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Pierre Monteux
Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Russian Easter Festival Overture, Op. 36** (1888) [9:29]
Christmas Night from ‘Christmas Eve’ ***(1895) 14:00]
Capriccio Espagnol, Op. 34**** (1887) [14:09]
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)
Polovtsian Dances – ‘Prince Igor’ *****(1869-1887) [8:37]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre du Printemps* (1913) [30:34]
San Francisco Symphony Orchestra; *Boston Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
rec. *12 April 1957, Symphony Hall, Boston; **13 April 1952:***19 December 1943;****2 March 1952; *****23 December 1951. ADD
GUILD GHCD2342 [77:14]

 

Experience Classicsonline

Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) had a major career on both sides of the Atlantic. This CD of live performances usefully brings together the two principal strands of his North American career. From 1919 to 1924 Monteux was principal conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and he returned to it regularly as a guest conductor from 1951 until his death. At Boston he rebuilt the orchestra’s fortunes after the Great War and the internment of the orchestra’s previous permanent conductor, Karl Muck. In 1936 he was invited to take over the podium of the San Francisco Symphony, acting as their principal conductor until 1952 and once again he rebuilt the orchestra. Indeed, his achievement on the west coast was arguably even more significant than in Boston, for the San Francisco orchestra had been crippled by financial difficulties in the years before he arrived there and it was, in effect, reconstituted on his arrival.

The most important item on this disc is the 1957 performance of Le Sacre du Printemps. Monteux had conducted the notorious première of the work and he remained associated with it throughout his career. For example, it was on the very first programme that he conducted in Boston when he returned to that orchestra in 1951. Incidentally, in his booklet note Robert Matthew-Walker states that after leaving Boston in 1924 the conductor “maintained a close association with the Boston Symphony until his death.” I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Monteux was pretty much ousted from Boston. Koussevitsky was engaged as his successor even before Monteux’s contract expired and he was never included on the Boston roster of guest conductors until Charles Munch succeeded Koussevitsky and almost immediately invited Monteux back.

In 1956 he made his last recording of Le Sacre, a studio account in stereo for RCA with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. In his biography of Monteux, Pierre Monteux, Maître (2003) the conductor, John Canarina laments that the record company didn’t wait until Monteux performed the piece in Boston the following year. Hearing this live account now I can only agree with him. The Paris performance, though captured in good stereo sound, is a tepid affair, in which the orchestra sounds by turns tentative and uninspired. By contrast this Boston version shows what Monteux could achieve when he had a fully engaged virtuoso band at his disposal. True, the sound is not as good as that on the Paris stereo recording – there’s a lack of front-to-back depth at times and the recording is somewhat close. Also there are times when the percussion distorts significantly. It must be said too that although the BSO plays superbly there are one or two slips, as one often finds in live performance. Thus, for instance, the bassoonist falters momentarily when he repeats his opening solo. However, the few such minor lapses didn’t spoil my pleasure and they convey the feeling of a live, unedited occasion.

However, to compensate for any sonic deficiencies you get a reading of real bite and rhythmic drive. As a performance this is the real deal. It’s not flashy but it has great spirit and urgency, though the tempi are never unduly pressed  – remember that, unlike many conductors who essay Le Sacre, Monteux had significant experience of directing the work in the pit. Frequently I marvelled at the fact that Monteux could inspire such an energetic performance eight days after his eighty-second birthday. And though the extrovert moments are tremendously exciting I found that just as impressive are the quieter passages, such as the openings to both Part I and Part II, where Monteux achieves fine clarity of texture. As far as I’m aware this hugely impressive reading has never been available on CD before – I think it had limited circulation years ago on a small LP label – and Guild deserve our thanks for making it available. It shows Monteux’s association with Le Sacre in a far better light than did the RCA recording.

The other performances all come from Monteux’s time in San Francisco and, specifically, from the fortnightly contributions that he and his orchestra made to a Sunday evening series of radio broadcasts sponsored by Standard Oil – on alternate weeks the Los Angeles Philharmonic provided the broadcasts. Robert Matthew- Walker asserts in his notes that the Rimsky-Korsakov pieces are here “brought together as a collection for the first time on CD” but I’m afraid that’s not so. All these performances, and the Borodin piece too, were included in the Music & Arts box Sunday Evenings with Pierre Monteux (CD –978 and later reissued in an expanded form as CD-1192). This collection was reviewed most enthusiastically by Jonathan Woolf.

The performances are all most enjoyable though the Borodin is given in a slightly truncated form, I believe, and anyway I never see the point in doing this piece without chorus. The Russian Easter Festival Overture receives a colourful and spirited reading and I also enjoyed the magical, glittering quiet start to Christmas Night. Comparing the transfers of these San Francisco recordings with those on Music & Arts, the Guild versions have more warmth and body – I suspect the transfer has been more interventionist. Purists may object but, though the Music & Arts transfers are fully acceptable, I preferred the listening experience provided by Guild. The sound quality varies somewhat: the Christmas Night recording, which is the oldest, is the most beset by surface noise. Though no recording location is specified I assume that all these performances took place in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, which was the orchestra’s home in those days.

Don’t be put off by any sonic considerations. Without exception the performances on this CD are vital, idiomatic and full of interest. Monteux’s mastery in Russian music is at all times evident. Summing up the Music & Arts set of San Francisco Sunday broadcasts, Jonathan Woolf wrote “Sixteen hours with Pierre Monteux is no time at all, so zestful, so clear, so deft his musicianship and so sympathetic his conducting.” How true! I enjoyed that box every bit as much as he did but, even at the advantageous price, it’s a significant investment. It’s good, therefore that Guild have made available these Rimsky and Borodin performances in a much more economical package. But the raison-d’être for this disc must surely be the opportunity it affords us to hear Monteux at the helm of a virtuoso orchestra in a concert performance of Le Sacre. The sound may be imperfect at times but it’s an unmissable experience, and not just for admirers of Le Maitre such as myself.

John Quinn

 

 


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