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
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,
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
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.
Conductors of the 20th Century series