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Pierre Monteux with the Boston Symphony Orchestra
Ten Concerts from the 1958 and 1959 Seasons
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
Full track listing at end of review
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA 6034 [11 CDs: 821:54]

Experience Classicsonline



A little while ago I had the pleasure of reviewing a WHRA box of 8 CDs containing live performances by Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the 1950s. That box included all the music given at three concerts and the bulk of three more programmes. Now the same label is even more generous in offering 11 CDs – at a price equivalent to that for seven discs – with material from ten concerts in 1958 and 1959. Not only is the price concession generous, it’s also realistic for this present set contains a few items – though not many – that appear in the earlier box. It also includes a performance of the First Piano Concerto by Brahms in which Leon Fleisher is the soloist. Fleisher and Monteux appeared together in the same work in an earlier WHRA set that I reviewed but the performances are not the same; the one in this latest set was given in 1958 whereas the earlier set preserved a 1954 traversal. It will also be noted that this present box contains two performances of the Brahms Violin Concerto, though with different soloists. However, I think that the advantageous price for this set means that collectors need not be unduly concerned about the relatively small amount of duplication.

The lengths of some of the concert programmes mean that it’s not always possible to accommodate the full programme for one concert on a single CD. However, in many cases it’s possible to hear a complete programme without changing discs. Helpfully, there’s a complete list of each concert programme near the back of the booklet; that list contains one small error in that the Hindemith Nobilissima Visione is not omitted from the discs, as is suggested. I spotted just one other slight slip in an otherwise scrupulously documented set: the track listing indicates that only the Tristan Liebestod is played but in fact it’s paired, as so often in concert, with the Prelude.

As we’ll see, the repertoire on these discs plays to a lot of Le Maître’s well-known strengths, though there are some items that he never recorded commercially – eight in all, plus the Wagner soprano arias on CD 5. We’re in largely familiar Monteux territory on Disc One though the Felix Weingartner arrangement of the Grosse Fuge – in a muscular performance – is new to the Monteux discography, I think, as it’s one of those pieces he never took into the studio. Monteux offers just four items from Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, which leaves one wanting more, since what is played here is very polished; Monteux achieves some translucent textures. In complete contrast stands Don Juan, which receives a thrusting reading.

Disc Two brings the first of two accounts of the Brahms Violin Concerto. This one features the Russian, Leonid Kogan, who had made his US debut, presumably also playing the Brahms, with Monteux and the BSO the previous day. Kogan is a muscular soloist in the first movement but neither here nor in the glorious second movement does he come up short in the work’s lyrical aspects. He and Monteux make the finale a celebratory affair. The performance of La Valse is stunning; Monteux brings out all the hedonism of the piece.

Disc Three brings more Brahms in the shape of the First Piano Concerto – what a shame there are no symphony performances in this set as well. Here Monteux teams up once more with Leon Fleisher - as previously mentioned, WHRA have also issued a 1954 performance by these same artists. I confess that shortage of time has prevented me from comparing the two performances but re-reading just now my review of the 1954 traversal I see that I was pretty impressed by it and I was definitely impressed with this 1958 account. In a word, it’s superb. Fleisher is magisterial while Monteux demonstrates that he is both a wonderfully alert accompanist and also a masterful interpreter of Brahms. To cap it all, the disc also includes a vibrant, colourful reading of Petrushka, a Monteux speciality. That must have been a fabulous concert to attend and we can recreate it in full by going back to Disc Two and playing the Academic Festival Overture, which opened proceedings at that July 1958 Tanglewood concert.

Disc Four takes us mainly to Russia, opening with a brilliant account of the Ruslan and Ludmilla Overture. Monteux takes it at an exciting pace but never presses too hard on the accelerator in the manner of Solti’s LSO recording. And when we get to the first appearance of the big tune, boy, do those Boston cellos sing! The Tchaikovsky Fourth that follows is less to my taste. True, there’s a great deal to admire but I think Monteux pushes the speed too much at times in the first movement – the music sounds driven – and in the Moderato con anima section of the second movement I find him disconcertingly fast. I checked against the performance of the symphony that’s included in the previous boxed set, mentioned above, and, unsurprisingly, since the performances were given in the same year, Monteux’s pacing is similar. Oddly, I don’t recall it bothering me first time round but it does now. I’ll pass over the Milhaud piece, parts of which are far too brutal and uncompromising for my taste – I don’t blame the performers for that by the way - but the performance of Debussy’s Nocturnes is quite another matter. The orchestra plays these pieces quite wonderfully, guided by the baton of a man who was a master of scores such as this.

Disc Five preserves an all-Wagner concert, which Monteux began, intelligently, with glimpses of Wagner’s father-and-son team, Parsifal and Lohengrin. The Parsifal Prelude is elevated while the Act I Prelude to Lohengrin is wonderfully luminous. Indeed, every item on this programme is expertly conducted and very well played – though here, as elsewhere in the set, some may join me in being a little less than delighted with the somewhat forceful and bright tone of the BSO’s principal trumpet. The programme includes four important soprano solos. In these the singer is the American soprano, Margaret Harshaw (1909-1997), who had a long career at The Met (1942–1964), first as a mezzo then, from the 1950s, as a soprano. She does these solos very well and, as you’d expect, gets fine support from her conductor.

The highlight of Disc Six is a performance of the Beethoven Violin Concerto, featuring the American, Berl Senofsky. I hadn’t encountered this fine player until fairly recently when I reviewed a set of New York performances conducted by Sir John Barbirolli, dating from 1959. There Senofsky was the soloist in the Brahms concerto, making his debut with the New York Philharmonic. He impressed me then and he does so again in this Beethoven performance, given a few months earlier. He’s accurate, pure of intonation and in complete command of the solo part. He and Monteux offer a very distinguished performance and Monteux’s reading of the Leonora No 3 Overture, which follows, is magnificent.

Disc Seven includes Hindemith’s Nobilissima Visione Suite, surely not staple Monteux fare but he does it very well. The Don Quixote performance that follows has a number of points of interest. A few years ago the Boston Symphony Orchestra brought out a sumptuous set of CDs, entitled Symphony Hall Centennial Celebration. That included a whole disc devoted to Monteux performances, including an account of Don Quixote given by the same performers on 24 January 1959, the day after the reading now issued by WHRA. I see from the documentation accompanying the BSO discs that the 23 January performance, presented by WHRA, has a footnote in history: the concert, given on a Friday afternoon and broadcast by radio station WGBH, was the first regularly scheduled concert to be relayed live to Europe using the Transatlantic Cable; there it was broadcast by the BBC as well as in France and Belgium. The other point of interest about this particular performance is that Monteux uses the orchestra’s principal cellist and violist as soloists, as the composer intended. So the limelight falls on cellist Samuel Mayes (1917-1990), who was BSO principal cellist from 1948 to 1964, and on Joseph de Pasquale (b. 1919), who was the BSO’s principal violist between 1947 and 1964. Both are very accomplished and characterful in their respective roles. The accompaniment provided by Monteux and their BSO colleagues is first rate. Monteux brings out the colour and fantasy in the piece – and also the theatrical aspects – both humorous and dramatic. The one snag – and this is a point I’ll come back to – is that WHRA don’t track separately the individual variations in the piece; that helpful feature is offered in the BSO’s own boxed set and, indeed, on most CD versions of the work that I’ve encountered.

We encounter a sensuous, flexible reading of Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune on Disc Eight. I assume the player who contributes a gorgeous performance of the flute solo is the orchestra’s then-principal, Doriot Anthony Dwyer. Another French work follows in the shape of D’Indy’s Symphony on a French Mountain Air. Here the pianist is Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer, the niece of Charles Munch. In fact WHRA has preserved another performance of this same work by her, this time with Munch on the podium, on its set ‘Charles Munch Conducts a Treasury of French Music’ (review). Again, and maddeningly, WHRA don’t track the three movements separately and this is all the more frustrating when the audience’s applause and the ‘hall noise’ between each movement is retained; tracking would have been so easy. The most substantial piece on the disc is a passionate yet controlled reading of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony.

Moving to Disc Nine we hear first Respighi’s technicolour orchestration of Bach’s C minor Passacaglia and Fugue. This is a bit of a disappointment in that, at least as recorded, the performance of the Passacaglia in particular sounds rather brash. The brass – with that first trumpet well to the fore – are pretty full-on at times and, to be honest, I would have expected more finesse from Monteux. It’s possible that the acoustic of the famous Tanglewood Shed was a problem for the radio engineers though I wasn’t aware of that in any other Tanglewood performances included here.

The second traversal of the Brahms Violin Concerto features Isaac Stern in a fine collaboration with Monteux. Stern is commanding in the first movement. The start of the slow movement is slightly compromised by quite a bit of audience coughing but the radiant music wins out. There’s great urgency in the jubilant finale. More Brahms follows in the shape of Virgil Thomson’s orchestration of the late organ pieces, the Chorale Preludes, Op. 122. These could scarcely afford a greater contrast to Respighi’s flamboyant re-working of Bach’s organ piece. Not only is Brahms’s music less public than Bach’s Passacaglia and Fugue but also, for the most part, Thomson’s scoring is restrained. Monteux was performing these orchestrations within a matter of months of Thomson completing them.

Mendelssohn and Schumann occupy Disc Ten. For me the highlights are the ‘Italian’ Symphony, which is judiciously paced by Monteux in an interpretation that’s consistently light on its feet, and the Schumann Introduction and allegro appassionato. Here Rudolf Serkin is the excellent soloist. He is very sensitive in the Introduction – as is the orchestra – while the allegro lives up to its ‘appassionato’ description. Serkin and Monteux make the music surge onwards with fine impetus.

Beethoven occupies Disc Eleven. I like Monteux’s way with the ‘Pastoral’. The first movement isn’t an amiable countryside ramble – the music has purpose and good energy – but the Scene by the Brook is warm and relaxed. The third movement is nimble at first and, later, has rustic vigour while the storm is suitably turbulent. The finale is satisfying, not least because Monteux’s direction of the music brings out its inner strength. I’m less sure about his reading of the Fifth Symphony and, as with Tchaikovsky’s Fourth, this is down to questions of speed. The basic pulse for the first movement, in which the exposition repeat is taken, is very urgent indeed. This sounds to me like the Beethoven of a young man in a hurry – except that at this time Monteux was eighty-four years young! It’s all just a bit too hectic for my taste. The pacing of the second movement is much more conventional and while the third movement is quite fleet the music can take it. The finale is, like the first movement, very fleet of foot. I think Monteux catches the joy and exhilaration very well but some listeners may feel, as I do, that in so doing he forfeits a touch of grandeur. However, this performance proves that, unlike some of his colleagues one could name, Monteux did not slow up or lose any of his zest with age.

Turning to the presentation, there’s a good booklet with several pictures of Le Maître and useful – and different - essays in English and in French. The recordings stem from radio broadcasts, I believe. Those of concerts from Symphony Hall, Boston, probably all originate with station WGBH; I’m unsure if their writ extended also to Tanglewood. The recordings have been re-mastered by Albert Franz and I’d say he’s done a pretty good job. Most of the recordings sound good and clear and well balanced; the only one with which I had any problems was the Bach/Respighi item. I have concerns, however, about two aspects of the presentation of the material on the CDs. I’ve already mentioned the disappointing failure to provide separate tracks in Don Quixote and the D’Indy work. The same problem occurs in the Debussy Nocturnes and in Nobilissima Visione. The other irritant is that in most cases there’s only a very short gap between the end of one work – or the applause that follows it – and the start of the next piece. Incidentally, since I know some collectors dislike hearing applause at the end of live recordings I should say that usually the applause is retained – and the Bostonian audience was not usually one to wait for a final chord to die away before showing its appreciation – although this policy is not consistent and a few items, including – praise be! – the Parsifal and Lohengrin preludes are not followed by applause.

It’s fair to record these cavils but in all honesty they are minor compared to the great pleasure to be had from the vital and authoritative music-making that’s on offer in this set. Monteux’s direction is consistently sure-footed, full of life and a model of good taste. Here we have a lot of great conducting. And we have a lot of great playing too. There’s the odd fluff, as one would expect in some thirteen hours of live music but the slips are few and far between and of no consequence. What one notices much, much more is the sheer quality and virtuosity of the playing, both corporate and individual. In short, this set contains a collection of magnificent performances.

A little while ago, my colleague, Jonathan Woolf reviewed another marvellous set of live Monteux performances, this time with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, issued by another label. He said of that set “Sixteen hours with Pierre Monteux is no time at all, so zestful, so clear, so deft his musicianship and so sympathetic his conducting.” Well, we haven’t quite got sixteen hours of music in this Boston set but in every other respect Jonathan’s verdict could have been written a propos this box. And to hear Monteux leading one of the aristocrats among world orchestras simply adds to the pleasure. This is an enriching set, which I have enjoyed enormously. The performances may be over sixty years old but the artistry of Pierre Monteux and the Boston Symphony Orchestra reaches across the decades to bring all these works vividly to life.

John Quinn

Track listing

Disc 1 [65:34]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN/Felix WEINGARTNER Grosse Fuge [15:57]
Claude DEBUSSY Martyrdom of St. Sebastian [10:09]
Richard STRAUSS Death and Transfiguration [23:41]
All rec. 10 January 1958, Symphony Hall, Boston
Richard STRAUSS Don Juan [15:31]
rec. 24 July 1959, Tanglewood

Disc 2 [73:12]
Johannes BRAHMS Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 [36:22]
Leonid Kogan (violin). Rec. 10 January 1958, Symphony Hall, Boston
Johannes BRAHMS Academic Festival Overture [10:20]
rec. 20 July 1958, Tanglewood
Maurice RAVEL La Valse [11:11]
Rec. 25 July 1958, Tanglewood
Richard WAGNER Prelude and Liebestod (Tristan und Isolde) [15:08]
rec. 1 August 1959, Tanglewood

Disc 3 [78:50]
Johannes BRAHMS Piano Concerto No 1 in D minor, Op. 15 [45:10]
Leon Fleisher (piano).
Igor STRAVINSKY Petrushka [33:31]
All rec. 20 July 1958, Tanglewood

Disc 4 [75:52]
Mikhail GLINKA Ruslan and Ludmilla – Overture [5:33]
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No 4 in F minor, Op 36 [39:11]
Darius MILHAUD Les Eumenides – Act 3 Prelude [7:29]
Claude DEBUSSY Nocturnes [23:30]
All rec. 25 July 1958, Tanglewood

Disc 5 [78:46]
Richard WAGNER Parsifal: Prelude [14:25]
Parsifal: Ich sah das Kind [4:23]
Lohengrin: Prelude [9:18]
Lohengrin: Einsam in trüben Tagen [6:08]
Rienzi: Overture [11:33]
Der fliegende Holländer: Overture [9:06]
Der fliegende Holländer: Trafft ihr das Schiff [6:29]
Siegfried: Forest Murmurs [8:40]
Tannhäuser: Dich, teure Halle [3:03]
Die Walküre: Walküneritt [4:59]
Margaret Harshaw (soprano).
All rec. 3 August 1958, Tanglewood

Disc 6 [70:20]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Creatures of Prometheus [12:54]
Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 61 [43:59]
Leonore Overture No 3 [13:15]
Berl Senofsky (violin)
All rec. 9 August 1958, Tanglewood

Disc 7 [79:47]
Johannes BRAHMS Tragic Overture, Op 81 [13:28]
Paul HINDEMITH Nobilissima Visione [19:28
Richard STRAUSS Don Quixote [39:13]
Samuel Mayes (cello); Joseph de Pasquale (viola).
All rec. 23 January 1959, Symphony Hall, Boston
Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV Le coq d’or – Introduction and Wedding March [7:27]
rec. 19 July 1959, Tanglewood

Disc 8 [76:19]
Claude DEBUSSY Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun [9:30]
Vincent D’INDY Symphony on a French Mountain Air [24:45]
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY Symphony No 5 in E minor, Op. 64 [41:49]
Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer (piano)
All rec. 19 July 1959, Tanglewood

Disc 9 [69:42]
Johann Sebastian BACH/Ottorino RESPIGHI Passacaglia and Fugue in C minor [12:41]
Johannes BRAHMS Violin Concerto in D major, Op. 77 [36:42]
Johannes BRAHMS/Virgil THOMSON 11 Chorale Preludes, Op. 122 [19:50]
Isaac Stern (violin)
All rec. 24 July 1959, Tanglewood

Disc 10 [77:14]
Felix MENDELSSOHN Symphony No 4 in A major, Op 90 (‘Italian’) [28:03]
Piano Concerto No 1 in G minor, Op 25 [18:58]
Robert SCHUMANN Manfred Overture [12:33]
Introduction and allegro appassionato [16:21]
Rudolf Serkin (piano)
All rec. 1 August, 1959, Tanglewood

Disc 11 [76:18]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Fidelio Overture [6:18]
Symphony No 6 in F major, Op 68 [40:33]
Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op. 67 [29:12]
All rec. 8 August, 1959, Tanglewood

 


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