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
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
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
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
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
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.