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Great Conductors of the 20th Century: PIERRE MONTEUX
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony No. 2 (1802)
North German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Rec 1 October 1960, Musikhalle, Hamburg
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Prelude and Liebestod: Tristan und Isolde (1865)
North German Radio Symphony Orchestra
Rec 14 February 1964, Musikhalle, Hamburg
Paul HINDEMITH (1895-1963)

Symphony: Mathis der Maler (1934)
Danish Radio Symphony Orchestra
Rec 12 October 1962, Danish Radio Concert Hall, Copenhagen
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

Three Nocturnes (1899)
Women of the Berkshire Festival Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Rec 15 August 1955, Symphony Hall, Boston
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Music from The Sleeping Beauty, Opus 66 (1890)
London Symphony Orchestra
Rec 3-6 June 1957, Kingsway Hall, London
Claude-Joseph Rouget DE LISLE (1760-1836)

La Marseillaise

London Symphony Orchestra
Rec June 1962, Walthamstow Town Hall, London
In association with IMG Artists
EMI CLASSICS CZ5 75474 2 [2CDs: 73.03; 74.07]

The 'Great Composers of the 20th Century' series is a joint project between IMG Artists and EMI Classics. And most worthwhile it is proving, since reassessments are being made and new material entering the catalogue.

This 2CD set of recordings conducted by Pierre Monteux features the work of one of the most significant figures in 20th century music. For Monteux enjoyed a successful career that lasted from the years before the First World War until well into the 1960s. He therefore combined his pioneering work in the new music of the period (e.g. the first performance of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring) with a great many recordings which show him to be a true artist of the stereo era, and there are reasons for believing that his period as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, towards the end of his life, was a golden age.

Therefore these discs are well worth hearing and contain some really fine things. Best of all, surprisingly perhaps, is the performance of Beethoven's Second Symphony, recorded in Hamburg in 1960. This is beautifully judged, with expert internal balancing which is nicely captured by the skilfully mastered (and re-mastered) recording. The tempi are always perfectly judged, but above all the vigour is genuinely symphonic. As an interpretation of this under-rated score this seems hard to beat.

The performance of Wagner's Tristan music is also keenly atmospheric, and allows the second phase to grow naturally out of the first. Perhaps the recording has not quite the sense of atmosphere that marks out the very best in this competitive field. But in this competitive corner of the repertoire there is no question that Monteux is an artist who knows and loves the music.

Despite dating from the same era, the recording of Hindemith's marvellous Symphony, on themes from his opera Mathis de Maler, is wanting in presence and bloom. The integrity of Monteux's performance is sufficient to overcome these difficulties, but only with the conscious effort of the listener. For the string sound is weak and anaemic, and tuttis lack bloom and sonority. All this is a pity, since Monteux has clearly worked hard on the score and conducts and eloquent, thoughtful performance.

Doubts about the quality of the recorded sound persist in Debussy's Nocturnes, a performance recorded in Boston in August 1955. Here the problems are of a rather different order, since the sound is more full-bodied and the sonic aspects are more convincing. However, the focus of the sound is particularly close, in fact damagingly so. Consequently there is a lack of atmosphere in the opening movement, Nuages (Clouds), which is quite at odds with the musical agenda. The second movement is captured in bright sound but the outer sections fail to bring the atmosphere of the occasion to bear upon one of Debussy's most colourful and vibrant creations. The finale, Sirènes, has a persistent contribution from a wordless female chorus, but this is recorded rather close, missing the special atmosphere the music can generate.

Monteux was a devoted advocate of the Tchaikovsky ballet's, and a substantial selection from The Sleeping Beauty completes the collection. Tempi are well chosen, though occasionally, as in the Prologue, some of the phrasing could be more lovingly shaped. The listener may get used to the boxy sound, since this is an extended sequence, but n truth the music gains enormously from a modern recording with sonorous climaxes and a sense of space in the acoustic.

There is no question that this CD set shows Monteux as a venerable master of his craft, but in truth the majority of the performances can be bettered elsewhere, at least as far as quality of sound is concerned. On the credit side, the Beethoven Symphony No. 2 is worth the money all on its own.

Terry Barfoot

Great Conductors of the 20th Century series


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