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Pierre Monteux and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897):

Tragic Overture, Op. 81 (1881) [13’34"]
Recorded 14 May 1962
Symphony No 1 in C minor, Op 68 (1876) [42’38"]
Recorded 20 November 1963
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 (1879) [37’55"]*
Recorded 12 October 1950
Symphony No 3 in F Major, Op. 90 (1883) [36’26"]
Recorded 30 October 1960
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957):

Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 47 (1903, rev 1905) [29’53"]**
Recorded 1 November 1950
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971):

Petrushka, Ballet in four tableaux (1911 version) [34’49"]
Recorded 30 October 1960
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869):

Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14a (1830-31) [48’59"]
Recorded 20 May 1948
John Amis interviews Doris and Pierre Monteux, May 1963 [10’33"]
* Nathan Milstein (violin)
** Jan Damen (violin)
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam conducted by Pierre Monteux
Recorded in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam.
TAHRA TAH 175-178 [255’ 59"]


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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" of eighty-eight!

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 approve.

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 dreadful.

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 no wonder.

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 great conducting.

John Quinn

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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