Notes and Editorial Reviews
What’s immediately striking about Pierre Monteux’s Surprise Symphony is its freshness of outlook, its sense of keen unfolding right from the first movement introduction. The Vivace assai main body of the movement has a shining verve coupled with an easy elegance and so is a fully rounded representation of Haydn. A pity there’s no exposition repeat. The development (tr. 1 3:24) is, as it should be, eventful and the entire movement’s progress has a commanding vigour.
The slow movement theme is marked to be played ‘simply’. Monteux is thoroughly straightforward about it but, being light on his feet, you also sense a smidgen of cheekiness which would explain the surprise of the sudden crashing chord which gives the symphony its
nickname. It is given full force here. In the first variation (tr. 2 1:05) Monteux enjoys and emphasises the contrast of the heavy lower strings and elegant first violins. He brings what at first seems a mock gruffness to the second variation (2:08) but its writhing second section is more alarming. Variation 3 (2:58) spotlights the woodwind, rather ethereal here, partly because somewhat distanced in the recording. Variation 4 (4:00) is full-blooded grandeur with a relished swagger and heavyweight lumbering syncopation before the contrast of an introverted shadowy coda. So there’s plenty of character throughout.
The Minuet is on the sturdy side for Allegro molto but Monteux gives it swing too, so it becomes an intriguing blend of grandeur and rusticity. That teasingly quieter, slightly lingering passage late in the second section (tr. 3 1:19) finds its natural expansion in the delicately ruminative Trio (2:34). Monteux’s finale is Allegro di molto all right, a tour de force of nifty strings’ articulation and bracing semiquaver runs, a rondo whose episodes flash forth almost before you can draw breath. The timpani solo which should be loud (tr. 4 2:58) is on the tame side but not the movement’s sizzling culmination. In sum this is robust, not heavyweight, Haydn.
Monteux’s Clock Symphony also has a first movement introduction of keen, exploratory focus with marked but not severe accents so the simple cheeriness of the opening of the Presto (tr. 5 1:55) then the boisterousness of its fuller-scored repetition emerge as a logical outcome. The second theme (2:51) is darting, then comely. The exposition repeat is made here. In the development (5:13) Monteux points the melodic containment of the phrases. In the recapitulation (6:46) the relaxation and regeneration of the second theme is emphasised. In no way is this hectic Haydn.
Nevertheless the Andante is well paced, not hanging about, cheery and quite jaunty with the repeat of the first section stylishly played slightly softer, though the second section isn’t repeated. The eruption in G minor (tr. 6 1:42) is very lively and the flute, oboe and bassoon detail when the theme returns in the first violins (2:45) charmingly characterized. You appreciate the intricate workings of this clock.
Monteux’s Minuet is a bit weighty for its Allegretto marking. Even so, its forward thrust is compelling and its verve has a feel of triumph about it. Also the loud and soft elements are cleanly contrasted, which allows the Trio consistently to combine the graceful and heroic, though its second section isn’t repeated. Monteux’s finale is assured and has an irresistible pulse, indeed a swashbuckling character once the first violins’ quaver runs get going in the first episode (tr. 8 1:24) and with even more excitement in the second (2:18) before the feathery high jinks of all the violins in the double fugue (2:56). This is terrific playing.
The Brahms Haydn Variations make a neat bonus. In Monteux’s interpretation again it’s the sheer momentum that stands out. The theme is easy flowing and jovial, aided by the prominence of the double bassoon bass. The first variation (tr. 9 1:54) is sheenily exploratory, the second (3:10) bracing, the third (4:11) comforting and growingly serene. Variation 4 (5:48), by contrast, is a doleful gaze at sadder times, but still moving on, a phase. Variation 5 (7:55) is an injection of vivacity. Variation 6 (8:50) continues this through the vigour of the horns. The seventh variation (9:56) is a gently lapping antidote, the eighth (12:24) a mysterious interlude. The finale (13:27) is all warmth as the orchestra elaborates over the theme in the string bass.
These Monteux performances are of abundant character and continuous fascination. The recordings still sound vivid, albeit with a slight tape hiss discernible. The Viennese have a slightly acid quality in the strings but that gives them a crispness too. The London recording is closer and of warmer bass.
-- Michael Greenhalgh, MusicWeb International
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