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Pierre Monteux in Boston. Previously Unissued Performances, 1953-57
CD 1
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882–1971)
Firebird Suite (1911 version) [26:09]
rec. 11 April 1953
Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Rosenkavalier Suite [17:53]
rec. 11 April 1953
César FRANCK (1822–1890)
Psyché Suite [24:21]
rec. 29 January 1954
CD 2
Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op. 15* [46:53]
rec. 28 January 1954
Pulcinella Suite [21:09]
rec. 19 January 1957
Leon Fleisher (piano)*
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Recording venue not specified. AAD


Experience Classicsonline

In recent months the West Hill Radio Archives label has issued some fascinating sets of live performances conducted by Charles Munch and George Szell. Now they turn the spotlight on Pierre Monteux.

Though the venue for these live recordings is not specified in the documentation it’s a pretty safe bet that without exception they are of performances given in Symphony Hall, Boston after Pierre Monteux renewed his relationship with the Boston orchestra. He had been Conductor of the BSO from 1919 to 1924 but was then dropped rather unceremoniously in favour of Serge Koussevitzky. Despite warm words on the part of the orchestra’s management at the time of his departure no invitation to return to Boston was ever forthcoming during the twenty-five years of Koussevitzky’s tenure and it was not until Charles Munch took over the Boston podium that Le Maitre was asked to return. He appeared in Boston in 1951 and thereafter returned every season until his death in 1964. As his biographer, John Canarina, writes in the booklet notes, he became, in effect, the BSO’s principal guest conductor in all but name. From this pair of discs it’s evident that a warm and effective rapport was established between the orchestra and its distinguished guest.

Firebird was the only one of the three great Stravinsky ballets of which Monteux did not conduct the première. But even then he was involved in the work’s first performance, playing principal viola in the Orchestre des Concerts Colonne. Perhaps it was this association with the score from the outset that led him to prefer to conduct the original scoring when, during his subsequent conducting career, he programmed the suite from the ballet. In fact Canarina tells us that he occasionally directed the 1919 suite but never the 1945 version and he would comment to students about Stravinsky’s revisions “each time he changed it, he made it worse”.

Monteux made a recording of the Suite for Decca in 1956 and my copy of that recording is advertised as the 1919 version. However, Canarina – who should know about these things - asserts that the Decca recording was of the 1911 but minus two movements that are included in this Boston performance. The movements in question are ‘Supplication of the Firebird’ and ‘The Princesses’ Game with Apples’. So, if for no other reason than completeness, Monteux admirers will find this present performance of interest. However, the performance is also well worth hearing because it’s a jolly good one. Monteux is in total sympathy with and command of the score and the BSO plays very well for him. His reading of the score, which employs Stravinsky’s original orchestration, sparkles and it’s also full of delicacy, not least in the two movements already mentioned. Monteux can also turn on the power and ‘The Infernal Dance of all Kashchei’s Subjects’ is demonic and exciting. But it’s the quieter sections that I admire the most, not least the beautifully calm ‘Berceuse’.

For the most part the BSO playing here and elsewhere in the set is very fine indeed. However, I ought to mention one thing that may not be to all tastes. In his note accompanying another WHRA box, this time of Boston performances by Charles Munch (WHRA 6015) John Canarina very fairly draws attention to the “vibrato-laden” playing of the BSO’s principal trumpet at this time, Roger Voisin.  Canarina comments that Voisin’s playing “calls attention to itself and does not blend well.” I’m afraid he’s right. I can only assume that the same player is involved in most of these performances and there’s no doubt that there’s a distracting, piercing brashness evident in the trumpet contributions to several climaxes in this Firebird and elsewhere on the set.

The other Stravinsky performance, of Pulcinella, is the most recent recording in the set, dating from 1957. Paradoxically I find the sound quality by some distance the least satisfactory. The sound is somewhat boxy and the reproduction of the bass line is often on the tubby side. Surprisingly the BSO playing is somewhat below par in this score. Canarina refers to “some occasional gruffness” in the playing, which is a very fair verdict. That said, we’re given a spirited and often witty account by Monteux, who led the BSO in the suite’s American première back in 1922. I liked the helter-skelter ‘Tarantella’ and also the nice crisp ‘Toccata’. There’s a flavour of the Keystone Cops in the ‘Vivo’, where one can easily imagine Monteux directing proceedings with a twinkle in his eye.

The set also contains a highly successful account of the Rosenkavalier Suite. Though not specified as such in the track listing, John Canarina tells us that Monteux here offers the suite arranged by Artur Rodzinski in 1944. In fact Monteux made a couple of cuts, which accounts for the fact that this performance lasts for 17:54, whereas his 1956 performance which graces the BSO’s own Symphony Hall Centennial Celebration CD set lasts for 21:44. The present reading is hugely enjoyable. The Boston horns whoop exultantly in the opening pages and later on the various waltzes are delivered with splendid zest and wonderfully yielding rubato. Best of all is Monteux’s treatment of the more lush and lyrical stretches, all of which he phrases lovingly but without any wallowing.  The suite is built to a gorgeous climax (from 13:59 onwards) and though the first trumpet is over-emphatic in this passage the horns ring out gloriously.

It’s good to hear Monteux in a piece by Franck other than that dreadful old warhorse, the Symphony in D minor, of which he must have become very tired. He plays the Psyché Suite very well indeed. The first and last of its four movements strike me as being particularly successful. Le Maitre distils a lovely romantic ambience in ‘Psyché Asleep’, in which the BSO strings play with great finesse. This whole movement is quite beautifully played and conducted. The final ‘Psyché and Eros’ receives a memorable performance.

I’ve saved the best till last. From 1954 comes what I can only describe as a formidable performance of the Brahms concerto from Leon Fleisher, aided and abetted at every turn by Monteux, himself a master in Brahms and, of course, a celebrated concerto accompanist. Monteux sets out his stall with a superb exposition of the opening orchestral paragraph, in which he combines fire and poetry. Fleisher himself delivers a gripping account of the solo part. In this movement – and elsewhere – there are some occasional finger slips but, frankly, who cares when the playing is so magnetic and compelling as this?  Fleisher’s playing has poise and strength and it teems with life and energy. Even through the inevitable limitations of sound that is more than fifty years old one can appreciate the richness and depth of his tone. The big moments, such as the dramatic downward plunge in octaves (at 10:13) are tremendously exciting but just as impressive, if not more so, is the sensitivity with which Fleisher invests the more reposeful stretches of the movement. He and Monteux combine to produce a performance of great sweep and purpose. This towering reading is rewarded, deservedly, with prolonged applause.

Fleisher’s lyrical gifts come into even greater play in the second movement, which is introduced by some lovely, gently glowing playing by the BSO. Fleisher often plays with serene sensitivity but above all his playing evinces a big-hearted romanticism, which is just right for the music. Not only that but the reading has genuine nobility, thanks in no small part to Monteux’s contribution from the podium.

The finale is white hot. We hear a performance of great drive and energy. To be honest, there are a couple of times when Fleisher’s playing is just a bit too impulsive, his fingers run away with him and the notes are smudged. However, it’s a red blooded, very exciting performance that reminds us that this is the music of an ardent young man. At the end the Boston audience accord the performers an ovation that is wholly deserved.

This marvellous performance of the Brahms crowns a splendid set. For the most part the playing of the Boston Symphony is first rate and Monteux’s performances are full of life and interest and thoroughly musical. There are some inevitable sonic limitations but for the most part the sound is clear and remarkably good and at all times the very high quality of the music making is readily apparent. John Canarina’s notes are excellent. There’s over two hours of vivid music making here from one of the most characterful of twentieth century conductors. I enjoyed it enormously and I hope you will too.

John Quinn 


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