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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D Minor (1888) [39:00]*
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Petrouchka (1911) [34:48]#
Chicago Symphony Orchestra*/Boston Symphony Orchestra#/Pierre Monteux
rec. Orchestra Hall, Chicago, 7 January 1961 *; Symphony Hall, Boston, 25, 26, 28 January 1959 #. ADD
BMG-RCA LIVING STEREO SACD 82876 678972 [74:08]

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RCA's Living Stereo recordings were always legendary for their high fidelity sound.  In this new DSD remastering - heard as a stereo disc rather than as an SACD - these recordings sound better than ever. There’s a real top-to-bottom clarity that belies the age of the master tapes.  According to the liner notes, the SACD adds a centre channel to the stereo left and right, which should enhance the perspective of instrumental entries, but you should not be deterred from buying this disc if you will hear it in stereo only.

Monteux's Franck D Minor with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra is one of his best ever recordings of any repertoire with any orchestra.  This is a reading to make you forget any faults in the work's form or thematic material as it sweeps you away with its energy and enthusiasm.  Not that Monteux's is a rabble-rousing, hell-for-leather affair like Munch's Boston recording: also for RCA and recently re-released at mid-price.  Monteux is more subtle, more French.  He knows when to let the music simmer, as with the very opening of the first movement, and when to pull out the stops and let the big organ-like sonority of this symphony rip; Franck, like Bruckner, was an organist of renown.  His tempo fluctuations seem perfect and he plays the music - especially the difficult adagio/scherzo central movement - with charm, turning corners with elegance.  Throughout, Reiner's Chicago Symphony Orchestra give Monteux their full attention and the benefit of their considerable skill.  Like their dour Hungarian chief, Monteux was one of the great stick technicians of the last century.  This orchestra made many fine recordings for Reiner, but they clearly enjoy playing for Monteux and there is a warmth in their playing as well as the expected pin-point accuracy.

There are other ways to play this symphony.  Munch blazes throughout.  Maazel is more incisive in his conception.  The better of his two recordings, made with the Cleveland Orchestra for Decca, is now available on Australian Eloquence.  If you love this piece, you will probably want one or both of those recordings, but you must have Monteux's.  If you do not know this piece yet, then you should let Monteux introduce you.  For Franckophiles young and old, Monteux's reading is essential.

After the Franck, it would be easy to view Petrouchka as merely a generous coupling, but this recording too has much to recommend it.

Monteux has a special authority in Petrouchka.  It was, after all, one of a glut of masterpieces of the early 20th century which Monteux premiered as house conductor of the Ballets RussesMonteux retained a special affection for this score and in his hands it emerges here fresh and imbued with Gallic charm.  The opening is more relaxed than has become the fashion, and the music smiles in a way that will surprise listeners more accustomed to the whip-lash, powerhouse readings that have latterly become so popular.  That said, Monteux does not let the music slacken – he substitutes dramatic for visceral tension.  The piece remains a narrative for him and he allows the characters to breathe and live.  Nowhere will you hear the tragi-comic puppet more sensitively portrayed.

The playing has sparkle and snap.  With the benevolent Frenchman at the rostrum, the individual players have room to characterise and phrase – the interplay between bassoon, flute and trumpet in the Valse movement is a case in point.  Monteux's divided violins also bring the string writing through clearly.  The difficult transitions are despatched so easily that you do not even notice them.

This Petrouchka will make you smile, and if you prefer to think of the score as a hard-driven virtuoso work for orchestra, Monteux's sensitive, balletic reading will take you by surprise.

In sum, an unsurpassed Franck D Minor and an excellent Petrouchka into the bargain.  Highly recommended.

Tim Perry


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