In recent months the West Hill Radio Archives label has issued
some fascinating sets of live performances conducted by Charles
Munch and George Szell. Now they turn the spotlight on Pierre
Though the venue for these live recordings
is not specified in the documentation it’s a pretty safe bet
that without exception they are of performances given in Symphony
Hall, Boston after Pierre Monteux renewed his relationship with
the Boston orchestra. He had been Conductor of the BSO from
1919 to 1924 but was then dropped rather unceremoniously in
favour of Serge Koussevitzky. Despite warm words on the part
of the orchestra’s management at the time of his departure no
invitation to return to Boston was ever forthcoming during the
twenty-five years of Koussevitzky’s tenure and it was not until
Charles Munch took over the Boston podium that Le Maitre was
asked to return. He appeared in Boston in 1951 and thereafter
returned every season until his death in 1964. As his biographer,
John Canarina, writes in the booklet notes, he became, in effect,
the BSO’s principal guest conductor in all but name. From this
pair of discs it’s evident that a warm and effective rapport
was established between the orchestra and its distinguished
the only one of the three great Stravinsky ballets of which
Monteux did not conduct the première. But even then he was involved
in the work’s first performance, playing principal viola in
the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne. Perhaps it was this association
with the score from the outset that led him to prefer to conduct
the original scoring when, during his subsequent conducting
career, he programmed the suite from the ballet. In fact Canarina
tells us that he occasionally directed the 1919 suite but never
the 1945 version and he would comment to students about Stravinsky’s
revisions “each time he changed it, he made it worse”.
Monteux made a recording of the Suite for
Decca in 1956 and my copy of that recording is advertised as
the 1919 version. However, Canarina – who should know about
these things - asserts that the Decca recording was of the 1911
but minus two movements that are included in this Boston performance.
The movements in question are ‘Supplication of the Firebird’
and ‘The Princesses’ Game with Apples’. So, if for no other
reason than completeness, Monteux admirers will find this present
performance of interest. However, the performance is also well
worth hearing because it’s a jolly good one. Monteux is in total
sympathy with and command of the score and the BSO plays very
well for him. His reading of the score, which employs Stravinsky’s
original orchestration, sparkles and it’s also full of delicacy,
not least in the two movements already mentioned. Monteux can
also turn on the power and ‘The Infernal Dance of all Kashchei’s
Subjects’ is demonic and exciting. But it’s the quieter sections
that I admire the most, not least the beautifully calm ‘Berceuse’.
For the most part
the BSO playing here and elsewhere in the set is very fine indeed.
However, I ought to mention one thing that may not be to all
tastes. In his note accompanying another WHRA box, this time
of Boston performances by Charles Munch (WHRA 6015) John Canarina
very fairly draws attention to the “vibrato-laden” playing of
the BSO’s principal trumpet at this time, Roger Voisin. Canarina
comments that Voisin’s playing “calls attention to itself and
does not blend well.” I’m afraid he’s right. I can only assume
that the same player is involved in most of these performances
and there’s no doubt that there’s a distracting, piercing brashness
evident in the trumpet contributions to several climaxes in
this Firebird and elsewhere on the set.
The other Stravinsky
performance, of Pulcinella, is the most recent recording
in the set, dating from 1957. Paradoxically I find the sound
quality by some distance the least satisfactory. The sound is
somewhat boxy and the reproduction of the bass line is often
on the tubby side. Surprisingly the BSO playing is somewhat
below par in this score. Canarina refers to “some occasional
gruffness” in the playing, which is a very fair verdict. That
said, we’re given a spirited and often witty account by Monteux,
who led the BSO in the suite’s American première back in 1922.
I liked the helter-skelter ‘Tarantella’ and also the nice crisp
‘Toccata’. There’s a flavour of the Keystone Cops in the ‘Vivo’,
where one can easily imagine Monteux directing proceedings with
a twinkle in his eye.
The set also contains
a highly successful account of the Rosenkavalier Suite.
Though not specified as such in the track listing, John Canarina
tells us that Monteux here offers the suite arranged by Artur
Rodzinski in 1944. In fact Monteux made a couple of cuts, which
accounts for the fact that this performance lasts for 17:54,
whereas his 1956 performance which graces the BSO’s own Symphony
Hall Centennial Celebration CD set lasts for 21:44.
The present reading is hugely enjoyable. The Boston horns whoop
exultantly in the opening pages and later on the various waltzes
are delivered with splendid zest and wonderfully yielding rubato.
Best of all is Monteux’s treatment of the more lush and lyrical
stretches, all of which he phrases lovingly but without any
wallowing. The suite is built to a gorgeous climax (from 13:59
onwards) and though the first trumpet is over-emphatic in this
passage the horns ring out gloriously.
It’s good to hear
Monteux in a piece by Franck other than that dreadful old warhorse,
the Symphony in D minor, of which he must have become very tired.
He plays the Psyché Suite very well indeed. The first
and last of its four movements strike me as being particularly
successful. Le Maitre distils a lovely romantic ambience in
‘Psyché Asleep’, in which the BSO strings play with great finesse.
This whole movement is quite beautifully played and conducted.
The final ‘Psyché and Eros’ receives a memorable performance.
I’ve saved the best
till last. From 1954 comes what I can only describe as a formidable
performance of the Brahms concerto from Leon Fleisher, aided
and abetted at every turn by Monteux, himself a master in Brahms
and, of course, a celebrated concerto accompanist. Monteux sets
out his stall with a superb exposition of the opening orchestral
paragraph, in which he combines fire and poetry. Fleisher himself
delivers a gripping account of the solo part. In this movement
– and elsewhere – there are some occasional finger slips but,
frankly, who cares when the playing is so magnetic and compelling
as this? Fleisher’s playing has poise and strength and it teems
with life and energy. Even through the inevitable limitations
of sound that is more than fifty years old one can appreciate
the richness and depth of his tone. The big moments, such as
the dramatic downward plunge in octaves (at 10:13) are tremendously
exciting but just as impressive, if not more so, is the sensitivity
with which Fleisher invests the more reposeful stretches of
the movement. He and Monteux combine to produce a performance
of great sweep and purpose. This towering reading is rewarded,
deservedly, with prolonged applause.
gifts come into even greater play in the second movement, which
is introduced by some lovely, gently glowing playing by the
BSO. Fleisher often plays with serene sensitivity but above
all his playing evinces a big-hearted romanticism, which is
just right for the music. Not only that but the reading has
genuine nobility, thanks in no small part to Monteux’s contribution
from the podium.
The finale is white
hot. We hear a performance of great drive and energy. To be
honest, there are a couple of times when Fleisher’s playing
is just a bit too impulsive, his fingers run away with him and
the notes are smudged. However, it’s a red blooded, very exciting
performance that reminds us that this is the music of an ardent
young man. At the end the Boston audience accord the performers
an ovation that is wholly deserved.
performance of the Brahms crowns a splendid set. For the most
part the playing of the Boston Symphony is first rate and Monteux’s
performances are full of life and interest and thoroughly musical.
There are some inevitable sonic limitations but for the most
part the sound is clear and remarkably good and at all times
the very high quality of the music making is readily apparent.
John Canarina’s notes are excellent. There’s over two hours
of vivid music making here from one of the most characterful
of twentieth century conductors. I enjoyed it enormously and
I hope you will too.