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CD & Download: Pristine Classical

Pierre Monteux - Early Recordings
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Le Sacre de Printemps
(1913) [32:22]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Le petit poucet
(Ma mère l’oye)* (1911) [3:46] La valse (1920)*** [10:41]
Piero COPPOLA (1888-1971)
Interlude dramatique
* [8:30]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Fête Polonaise
(Le Roi malgré lui)** (1887) [7:08]
Orchestre Symphonique de Paris/Pierre Monteux
rec. Salle Pleyel, Paris, 23-25 January 1929; *3 February 1930; **29 January 1930; ***31 January 1930

Experience Classicsonline

This CD contains some very important audio documents. It was Pierre Monteux who conducted the notoriously disrupted first performance of Le Sacre du Printemps in Paris on 29 May 1913. A few months short of sixteen years later he made this recording of the work in the same city. I’m not sure if this was the first recording of the work for I believe that the composer himself made a recording in that same year and I don’t know which one was set down first. However, what is important about this recording is that perhaps, with the work’s first interpreter on the podium, it allows us to get as close as we’re ever likely to get to experiencing what the première of Le Sacre may have sounded like - without the first night audience commotion. Indeed, it’s perfectly possible that some of the players involved in this recording may have taken part in that infamous première.
Nowadays, when youth orchestras will give a performance of Le Sacre with panache and even insouciance and when the work has become a calling card for most professional orchestras it almost sounds too easy. Not here. In this imperfectly played and imperfectly recorded account we get more than a sense of the demands that this score, which must have seemed outlandish at the time, made on its early players. There’s one other thing to throw into the equation. The Orchestre Symphonique de Paris had been formed as recently as 1928 and, in his biography of the conductor, Pierre Monteux, Maître (2003), John Canarina says that Monteux became the orchestra’s principal conductor in the spring of 1929 - so possibly just after this recording was made. Incidentally, Canarina - himself a conductor who directed some Havergal Brian symphonies for the BBC in the 1970s - states that the Salle Pleyel, the intended venue for the orchestra’s concerts, had been damaged by a fire and as a result the orchestra was unable to perform in it until December 1929. So I wonder if the recording of Le Sacre was indeed made there, as stated by Pristine. Until December 1929, Canarina says, the orchestra gave its concerts in the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées. It’s possible, therefore, that this recording of the work was made in the very building where it had first been heard in public. If so, that would be a very neat symmetry.
Monteux leads a vital, energetic performance. There is no doubt that the orchestra, which had not then been honed into a fully proficient ensemble, is frequently taxed by the music. There are several instances where the players are audibly hanging on for dear life: ‘Danse de la terre’ (track 7) and ‘Glorification de l’Élue’ (track 10) are among the most obvious examples and the concluding ‘Danse sacrale’ is very scrappy at times. However there’s a raw energy to the performance and the primitive feel that’s imparted by hearing the music played by a fallible band, reproduced in early sound, lends its own fascination and excitement.
Unsurprisingly, given that the recording was made eighty-one years ago, the engineers were as challenged by the score as were the players. The strings are too forwardly balanced, as in ‘Cercles mystérieux des adolescentes’ (track 9). On the other hand, the horns sound as if they were in the room next door at the start of ‘Jeux des cités rivals’ (track 5) and, in general, both this section of the orchestra and the crucial percussion section are far too distantly balanced. There’s also significant hiss at times, especially at the very start. But, those sonic imperfections notwithstanding, it’s quite remarkable what the engineers of the day were able to pick up - one wonders if they’d ever had to contend with such a large orchestra - and it’s just as remarkable how much detail Mark Obert-Thorn has been able to salvage, not least when one reads in his notes how variable were the source discs available to him. 

A year later and Monteux had audibly improved the standards of the orchestra and the engineers were better able to record them. The recordings of the two Ravel pieces are particularly successful. The excerpt from Ma mère l’oye, which is certainly lightly and transparently scored by comparison with Le Sacre is much more accurately reported by the recording and Monteux obtains more cultivated playing. La valse offers the best performance of all on the disc. Monteux is vital and energetic in his direction and the orchestra plays very well for him - listen to the way the strings swoon in the passage beginning at 1:43. Again, it’s important to remember that these Ravel pieces were pretty new music at the time these recordings were made. Indeed, I wonder if either or both were the very first recordings of these pieces.
The Chabrier piece is the sort of music that was meat and drink to Monteux and he doesn’t disappoint here with a reading that’s full of verve. The Interlude dramatique by Piero Coppola, best remembered as a conductor, was new to me. I doubt I’ll be returning to what struck me as a pretty empty piece that’s somewhat long on rhetoric but short on real musical substance.
Clearly this is a disc that’s going to be of interest mainly to specialist collectors. Despite the sonic limitations all admirers of Le Maître and anyone interested in Le Sacre and its performing history will want to hear it. According to the discography in John Canarina’s biography all these recordings have been available before. All five pieces were issued on Dante Lys-2374 and Pearl let us have the Stravinsky, Coppola and Chabrier items. However, the convenience of having all five of these recordings together will be attractive to many listeners and though I haven’t heard the other transfers I doubt anyone will have surpassed Mark Obert-Thorn’s skill in effecting these present transfers.
John Quinn



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