Pierre Monteux in Boston - A Treasury of Concert Performances 1951-58
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, 1951-58. ADD
full track-list at end of review
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA 6022 [8 CDs: 554:13]
In a note accompanying a West Hill set of CDs devoted to live performances by Fritz Reiner (WHRA 6024) Kenneth Morgan observes that in the USA the 1940s and 1950s constituted something of “a golden age when radio networks competed with one another to present prestigious musicians in broadcasts.” WHRA have been mining this rich seam assiduously and have already given us fascinating boxes of discs featuring such great conductors as Charles Munch and George Szell (see review list). About eighteen months ago I had the pleasure of reviewing a two-disc set of Boston Symphony performances by Pierre Monteux from WHRA. Now the same label has issued this much more substantial set of Monteux performances from Boston.
One thing that I like about this set is that it is much more than just a selection of individual items. Instead, within this box there are all the performances from three complete concerts, given respectively on 4 February 1955, 12 April 1957 and 4 January 1958. Furthermore, nearly all the music from three more complete concerts – those given on 1 December 1951, 28 January 1955, and 24 February 1956 – is included. Due, no doubt, to the running time of CDs these complete or near-complete concerts aren’t presented consecutively in the set but with a little bit of programming one can quite easily recreate them.
The concert on 1 December 1951 brought a rather unusual pairing of music by Wagner, one of Monteux’s two favourite composers, and Debussy. John Canarina, in his excellent notes, points out that there’s a certain commonality of spirituality between Parsifal and Le martyre de Saint Sébastien. He speculates that the remaining pieces were selected by Monteux to demonstrate contrast. In the booklet WHRA admit frankly that there are certain sonic shortcomings with these recordings though I can’t say that these spoiled my enjoyment too much. The one snag that they don’t mention is the audience. Frankly it’s a collective pain in the neck, constantly disturbing the music with coughing. Perhaps it was inadvisable to programme such delicate music at that time of year when coughs and colds are rife but, to be honest, the audience is ill-disciplined.
That said, the audience can’t detract from the quality of the music-making. The Parsifal Prelude receives a spacious and long-breathed interpretation. Monteux gives the music the necessary space and imparts a sense of vision. I should say that the first trumpeter is often too prominent in tone (sample track 1 between 5:09 and 7:02) both here and elsewhere in the programme but, that apart, the BSO offers high quality playing. The trumpeter is something of a problem also in the Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung – it sounds as if he’s playing a cornet!. Otherwise the interpretation is impressively tragic yet controlled. It’s just a pity that the audience is far too ready with its applause at the end.
The Debussy performances are equally good. Collectors will observe that there’s not much French music in this set. Both John Canarina and Michel Tibbaut, in the French language notes, make the point that Monteux disliked being labelled as a French repertoire specialist. He was very good in the music of his native country but these performances show him excelling mainly in German and Russian music, which I welcome. However, the Debussy pieces are well done. One interesting point to note is that Monteux played Gigues and Jeux as a sequence with only the briefest of pauses – and no applause – between them. Jeux receives an understanding and perceptive performance and the BSO play the score very well.
The concert of 28 January 1955 offered a most interesting programme. One item is not included here: the suite from The Black Maskers by Roger Sessions. That’s a piece I don’t know at all and I’d be very interested to hear what Monteux made of it, perhaps in a future WHRA box? Monteux admirers will be especially interested to hear him in Szymanowski’s First Violin Concerto, a piece that he never recorded commercially. Added interest is provided through the participation of soloist Roman Totenberg (b. 1911). John Canarina tells us that this Polish-born violinist, who settled in the USA, gave recitals with Szymanowski himself early in his career. So it can be assumed that his interpretation of the concerto has a certain authority and that’s how it comes across. Although composed in 1918 it must still have been a rarity in 1955 and, indeed, I wonder how often it had been played in the USA prior to this performance. It wouldn’t surprise me to find that Monteux learned the work especially for these concerts; if so then that demonstrates his commitment to new and unfamiliar repertoire even just a few weeks before his eightieth birthday. Totenberg is a fine soloist; his lovely tone seems ideal for this work; sample CD6, track 4, 1:56-3:17 for his ability to spin a singing line. He’s equally proficient in the fast passage-work. For his part, Monteux balances Szymanowski’s exotic, often voluptuous textures very capably. The performance as a whole mixes poetry and virtuosity but I’d describe the brief snatch of the audience’s reaction as sounding respectful rather than enthusiastic.
I’m sure Schumann’s Third Symphony was much more to their taste. Monteux leads a fine performance in which the extrovert outer movements are particularly successful. In the same programme he offered the Suite from Petrouchka. It’s a colourful performance, not least in the Shrovetide Fair music. The start of the Coachmen’s Dance is a bit too stately for my taste but the tempo soon picks up to a more satisfactory pace. The trouble with this performance is that Monteux conducts only the Suite. This, it seems, was something he did but rarely. The concert ending may be by the composer himself but it’s far too abrupt and the full ballet score is infinitely to be preferred. Happily, we encounter that elsewhere in this set.
A few days later, on 4 February 1955 Monteux offered an all-Tchaikovsky programme, which is included here in full. Though the Sixth Symphony was included the remainder of the programme was less familiar. I was delighted to find the Fantasy-Overture Hamlet on the bill for this has always seemed to me to be an unjustly neglected piece. Unfortunately, it is presented here in a cut version. WHRA don’t mention this, which is surprising as they scrupulously detail cuts made in the two following pieces. I don’t have access to a score but comparison with Stokowski’s stunning 1958 New York recording (review) reveals at least one substantial cut by Monteux – at 2:10 – and his whole reading is more than five minutes shorter than the 19:17 taken by Stokowski. That’s a pity because the performance is otherwise a good one and it’s not a work he recorded commercially. The plaintive oboe solo – Ophelia’s Theme – is well played (4:29 - 5:47) and the short, grief-laden conclusion is very well handled by Monteux. There’s a small cut in the Theme and Variations from the Suite No. 4 but this is of little consequence since it knocks off the last sixteen bars of the violin solo variation, which is over-long in the first place. The reading of this piece is very stylish and Monteux’s evident affection for Tchaikovsky’s music comes through strongly.
The Concert Fantasy in G features a pianist, Vera Franceschi (1926-1966), whose life was tragically cut short by illness. It’s far from top-drawer Tchaikovsky and the several cuts that are made – all listed in the booklet – are probably no great loss. It’s another work that I doubt Monteux conducted very often but he was renowned as an accompanist and he supports his soloist expertly. Miss Franceschi is a dexterous soloist. However, she’s also capable of delicacy, as witnessed by her musing playing in parts of the first movement (track 3, 3:13- 4:30) before she unleashes the power at 7:05.
The performance of the ‘Pathétique’ precedes by a few days Monteux’s studio recording. It’s very convincing. The main allegro section of I is fiery and exciting and from 13:09, at the start of the long haul to the main climax, the Boston strings really dig in passionately, with powerful, doom-laden brass as their companions. The second movement is quite fleet but comes over well; the melancholic second subject is handled expertly. The performance of III is fast, exciting and precise; no wonder the audience applauded at the end. The finale is outstanding and very moving. The BSO strings are superb in the doleful opening pages and the hushed intensity of the playing at times (for example between 1:54 and 3:06) is quite remarkable. This is a very fine live ‘Pathétique’.
A year later, on 24 February 1956, Monteux was back with a mixed programme, most of which is preserved here. Missing is his reading of the Second Symphony of Paul Creston. A month before, on 22 January, he’d performed the work with the New York Philharmonic. That recording is available, but only as part of the NYPO’s very expensive boxed set, An American Celebration. I’m sure collectors would be interested if WHRA issued the Boston performance. The remainder of the programme contained pillars of the classical repertoire. Haydn’s 94th Symphony gets a nice performance. There’s evident geniality in I while II is given with the musical equivalent of a twinkle in the eye and the finale sparkles.
Unlike the Haydn, Schubert’s Ninth Symphony is not included in Monteux’s commercial discography so it’s very good to have it here. The score is shorn of all repeats. Normally I prefer to hear repeats included, as I believe the composer specified them for a reason. However, for all its felicities, this symphony is one score that can seem very long and here, in a concert performance, I don’t object to hearing Monteux omit the repeats. It’s a good performance too. One point to note is that after the introduction to I, which is fairly expansive, Monteux does not make the traditional accelerando into the main allegro but, instead, holds his pace steady. I can’t readily recall hearing it done this way but it works and I find that even without an accelerando Monteux is able to maintain tension. By contrast, after he’s relaxed the tempo for the second subject of the allegro he does make an accelerando to get back to tempo primo. There’s no pompous slowing at the end of the movement, which I like very much. The second movement is surprisingly brisk – we might be listening to a HIP performance! However, at this pace the music has a pleasing open-air charm. In III the music dances along merrily. The trio is warm and affectionate but even here the music is moved forward nicely. Add to all this a finale that displays fine energy and you have a most enjoyable reading of the symphony – and one that’s of a manageable length!
The concert of 12 April 1957 includes a fine, alert account of The Hebrides and a most persuasive reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth. The second movement of the symphony is graced by a cultured, expressive horn solo and there’s also fine work in this movement from the principal clarinettist and oboist. Here, and elsewhere in the work, Monteux conveys the passion in the music but in a controlled way. The finale is energetic, after a dignified introduction, but I disliked the way Monteux momentarily pulls back the speed at 4:59 when the brass plays the motto theme; it sounds pompous.
The concert also included Le Sacre du Printemps – it’s unclear in what order the works were presented. There is another Boston/Monteux recording of Le Sacre, issued by Guild Records (review), which took place the previous evening, on 12 April 1957. It’s fascinating to note that Monteux was appreciably quicker overall in the first performance (the Guild version), which clocks in at 30:34 whereas he took nearly two minutes longer the following evening. The WHRA transfer is at a lower level – the Guild transfer sounds brighter – but on the WHRA set the principal bassoonist does not repeat the “fluff” that he made 2:27 into the performance on 12 April. I was a little bit surprised to find two recordings from consecutive performances. However, I have it on very good authority that in those days there were two radio stations that broadcast BSO performances, one relaying the Friday concerts and one the Saturday performances. Those were the days!
Monteux leads an excellent performance. Canarina’s note draws attention to the prominence of the timpani and trumpets as compared with Monteux’s 1951 commercial recording. By and large I find this isn’t a huge issue: I like to hear lots of percussion in Le Sacre. The reading generates plenty of excitement but the delicate passages, such as the diaphanous textures at the start of the Introduction to Part Two, are beautifully handled. Monteux is an expert judge of tempi – Canarina points out that his experience of conducting the score in the pit was vital in this regard. So, for instance, the speed for ‘Jeu du Rapt’ is on the steady side by comparison with many performances one has heard but Monteux proves music doesn’t have to be frenetic to be exciting. I have to admit that the trumpets and drums do rather become too much of a good thing between 2:15 and 2:55 of the final ‘Danse Sacrale’ and again towards the very end of the score but nonetheless, this performance is a valuable document.
The last complete concert is from 4 January 1958. It includes another work not recorded by Le Maitre: Prokofiev’s 'Classical' Symphony. The orchestra produces a Big Band sound but that doesn’t matter. The performance is a delight. The first movement is vivacious. The speed in II is perhaps a little slower than one is used to, as John Canarina points out, but I’m happy to hear it like this when it’s played with such grace. The pace of III is again a little steady but it’s perfectly convincing while Monteux’s account of the finale is zesty and quicksilver. Truly, he makes this symphony sound like Prokofiev’s homage to Haydn, aided by athletic and infectious playing by the BSO.
The concert also included a performance of the complete Petrouchka ballet that, inter alia, shows us what we miss when only the Suite is played. Monteux presides over a vibrant and colourful performance, which is highly enjoyable. But I mean no disrespect when I say that even that fine performance is put in the shade by the electrifying reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. This is high-octane music-making and, to mix the metaphors, the BSO respond to Monteux’s direction like thoroughbreds. The first movement, Tchaikovsky’s most tightly argued symphonic movement, is thrilling. I must admit that I find parts of II are on the brisk side: I’m not sure how well this will wear on repeated listening but much of the movement is given at a “conventional” speed and there are some fine woodwind solos. There’s a virtuoso rendition of III and then IV is hugely exciting and, unsurprisingly, prompts a huge ovation. This is a real edge-of-the–seat performance and I’m thrilled that WHRA have made it available.
Turning to the remaining works in the collection, I have to own up that Bartók’s music is not to my taste so I’m not really qualified to judge this performance of the Second Violin Concerto. That said, it does seem that John Canarina is right to praise the “brilliant performance” of soloist Tossy Spivakovsky (1907-1998). He’d given the American première of the work in 1943. The accompaniment must be a tricky proposition but as far as I can tell Monteux seems fully on top of the score. I’m much more familiar with Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations and can report that Monteux’s reading is a conspicuous success. Nothing is forced or seems out of place and he is fully inside the score, which he went on to record with the LSO in the following year. Who said you have to be English to conduct English music? There’s just one small flaw in my view: Monteux gets the timpani to sustain a roll between the final chords and I wish he hadn’t done that. But the performance as a whole is very enjoyable.
And the phrase “very enjoyable” is one way to describe this whole set. I found the music-making to be consistently interesting, stimulating and alive. The Boston Symphony offer Monteux top quality playing and this set is a real feast for collectors. Inevitably, some allowances have to be made for the fact that the recordings are in some cases nearly sixty years old and sometimes the balances can be a little askew – a prominent glockenspiel in Petrouchka (complete ballet) springs to mind – but there was nothing that seriously marred my listening pleasure.
The presentation is excellent. As is usual with WHRA the notes are interesting, readable and informative. There are two different essays, one in English and one in French. The English note is by the conductor and biographer of Monteux, John Canarina, and it’s very good. Michel Tibbaut contributes the French essay. That too is good, though I wish he’d devoted more space to talking about the performances – as Canarina does – and said less about Monteux’s overall career.
Monteux’s many admirers will find this set a mandatory purchase and one that will give them hours of pleasure. And the even better news is that I understand another even larger box is on the way from WHRA, containing more 1950s performances by the Boston Symphony under Pierre Monteux. What an orchestra! What a conductor!
See also review by Jonathan Woolf
Monteux’s many admirers will find this set a mandatory purchase and one that will give them hours of pleasure.
Full track listing:
Pierre Monteux in Boston. A Treasury of Concert Performances 1951-58
CD 1 [76:38]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809 – 1847)
Overture: The Hebrides (Fingal’s Cave), op.26 (1829/1835) [9:42]
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No 94 in G major ‘Surprise’, Hob.I.94 (1791) [20:30]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 9 in C major Great D.944 (1828) [46:16]
CD 2 [75:03]
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major Rhenish (1850) [31:14]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 5 in E minor Op. 64 (1888) [43:44]
CD 3 [76:32]
Edward ELGAR (1857-1934)
Enigma – Variations on an original Theme, Op.36 (1899) [27:33]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Rite of Spring (1913) [32:21]
Petrouchka Suite (1947 version) [16:29]
CD 4 [64:45]
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Hamlet, Op.67 (1888) [13:56]
Suite No. 4 in G major, Op.61 'Mozartiana' – Mvt IV Theme and Variations (1887) [14:37]
Concert Fantasy for piano and orchestra Op.56 (1884) [22:08] ¹
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Symphony No.1 in D Major, Op.25 'Classical' (1916-1917) [13:49]
CD 5 [59:37]
Peter llyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No.6 in B minor, Op.74 ‘Pathétique’ (1893) [45:59]
Vincent D’INDY (1851-1931)
Istar, symphonic variations for orchestra (1897) [13:33]
CD 6 [62:27]
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Violin Concerto No. 2, BE 117 (1937-38) [37:57] ²
Karol SZYMANOWSKI (1882-1937)
Violin Concerto No. 1 Op. 35 (1916) [24:25] ³
CD 7 [66:34]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Parsifal – Prelude (1865-82) [15:11]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Le martyre de Saint Sébastien: Fragments symphoniques (1911) – omits last two movements [10:09]
Richard WAGNER (1813–1883)
Götterdämmerung – Dawn and Rhine Journey (1876) [10:35]
Götterdämmerung – Funeral Music (1876) [6:59]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Trois Images pour orchestre (1905-12); Gigues; and continuous with applause to Jeux (1912) [23:19]
CD 8 [72:37]
Pyotr llyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No. 4 in F minor (1877) [38:31]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Petrouchka (original 1911 version) [33:59]
Vera Franceshi (piano) ¹
Tossy Spivakovsky (violin) ²
Roman Totenberg (violin) ³
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston 1951-58
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA 6022 [8 CDs: 554:13]