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Inédits Pierre Monteux
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Piano Concerto No.1 Op.15 #
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)

The Firebird Suite
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Le carnaval romain
Symphonie fantastique
Wilhelm Backhaus (piano) #
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Recorded in Amsterdam, 19th October 1950, except Symphonie Fantastique, recorded in Vienna, 4th June 1962.
TAHRA TAH 541-542 [2 CDs 71.00 + 62.35]

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 in Vienna.

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.

Jonathan Woolf

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