GHCD 2342 – Pierre Monteux (1875-1964)

San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Pierre Monteux – Conductor

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Ballet Review Spring 2009

While there are many fine recordings of Sacre, my favorites have always been Pierre Monteux’s and Stravinsky’s. Monteux, who conducted the Premiere, made four “official” recordings, the third in 1951 with the Boston Symphony, but here’s another one, this time from a 1957 broadcast in a white-hot reading, although in cramped sound. It comes with four other Russian pieces, with his San Fran­cisco orchestra, recalling his experience with the Diaghilev troupe, where he often conducted the Polovtsian Dances, which also get an exciting reading. So do Rimsky-Rorsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol, so effectively used by Massine, the familiar Russian Easter Overture, and a bit from the Opera Christmas Eve. Despite the sound, these are worth hearing for anyone who admires Monteux as I do.

American Record Guide May / June 2009

A collection of Russian music from Pierre Monteux, former conductor for the Balleu Russe, is really self-recommending. One can quibble: the commercial recordings Sound better, most or all of the items have been released before an other Labels, the San Francisco soloists are not of the highest caliber, the performances have more propulsion than precision. But what propulsion! Monteux knew how to excite an audience. It is a treat to hear broadcast performances by this great conductor and imagine being able to listen to such things on the radio, as people could, not so very long ago. When in the Stravinsky the Boston timpanist nearly blows out the microphone the Sound is terrible but it only adds to the fun. That performance was broadcast in 1957; the other items were recorded in San Francisco from 1943 to 1952.

Audiophile Audition

An all-Russian program from the most “international” of French conductors, Pierre Monteux, provides a series of charming and often scintillating colors.

An all-Russian program from the most “international” of French conductors, Pierre Monteux (1875-1964), provides a series of charming and often scintillating colors, from live concert inscriptions, 1943-1957. Four of the pieces on this disc are entirely new to the Monteux discography, so collectors be alert! Though Monteux retained a strong affection for the music of Rimsky-Korsakov, he led only one work commercially for posterity, the Scheherazade, which he first set down on records in 1942.  The blazing performance of the Russian Easter Overture (13 April 1952) with the San Francisco Symphony offers a wonderful series of liturgical and pantheistic colors, the intensity of which rival those provided by the likes of Rodzinski and Stokowski. The Christmas Night (19 December 1943, in good sound) comes as a pleasant surprise, a mixture of pageants from Tsar Saltan and Mlada, brewed with the special magic we know from Tchaikovsky’s The Nutcracker.

No sooner have we clapped for Christmas Eve than the bursting flavors of the Spanish Caprice (2 March 1952) explode at us, a veritable whirlwind of Iberian charm. Briskly paced, deftly intoned, the five sections of this testament to rich orchestration pace forward, enjoying little touches of ritard and nuanced tremolandi. The interplay of woodwinds and plucked strings becomes a veritable paean to the Spanish soul, the flute twirling in a cloudless sky. The violin, harp, and oboe feverishly bring on the alborada, triangle glowing, the snare drum wickedly seductive. The harp cadenza segues directly into a fiery fandango, razor sharp and sultry as anything Szell achieved with his Cleveland band. The coda threatens to blow the Iberian Peninsula back to Pangeia! The last of the San Francisco collaborations gives us the popular Borodin Polovtsian Dances (23 December 1951), which Monteux did record commercially late in life in Hamburg. He eschews the first, quick dance for the more languorous slow introduction, then the pulsing, primal rhythms take over after our sojourn to “paradise.” Tympanic thunder for the fourth dance, the horns ablaze as though they were anticipating Stravinsky’s The Firebird. The deep horns and contrabassoon remind us that where Borodin is, Prokofiev is not so far away.

Monteux’s association with The Rite of Spring hardly needs apology or explanation; some six versions exist under Monteux and various ensembles, four of which he made for commercial records.  Here, in Boston (12 April 1957), at 82 years of age, he has long untied any metric Gordian Knots that might plague other interpreters. The Adoration of the Earth moves with lithe economy but with each resonant part etched solidly, a series of auditory spices of pungent audacity. The sheer virtuosity of the Boston brass section makes one marvel; the triple-tonguing alone is worth our price of admission. The Sacrifice proceeds with eerie energy, always cognizant of the erotic power that culminates these tableaux. Monteux moves the music at concert pace–battle speed–but always with a limber, athletic sense that dancers move in our collective imagination. Splendidly realized, the performance strides the times like a colossus, an aroused moment of ensemble guided at each moment by the sure hand of Le Maitre.
Gary Lemco

MusicWeb International Friday October 3 2008

Monteux’s mastery in Russian music is at all times evident …

Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) had a major career on both sides of the Atlantic. This CD of live performances usefully brings together the two principal strands of his North American career. From 1919 to 1924 Monteux was principal conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and he returned to it regularly as a guest conductor from 1951 until his death. At Boston he rebuilt the orchestra’s fortunes after the Great War and the internment of the orchestra’s previous permanent conductor, Karl Muck. In 1936 he was invited to take over the podium of the San Francisco Symphony, acting as their principal conductor until 1952 and once again he rebuilt the orchestra. Indeed, his achievement on the west coast was arguably even more significant than in Boston, for the San Francisco orchestra had been crippled by financial difficulties in the years before he arrived there and it was, in effect, reconstituted on his arrival.

The most important item on this disc is the 1957 performance of Le Sacre du Printemps. Monteux had conducted the notorious première of the work and he remained associated with it throughout his career. For example, it was on the very first programme that he conducted in Boston when he returned to that orchestra in 1951. Incidentally, in his booklet note Robert Matthew-Walker states that after leaving Boston in 1924 the conductor “maintained a close association with the Boston Symphony until his death.” I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Monteux was pretty much ousted from Boston. Koussevitsky was engaged as his successor even before Monteux’s contract expired and he was never included on the Boston roster of guest conductors until Charles Munch succeeded Koussevitsky and almost immediately invited Monteux back.

In 1956 he made his last recording of Le Sacre, a studio account in stereo for RCA with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. In his biography of Monteux, Pierre Monteux, Maître (2003) the conductor, John Canarina laments that the record company didn’t wait until Monteux performed the piece in Boston the following year. Hearing this live account now I can only agree with him. The Paris performance, though captured in good stereo sound, is a tepid affair, in which the orchestra sounds by turns tentative and uninspired. By contrast this Boston version shows what Monteux could achieve when he had a fully engaged virtuoso band at his disposal. True, the sound is not as good as that on the Paris stereo recording – there’s a lack of front-to-back depth at times and the recording is somewhat close. Also there are times when the percussion distorts significantly. It must be said too that although the BSO plays superbly there are one or two slips, as one often finds in live performance. Thus, for instance, the bassoonist falters momentarily when he repeats his opening solo. However, the few such minor lapses didn’t spoil my pleasure and they convey the feeling of a live, unedited occasion.

However, to compensate for any sonic deficiencies you get a reading of real bite and rhythmic drive. As a performance this is the real deal. It’s not flashy but it has great spirit and urgency, though the tempi are never unduly pressed  – remember that, unlike many conductors who essay Le Sacre, Monteux had significant experience of directing the work in the pit. Frequently I marvelled at the fact that Monteux could inspire such an energetic performance eight days after his eighty-second birthday. And though the extrovert moments are tremendously exciting I found that just as impressive are the quieter passages, such as the openings to both Part I and Part II, where Monteux achieves fine clarity of texture. As far as I’m aware this hugely impressive reading has never been available on CD before – I think it had limited circulation years ago on a small LP label – and Guild deserve our thanks for making it available. It shows Monteux’s association with Le Sacre in a far better light than did the RCA recording.

The other performances all come from Monteux’s time in San Francisco and, specifically, from the fortnightly contributions that he and his orchestra made to a Sunday evening series of radio broadcasts sponsored by Standard Oil – on alternate weeks the Los Angeles Philharmonic provided the broadcasts. Robert Matthew- Walker asserts in his notes that the Rimsky-Korsakov pieces are here “brought together as a collection for the first time on CD” but I’m afraid that’s not so. All these performances, and the Borodin piece too, were included in the Music & Arts box Sunday Evenings with Pierre Monteux (CD –978 and later reissued in an expanded form as CD-1192). This collection was reviewed most enthusiastically by Jonathan Woolf.

The performances are all most enjoyable though the Borodin is given in a slightly truncated form, I believe, and anyway I never see the point in doing this piece without chorus. The Russian Easter Festival Overture receives a colourful and spirited reading and I also enjoyed the magical, glittering quiet start to Christmas Night. Comparing the transfers of these San Francisco recordings with those on Music & Arts, the Guild versions have more warmth and body – I suspect the transfer has been more interventionist. Purists may object but, though the Music & Arts transfers are fully acceptable, I preferred the listening experience provided by Guild. The sound quality varies somewhat: the Christmas Night recording, which is the oldest, is the most beset by surface noise. Though no recording location is specified I assume that all these performances took place in the War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco, which was the orchestra’s home in those days.

Don’t be put off by any sonic considerations. Without exception the performances on this CD are vital, idiomatic and full of interest. Monteux’s mastery in Russian music is at all times evident. Summing up the Music & Arts set of San Francisco Sunday broadcasts, Jonathan Woolf wrote “Sixteen hours with Pierre Monteux is no time at all, so zestful, so clear, so deft his musicianship and so sympathetic his conducting.” How true! I enjoyed that box every bit as much as he did but, even at the advantageous price, it’s a significant investment. It’s good, therefore that Guild have made available these Rimsky and Borodin performances in a much more economical package. But the raison-d’être for this disc must surely be the opportunity it affords us to hear Monteux at the helm of a virtuoso orchestra in a concert performance of Le Sacre. The sound may be imperfect at times but it’s an unmissable experience, and not just for admirers of Le Maitre such as myself.
John Quinn