One of the most pleasing
things about the recent Monteux discography
has been the opening up of archives
detailing his stints in San Francisco
and with the Concertgebouw. His tenure
of the former was marked by a number
of commercial 78s and Music and Art’s
large Monteux box set was devoted to
live performances. In Amsterdam, where
he first conducted in 1924, he was co-director
with Mengelberg between 1924-25 and
1933-34 and he conducted them frequently
between 1948 and 1963. All the present
concert performances are apparently
first releases. They derive from two
concerts; the bulk from a 1950 Amsterdam
concert, including the Brahms Concerto
with Wilhelm Backhaus, reprising his
famous interpretation, one that he’d
first set down eighteen years before
in London with Boult and was to do so
again in a few years time with Bohm.
The Berlioz Symphonie fantastique is
from a 1962 performance recorded live
All examples of Le
Maître’s work are to be cherished
but some are more problematic than others.
This relates here not to the performances
but to the recording. Taken down on
acetates the 1950 concert is in uniformly
dim sound with a considerable number
of acetate scuffs, that (alarmingly)
increase and decrease unexpectedly.
As with all such problems it’s most
acute when we get a clear patch of pristine
sound. The ear naturally rebels against
it. Quite a bit needs to be taken on
trust, though in the earlier performance
though we can certainly divine the splendid
stamp of Backhaus’ performance, one
that happily divides critics. The proportions
of his playing are generally unchanged
from the Boult commercial HMV (find
it on Naxos) though his opening movement
under Monteux is slightly more relaxed.
Monteux was a famous Brahmsian and brings
out middle voices tellingly (he had
of course been a violist in his youth
and had played for Brahms), always acting
as an apt foil for Backhaus; the conductor’s
lyric intensity is cogently allied to
the pianist’s more granitic qualities.
It’s a powerful traversal but vitiated
by the sound and for specialists only.
The same applies to
the Stravinsky and Le carnaval romain.
Monteux was usually slower than Stravinsky
in The Firebird and so it proves here.
The compensations however are those
of a conductor equipped with a virtuoso
command of orchestral colour and timbre;
the avian winds of the Supplication
de L’Oiseau de feu for example or
the powerfully exciting, and brisk,
Infernal Dance (which has an
unfortunate interjection of a noise
like a spray can in operation, which
tends to dampen ardour temporarily).
Le carnaval romain is taken at a Beechamesque
gallop rather than a Munch lope but
the same strictures apply to the sound.
The Symphonie fantastique was taped
the year before Monteux’s death. Here
the recorded sound is good. There is
such fantasy and colour here, much better
than his last commercial recording in
Vienna, though not as visceral or as
galvanising as the 1945 San Francisco
(the second of what I think were five
commercial traversals). Talking earlier
of Munch it’s clearly remarkable how
divergent their views of this work remained.
Munch was much more febrile and quick,
more precise perhaps in certain instances;
Monteux took the larger view, coloured
and shaded with deftness, though lacked
nothing in punch, as he shows here,
where the rubato is excellently controlled
in Un bal and where the winds
shine in the Scène aux champs.
The notes tend to reprint
anecdotes from Doris Monteux’s recollections.
We’re not told where the source material
comes from. As I suggested earlier,
though there are valuable things here,
an amount is discographical duplication
and an amount is in relatively poor
sound. For Monteux admirers I think
– but valuable for them.