sensitive accompaniment by Monteux whose direction is
mellow where required but strong where the score dictates.
To begin with the recorded sound is quite bright. The
balance seemed truthful to my ears with the soloist nicely forward but
not excessively so. However, at 12’46" into the first movement
(track 1) the sound becomes dimmer and until my ears adjusted this seemed
to rob the performance of much tension.
I strongly suspect the first movement cadenza (track
1, 16’33") is by Milstein himself. There are similarities with
his cadenza on the Pittsburgh recording though I would describe this
Amsterdam offering as a little more ruminative. It works well and makes
an interesting change from the more usual Joachim cadenza. The transition
back from the cadenza (track 1, 19’28") is a magical moment here;
clearly the work of two master musicians.
Soloist and conductor combine to give a cultivated,
serene and suitably inward reading of the slow movement. In their hands
this is a real oasis of tranquillity. Poetry may have been the hallmark
of the first two movements but there is no shortage of fireworks in
the finale (and I don’t think I reached that conclusion simply because
I listened first to this recording on November 5th!) Milstein
displays an abundance of high spirits here together with a delight in
virtuosity. Monteux and his players support him to the hilt and this
movement is a joyful event. The whole performance earns enthusiastic
applause and understandably so.
The disc is completed by a performance of Brahms’s
Third Symphony. This was on the same programme as the performance of
Petrushka contained elsewhere in this collection and I wondered
which piece had come first in the concert. I enjoyed Monteux’s traversal
of this symphony. He gives a predominantly genial account of the first
movement. However, the reading is not without sinew (e.g. the passage
beginning at track 4, 11’01"). The Concertgebouw winds are well
to the fore in a warm, affectionately phrased performance of the andante.
This movement also features some splendid soaring string passages (such
as track 5, 5’55").
The succeeding ‘poco allegretto’ is also caringly shaped.
Even though the recorded sound is a bit recessed by modern standards
it can’t mask some committed and responsive playing. The finale is virile
and joyful but Monteux controls the performance well, investing the
music with ample light and shade. The coda (track 7, 8’26") is
beautifully handled; the work relaxes to a contented completion. In
summary, this is a smiling performance but, as I hope I’ve conveyed,
one which also has plenty of strength.
Incidentally, I didn’t listen to the interview with
Monteux and his wife until I had virtually completed this review. Since
I’d found myself responding so positively to his Brahms interpretations
it was fascinating to hear in that interview that, during his own career
as an orchestral player Monteux had played under several of the German
maestri who were, effectively the first generation of Brahms interpreters.
Whether or not he actually played Brahms under any of them is unclear
but almost inevitably something of the general approach to music making
of men of the calibre of Hans Richter and Artur Nikisch must have rubbed
off on the young Monteux.
The two pieces on the third disc are both very interesting.
The Sibelius Violin Concerto was a work which Monteux never recorded
commercially. We do have studio recordings of Petrushka but,
given his special associations with the ballet, it is fascinating to
hear a ‘live’ performance under his baton The Sibelius performance presumably
comes from the same series of concerts which included the Milstein performance
of the Brahms. This account of the Sibelius features Jan Damen, for
many years concertmaster of the Concertgebouw. It is a good performance
but it is not quite in the same league as Milstein in the Brahms.
Structurally the first movement of the Sibelius is
an ambitious piece which always seems to me to be very difficult to
bring off. It poses considerable technical problems for both soloist
and conductor and it really needs a commanding soloist to give it shape
and cohesion. Damen is not quite that though he is an accomplished and
accurate player and he is attentively accompanied by Monteux. To my
ears the performance never quite catches fire. It is only fair to report,
however, that the audience that day must have formed a more positive
impression for there is warm applause at the end of the movement.
I thought the reading of the slow movement was much
more successful. Here Damen conveys very well the tenderness of the
long opening violin melody. Overall this movement is very sensitively
done by all concerned. Damen’s fingerwork falters momentarily at the
start of the finale (track 3, 0’17") but this is only a very minor
blemish and the performance is soon back on the rails. At the end the
audience’s response is enthusiastic but I’m afraid that this account
of what is in some ways an elusive work didn’t fully engage me. Other
listeners may well disagree.
Technically, the recording of the first two movements
is rather better than that of the Brahms concerto, being generally a
touch brighter at least on my equipment. However the sound is rather
muffled at the start of the finale.
As I’ve already mentioned it was Monteux who gave the
very first performance of Petrushka in 1911, a success which,
two years later led him to usher into an unsuspecting musical world
Le Sacre du Printemps. I must admit that Petrushka has
always been my favourite among the Stravinsky ballets, not least on
account of its vivid, colourful characterisation. This account by Monteux
is excellent. There are a few imprecisions in the playing (the trumpeter
has a nasty little ‘wobble’ at the very end, for instance) but these
are much less important than the overall conviction and sense of imagination.
It is a performance of immediacy. Monteux and his players paint some
strong musical pictures and they draw the listener into the drama.
The opening ‘Shrovetide Fair’ is played at a steady
speed which allows plenty of detail to register. There is a lot of colour
and glitter with the tuned percussion balanced well forward. (The forty-odd
year old recording is pretty good.) Monteux uses the original 1911 version
of the score which is more richly orchestrated than the 1947 revision
and I must say I think he makes the right choice.
Interestingly, Monteux eschews the optional drumming
between each of the four tableaux. This is something I can’t recall
hearing very often in the past and I find the effect somewhat disconcerting,
especially at the end of the second tableau.
Almost without exception I found Monteux’s choice of
tempo seemed sane and expertly judged. His keen ear for detail ensures
that we can savour the full palette of colours in Stravinsky’s orchestration
– in this score we are constantly reminded that Stravinsky was a pupil
of Rimsky-Korsakov. I found the rather sinister beginning to the episode
in the Moor’s chamber (track 6, from 0’43") creepily effective
and there’s a real kaleidoscope of musical colour at the start of the
fourth tableau – the Concertgebouw is suddenly a place of bustle and
energy. The very end is most effectively handled and it’s just a pity
that the audience is a bit too keen to show its appreciation. Nonetheless,
this is a fine performance with Monteux exhibiting as much vitality
as I suspect he did at the premiere forty-nine years earlier. (Was this,
I wonder, the last time he conducted this masterpiece?)
This Tahra set is full of interest in that it allows
us to hear Monteux in several works with which he was not especially
associated in the recording studio. However, some collectors may regret
the relative lack of French repertoire. The fourth disc rectifies that
in some style by including a very fine performance of the Berlioz Symphonie
Fantastique. The Concertgebouw players were well versed in this
score for they had recorded it no less than three times in the 1940s
under Edward van Beinum, most recently only some 18 months previously
(a superb reading, originally made for Decca and now on the Dutton label).
The more I hear it the more this work strikes me as
one of the most original of all symphonies. It is a most remarkable
tour de force, the product of a fevered imagination. Even from
the perspective of 2002 Berlioz appears an incredibly forward-looking
composer and one of possibly unsurpassed originality in his use of the
orchestra. Pierre Monteux reveals himself in this performance to be
fully the master of Berlioz’s style.
The allegro of the first movement has great sweep,
panache and passion. The following waltz is given a scintillating, rhythmically
vibrant performance. Here Monteux does not include the optional cornet
part which Berlioz later added, a decision of which I wholeheartedly
The start of the third movement is graced by some superb
wind playing, especially from the principal cor anglais player. Despite
the age of the recording the echo effects are well managed. Throughout,
while not underplaying the atmosphere Monteux keeps the music moving
forward (a consistent virtue throughout this set). He gives a most distinguished
reading of this movement, culminating in a fine account of the extraordinarily
plaintive coda (track 3, 13’18" onwards) where the cor anglais
and distant, thundering timpani are well caught by the engineers.
The introduction to the Marche au Supplice is
at a good steady tempo which really conveys a sense of foreboding. Monteux
quickens the pace slightly for the main body of the march (track 4,
1’43") but, wisely, not to such an extent that the music sounds
at all rushed. In his hands the march remains, as it began, literally
I mean it as a compliment when I say that the finale
is a real nightmare! The bells toll superbly. I actually think that
the slightly "primitive" edge to the recorded sound helps
here. There is no danger of an unduly plush, upholstered sound as sometimes
happens with modern recordings. The rawness adds edge and ambience and
one can easily imagine ghosts, dwarves, witches and the like. At the
end of the symphony the reaction of the audience is very positive, and
So, with the possible exception of the Sibelius, I
don’t think there need be any serious reservations about the quality
of the performances contained in this set. As you might expect, the
sound quality does vary somewhat but then one must make allowances for
the fact that these recordings were made many years ago and were never
intended for repeated domestic listening. A case in point is the Berlioz.
If you listen to the 1946 van Beinum recording (which is a very fine
one) you will hear a recording in sound which is technically much better
than the recording included by Tahra. (Arguably, you will also get a
better sense of the acoustic of the Concertgebouw but it’s important
to remember that the Decca acoustic is that of an empty hall.)
However, the Decca recording was specifically made as a commercial recording.
By and large the Dutch radio technicians of the time did a fine job
and Tahra’s transfers are very good.
As with all worthwhile historic sets one needs to listen
‘through’ the sound. I’ve tried to convey how the recorded sound appears
through my own equipment and other listeners are bound to get different
results. What I hope I’ve also conveyed is that even when the sound
is less satisfactory the excellence of the performances is not compromised.
What we have here is a series of examples of a master conductor at work
with a very fine orchestra. The extra degree of frisson and electricity
which is brought about by the presence of an audience is readily apparent.
Above all, Pierre Monteux comes across as a maestro who had something
to say about the music he conducted and one who could convey his vision
of the totality of a piece to players and audience alike. I’m sure any
listener (myself included) will be able to think of several more "virtuoso"
recordings of Petrushka, for instance, but I find it difficult
to recall one which more naturally yet vividly lays before us the drama
as it unfolds (and also etches in the background scenery so well).
Tahra’s presentation is pretty lavish. The set contains
two booklets totalling 128 pages. The bulk of this is a French translation
of passages from It’s all in the music, the biography of Monteux
penned by his American third wife, Doris. This is accompanied by a good
number of evocative illustrations. For non-French speakers there is
a perfectly good summary in English about the recordings and about Monteux’s
association with the Concertgebouw. The discs include a short but very
interesting interview which Pierre and Doris Monteux gave for the Canadian
Broadcasting Company in London in 1963 where they were in conversation
with John Amis. This is fascinating, not least because it contains Monteux’s
views on several conductors, including Toscanini, Richter and Nikisch
(the latter, the finest under whom Monteux played during his own orchestral
career, he says).
To judge from these discs Monteux could generate a
fine rapport with an orchestra. Let me close with the verdict of one
who experienced his conducting at first hand. Roger Voisin was a trumpet
player in the Boston Symphony Orchestra between 1935 and 1973 and his
father also played trumpet in the orchestra. In the BSO’s ‘Symphony
Hall Centennial Celebration’ set of CDs he is quoted thus: "My
father played with Monteux in 1918 and.…always told me that this was
the musician’s conductor. How right he was! Monteux was a legend that
I was most fortunate to play under with my father at my side. It can’t
get better than that."
This is a fascinating and important set which throws
light on one of the more important musical relationships in Pierre Monteux’s
long and distinguished career but one which, because it was not often
reflected in the recording studio, has not perhaps received the attention
it deserves. Tahra have put us in their debt by lovingly restoring these
recordings and making them generally available. The set is strongly
recommended both to admirers of Pierre Monteux and to connoisseurs of
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