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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



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Pierre MONTEUX and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Symphonie Fantastique (1832)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Symphony No 1 in C minor (1855-76)
Symphony No 3 in F (1883)
Tragic Overture (1880 rev 1881)
Violin Concerto in D (1878)
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)

Violin Concerto in D minor (1903 rev 1905)
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

Petrushka (1911)
Nathan Milstein, violin (Brahms)
Jan Damen, violin (Sibelius)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Live recordings 1948-63
TAHRA 175-178
[4 CDs 255.18]
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Leafing through the RCA Monteux edition – all sixteen hours of it – and the more than merely useful Philips Early Years box is to be reminded of a number of things. One is the relative neglect that he more than intermittently suffered and the other is the lacunae in his discography, some, but by no means all, of which have been filled by live material. Tahra’s four CD box adds more bounty because no less than four of these major works are strangers to the commercial record and make a first appearance – Brahms’ Symphonies One and Three and the Tragic Overture as well as Sibelius’s Violin Concerto. Monteux was a master of orchestral balance and he was an exceptional exponent of rhythmic nuance; he moulded string lines as few others and his control of tempo relationships was absolute. As an ex-violist (in the Geloso Quartet), Folie Bergère string player and ballet conductor Monteux knew all about inner balance, part-writing, and the incremental gradations of inflections necessary to apply. All of these readings bear testimony to his greatness and even the slight disappointments, including, I suppose, rather oddly, the Stravinsky, still yield other compensatory riches.

Monteux conducted 184 concerts with the Concertgebouw between 1924 and 1939 and gave seven world premieres during that time (including Pijper’s Third Symphony). It may seem exhausting to trawl through the works given an Amsterdam premiere by Monteux but I’ve narrowed the selection to the decade 1924-34; The Rite of Spring, Tallis Fantasia, Krenek’s Violin Concerto, Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, Pacific 231, Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No 1, Boulanger’s Psalm 129, Hanson’s Lux Aeterna, Janacek’s Sinfonietta, Schulhoff’s Double Concerto for Flute and Piano, Milhaud’s Chants Populaires Hébraïques, Toch’s Piano Concerto, Malipiero’s Concerto for Orchestra, Caplet’s Les Prières, Szymanowski’s Sinfonia Concertante. And all this from a guest conductor who had only conducted that 1924 date because Mengelberg was ill. Post War he continued his august association with the orchestra taking 76 concerts over the period 1948-63 and all the performances in this box date from this period and are derived from the Archives of Dutch broadcasting companies. The Concertos by Brahms and Sibelius and the Symphonie Fantastique were all taken down on 78s.

With performances as strong and involving as the ones documented here it’s invidious to know where to start so let’s start with the Berlioz, a magnificent traversal, lithe, powerful, magnetic albeit preserved in a less than optimum recording – the sound in this 1948 recording, the earliest of all the preserved broadcasts, is distinctly veiled, but never objectionably poor. Monteux was one of the most experienced of Berlioz conductors and the orchestra equally well versed in the music. The waltz brings a sense of drive and animation; the Marche au Supplice is full of the most adroitly negotiated rubato, the intensity, compactness and architectural balance of the work held in admirable proportion. The two concertos make intriguing boxmates. Milstein plays the Brahms in an October 1950 traversal whilst Jan Damen’s Sibelius was heard less than two months later. Monteux had met Brahms as a member of the Geloso Quartet when the composer was famously complimentary about French Quartet playing of his music. Not long ago I reviewed his recording of the First Piano Concerto with Julius Katchen, seminal Brahms conducting. Readers may well be familiar with one of Milstein’s commercial recordings – the 1954 Pittsburgh/Steinberg, the 1960 Philharmonia/Fistoulari or the Vienna Philarmonic/Jochum, which dated from 1974 when the violinist was seventy. This Concertgebouw performance has been available at least once before – on Recital Records LP RR212. The Violin Concerto is a splendidly masculine performance, with strong attacks and elegantly phrased, frequently powerful and replete with some rhythmic give and take in the opening paragraphs and some occasionally smeary and smudgy Milstein in the cadenza, Milstein’s own. But how wonderfully and watchfully Monteux’s corrals his orchestral forces and maintains and sustains a flexible control over the score, precisely as he does with Katchen in the Piano Concerto. Damen’s Sibelius reminds us of his considerable musicianship though this does duplicate his meagre commercial discography (he recorded the Sibelius with the LPO under van Beinum, his only other extended outings on disc being the Mozart Turkish Concerto with Böhm in 1938 and as leader in Scheherazade once more for van Beinum). There is a lot of portamento in the first bars of the first movement and a fair degree of tempo variation. There is also some indecision over slowing tempi but otherwise, one or two technical chinks apart – most obviously at the beginning of the finale - Damen proves himself a laudable exponent, if one who tends very much to the cool side of Sibelius playing; his playing is not precisely the antithesis of Ginette Neveu’s fiery, almost contemporaneous recording but it occupies the kind of place, tonally and expressively, that, for example, Efrem Zimbalist does in relation to Heifetz or to Toscha Seidel; a nobility and lofty intelligence that sometimes lacks propulsion and verve.

The Symphonies are amongst the highlights of the set; without question absolutely essential purchases for Monteux admirers - the Third in particular. The depth of the bass sonorities at a steady tempo, the almost – it may be a cliché but it must be said – balletic elegance he imparts to the Scherzo, the delineation of string parts and entries, the sovereign command over detail and broad architectural span are all wonderful. The First Symphony is not over brisk; the continual sense of endemic architectural and expressive strain is a constant presence; clarity of articulation is equally a virtue here and the lyrical effusiveness of the slow movement is bathed in knowing affection, at a lyrically affecting tempo that never congeals. I suppose it’s possible to time those third movement pizzicatos better but I doubt it; the wind choir is in superb form here and the weight and appropriate weight of string tone an ever-present marvel even if some rallentandos won’t be to all tastes. The drive and integration of the final rounds off a must-have interpretation. Maybe Petrushka is slightly disappointing after the heady delight of Brahms but it was Monteux, after all, who had conducted the 1911 premiere (and plays that score declining the revised 1947 version). Technically this is an eloquent performance, a few minor details apart, and at a relaxed but never indolent tempo Monteux gives plenty of free rein to the colourful and rich orchestration and if ultimately I feel that it never quite grips, others may well disagree. There are other riches elsewhere in a strong Tragic Overture and a delightful talk between conductor, wife and John Amis (not Amos as per the booklet and was he really recording the London interview for the CBC not BBC?). If you want to know what Monteux thought about Toscanini buy the box. In fact buy it anyway – there are superb portrait photographs of Le Maître on the cardboard sleeves, two big booklets, one reprinting, in French, a chapter from Doris Monteux’s It’s all in the music and the other reprinting chapter IV of the same book and appending notes on performances and premieres with English translations.

Jonathan Woolf

see also review by John Quinn


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