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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No. 94 in G major, Surprise (1791) [20:44]
Symphony No. 101 in D major, Clock (1793-4) [25:46]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme by Haydn, Op. 56a (1874) [17:00]
Wiener Philharmoniker(Haydn), London Symphony Orchestra (Brahms)/Pierre Monteux
rec. Sofiensaal, Vienna, 20-21 April 1959 (Haydn), Kingsway Hall, London, 8-9 December 1958 (Brahms). ADD
LONDON 452 893-2 [64:06]



What’s immediately striking about Pierre Monteux’s Surprise Symphony is its freshness of outlook, its sense of keen unfolding right from the first movement introduction. The Vivace assai main body of the movement has a shining verve coupled with an easy elegance and so is a fully rounded representation of Haydn. A pity there’s no exposition repeat. The development (tr. 1 3:24) is, as it should be, eventful and the entire movement’s progress has a commanding vigour.
 
The slow movement theme is marked to be played ‘simply’. Monteux is thoroughly straightforward about it but, being light on his feet, you also sense a smidgen of cheekiness which would explain the surprise of the sudden crashing chord which gives the symphony its nickname. It is given full force here. In the first variation (tr. 2 1:05) Monteux enjoys and emphasises the contrast of the heavy lower strings and elegant first violins. He brings what at first seems a mock gruffness to the second variation (2:08) but its writhing second section is more alarming. Variation 3 (2:58) spotlights the woodwind, rather ethereal here, partly because somewhat distanced in the recording. Variation 4 (4:00) is full-blooded grandeur with a relished swagger and heavyweight lumbering syncopation before the contrast of an introverted shadowy coda. So there’s plenty of character throughout.
 
The Minuet is on the sturdy side for Allegro molto but Monteux gives it swing too, so it becomes an intriguing blend of grandeur and rusticity. That teasingly quieter, slightly lingering passage late in the second section (tr. 3 1:19) finds its natural expansion in the delicately ruminative Trio (2:34). Monteux’s finale is Allegro di molto all right, a tour de force of nifty strings’ articulation and bracing semiquaver runs, a rondo whose episodes flash forth almost before you can draw breath. The timpani solo which should be loud (tr. 4 2:58) is on the tame side but not the movement’s sizzling culmination. In sum this is robust, not heavyweight, Haydn.
 
I compared the 1967 Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell (Retrospective RET 002). Here are the comparative timings.
 
Timings
I
 II
III
IV 
Total
Monteux
6:32
5:39
5:06
3:27
20:44
Szell
9:37 (7:21)
6:24 (6:09)
4:15
3:50
24:06 (21:35)

 
Szell makes the first movement exposition repeat but even without it, as I’ve indicated in brackets, is slower than Monteux. Szell’s first movement is more deliberately pointed, rhythmically very crisp but melodically less free than Monteux. His development is less tense and recapitulation less deft.
 
Szell creates greater contrasts in the slow movement so by the end it seems a portrait of a manic depressive, an intelligent expansion of that surprise. Monteux prefers to emphasise the movement’s integrity, the pervasive theme being varied. Szell benefits from woodwind of greater presence in variation 3 to create a delightful idyllic effect but Monteux’s beginningof the movement is more smiling. One oddity, Monteux doesn’t make the repeat of the first section of variation 2, so I’ve indicated in brackets above Szell’s timing for exact comparison were that repeat omitted.
 
Szell’s Minuet has more pace and swing than Monteux’s which makes it jollier but less graceful. His winsome Trio seems a miniature inhabiting its own world. Monteux’s Minuet isn’t Allegro molto but is more aristocratic and the more flexible tempo’s scope for contrast allows the Trio to expand the reflective vein introduced latterly in the Minuet. So again Monteux stresses the integration of elements.
 
Szell’s finale is cheery, then dazzling in its violins’ semiquaver runs and his timpani solo is loud and clear. However, Monteux is friskier. His semiquaver runs are more exciting and there’s an element of the frenetic, of risk taking beyond Szell’s impressive virtuosity.
 
Monteux’s Clock Symphony also has a first movement introduction of keen, exploratory focus with marked but not severe accents so the simple cheeriness of the opening of the Presto (tr. 5 1:55) then the boisterousness of its fuller-scored repetition emerge as a logical outcome. The second theme (2:51) is darting, then comely. The exposition repeat is made here. In the development (5:13) Monteux points the melodic containment of the phrases. In the recapitulation (6:46) the relaxation and regeneration of the second theme is emphasised. In no way is this hectic Haydn.
 
Nevertheless the Andante is well paced, not hanging about, cheery and quite jaunty with the repeat of the first section stylishly played slightly softer, though the second section isn’t repeated. The eruption in G minor (tr. 6 1:42) is very lively and the flute, oboe and bassoon detail when the theme returns in the first violins (2:45) charmingly characterized. You appreciate the intricate workings of this clock.
 
Monteux’s Minuet is a bit weighty for its Allegretto marking. Even so, its forward thrust is compelling and its verve has a feel of triumph about it. Also the loud and soft elements are cleanly contrasted, which allows the Trio consistently to combine the graceful and heroic, though its second section isn’t repeated. Monteux’s finale is assured and has an irresistible pulse, indeed a swashbuckling character once the first violins’ quaver runs get going in the first episode (tr. 8 1:24) and with even more excitement in the second (2:18) before the feathery high jinks of all the violins in the double fugue (2:56). This is terrific playing. 
 
I compared Royal Philharmonic Orchestra/Thomas Beecham recorded 1958-9 (EMI Gemini 5855132). Here are the comparative timings.

Timings
I
 II
III
IV
Total
Monteux
8:51
6:06 
6:34
4:15
25:46
Beecham
6:59 (8:26)
8:05
8:23 (7:18)
4:55
28:22 (28:44)


Beecham’s first movement introduction has more tension and sense of drama, drawn out so much that every note is made to count and to make a greater contrast with the more jubilant very fast main body of the movement which also sports a more fiery development. Beecham doesn’t repeat the exposition so the bracketed figure above offers an exact timing comparison. Monteux’s introduction has a stronger sense of continuity. His more deliberate Presto brings more charm to the second theme and resilience to the development.
 
Beecham’s clock is a pretty slow running one, though elegantly fashioned. He doesn’t repeat the second section of the theme either. Monteux’s opening is sweeter with more melodic shape discernible and the return of the theme with flute and bassoon accompaniment more graceful, bubbling brightly.
 
Beecham’s grander measure works better in his spruce Minuet though Monteux’s greater relaxation at first and contrast in mood and dynamic later is just as effective. Beecham does repeat the second section of a gentle Trio, so the bracketed timing above provides the exact comparison. Beecham’s finale opens with assurance and regality with neat articulation throughout, yet doesn’t quite match Monteux’s brio.
 
The Brahms Haydn Variations make a neat bonus. In Monteux’s interpretation again it’s the sheer momentum that stands out. The theme is easy flowing and jovial, aided by the prominence of the double bassoon bass. The first variation (tr. 9 1:54) is sheenily exploratory, the second (3:10) bracing, the third (4:11) comforting and growingly serene. Variation 4 (5:48), by contrast, is a doleful gaze at sadder times, but still moving on, a phase. Variation 5 (7:55) is an injection of vivacity. Variation 6 (8:50) continues this through the vigour of the horns. The seventh variation (9:56) is a gently lapping antidote, the eighth (12:24) a mysterious interlude. The finale (13:27) is all warmth as the orchestra elaborates over the theme in the string bass.
 
I compared the 1967 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/John Barbirolli recording (EMI Gemini 4769392) which is more leisurely, taking 18:21 against Monteux’s 17:00. Barbirolli treats the theme more benignly where Monteux gives it rusticity and open air quality. Monteux’s first variation has more of a sense of engagement. His third variation is rosier where Barbirolli is more restless. His fourth has a clearer melodic shape and sense of moving on where Barbirolli lolls desolate. Monteux’s seventh variation is calmly relaxed where Barbirolli is sleepy. However Barbirolli brings a warm sense of fulfilment to the finale where Monteux’s structural clarity doesn’t altogether escape the tension of gathering things together.
 
These Monteux performances are of abundant character and continuous fascination. The recordings still sound vivid, albeit with a slight tape hiss discernible. The Viennese have a slightly acid quality in the strings but that gives them a crispness too. The London recording is closer and of warmer bass. The Arkiv CD under review doesn’t have booklet notes but I understand all future releases will and existing releases are gradually being upgraded.
 
Michael Greenhalgh
 



 


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