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Pierre Monteux in Amsterdam
Ludwig Van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 3, Eroica, op. 55 - Marcia funebre [15:03]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Harold in Italy, op.16 [39:17]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 1 in C minor, op. 68 [42:53]
Antonin DVORAK (1841-1904)
Cello Concerto in B minor, op.104 [38:44]
Klaas Boon (viola); Mstislav Rostropovich (cello)
Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/Pierre Monteux
rec. live, 24 November 1963, venue not given, recorded by AVRO (Beethoven,
Berlioz, Brahms); live, 3 November 1960, venue not given (Dvorak)
TAHRA TAH 766-767 [68:06 + 70:31]

The timing of this release by Tahra is very apt in the year of the fiftieth anniversary of Monteux' death in 1964. This 'twofer' is the second installment in a tranche of live concert recordings that Monteux made in Amsterdam with the Concertgebouw Orchestra. In 1996 a four-CD set was issued by Tahra (TAH175-178), long since deleted and reviewed by John Quinn on MusicWeb International in 2002.

Monteux could trace his relationship with this orchestra right back to 1924, when he was asked to step in at short notice to replace an ailing Mengelberg. This first concert took place on 9 October 1924. He went on to perform regularly with this distinguished band until 1939 and the outbreak of World War II. His concerts resumed again in 1948 and continued until the last concert with them on 25 November 1963, several months before his death the following July.

Between 20 and 25 November 1963, Monteux conducted five concerts with the Concertgebouw; there was no concert scheduled for the 22 November. On the last two evenings the same programme was given, and the Berlioz and Brahms we have here are from the 24 November; the conductor was 88 years old at the time. It was taped by Dutch Radio AVRO. In addition, as a tribute to President Kennedy who had been assassinated two days before, Monteux began the concert with the Marcia funebre from the Eroica. The items here are all first time CD releases. The Berlioz has had an LP incarnation before (Past Masters PM-37) and Tahra, in the four-CD set mentioned above, released a Brahms First Symphony from the 20 November concert.

It was a sign of Monteux's admiration for President Kennedy that he suggested beginning the concert with the Marcia funebre. After hearing the tragic news both he and his wife had spent the afternoon praying for the murdered president, Doris commenting 'It is up to us Catholics to make sure he gets to heaven, right, Pierre?'. Despite the melancholy mood of the conductor, he delivers a well-paced account, in no way heavy-footed, languorous or lugubrious as some I've heard. Yet, a grandeur pervades, with Monteux building the music from a restrained beginning to a noble and solemn climax.

As a young man, Berlioz won the Prix de Rome and was allowed to travel to Italy in 1831-2 for the purposes of study within a cultural environment. Years later Paganini, who had come into the possession of a Stradivarius viola, asked the composer for a work to showcase his virtuosity on the instrument. The result was a four-movement symphony, depicting memories of the Italian sojourn. Harold is derived from Byron's "Childe Harold', who is witness to scenes of Italian life, depicted by the viola which assumes the role of bystander rather than protagonist. Paganini rejected the work on account of its lack of virtuosity, stating 'it is too full of rests', and never performed it. Despite this, the work requires great skill in performance, one that Klaas Boon, principal violist of the orchestra, is able more than adequately to fulfil. Monteux has an intuitive technical grasp of the work as he too had been a competent viola player in his younger days. The solo instrument is captured well in the overall balance, with Boon giving a cultivated performance. He coaxes a rich, mellow tone from his viola. Monteux offers well-paced support.

The Brahms First Symphony is a fairly brisk reading, with Monteux at all times forging ahead. He draws great lyricism from the rich string section. Though the ageing sound quality is somewhat compromised, resulting in some loss of detail in the woodwind section, this is a small price to play for such outstanding musicianship.

The bonus of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Rostropovich from November 1960, as a filler, is an added delight. In remarkably good sound for its age, it is evident that Monteux and Rostropovich share the same artistic vision. The cellist's rich burnished tone and instinctive musicianship make this a captivating performance. Monteux really engages with the soloist, inspiring him especially in the more lyrical moments. Yet, there is great spontaneity in the reading, and it emerges as one of the warmest traversals of this work that I have heard.

Liner-notes are in French and English with a couple of fine colour poster illustrations thrown in for good measure.

All told, this is musicianship of the highest level throughout. As I have said, one can put up with, at times, less than ideal sonics when encountering conducting and playing of this calibre.

Stephen Greenbank

Masterwork Index: Beethoven symphony 3 ~~ Brahms symphony 1 ~~ Dvorak cello concerto