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Great Conductors Of The Past - Pierre Monteux

Release Date: 06/28/2005 
Label:  Preiser Records   Catalog #: 90661   Spars Code: ADD 
Composer:  Hector BerliozRobert Schumann
Conductor:  Pierre Monteux
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Mono 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

Pierre Monteux was not well served by the recording industry. First, he was typecast as a “French conductor,” and got few opportunities to record German music that he considered the core of his repertoire. Second, when he began recording with the San Francisco Symphony in 1941, Victor had a huge back catalog of recordings by, most prominently, Stokowski in Philadelphia and Koussevitzky in Boston; after the war ended, the vast international HMV catalog was available to them as well. As a result, most of Monteux’s SFSO recordings are of French and Russian music that the “top” orchestras hadn’t recorded, or that needed updating: in Debussy, for example, Koussevitzky and later Toscanini got La mer, while Stokowski got the Nocturnes and Faune; Read more when Monteux’s time came to record the Images, only the first and third were done—Barbirolli had recorded “Ibéria” in New York a few years earlier.

Compounding Monteux’s problem with the industry was the fact that, whenever he took over a new orchestra or worked with a new recording company or technology (viz., the advent of LP), he was called on to re-record many of the same pieces he had already done. Almost half the LPs he made in San Francisco in 1950–52 were remakes of pieces he had recorded there as recently as 1945; most of them even used the same cover art. (Who can forget that hand rising from the flaming whatnot—is it a coffin?—on the cover of the Franck D-Minor Symphony?) Thus, he got to record only one of the symphonies of his beloved Brahms—the Second—but he recorded it four times. Likewise, there were four Sacres and five Fantastiques! The positive side of this state of affairs is that Monteux left us colorful recordings of many nonstandard works by Ibert, Milhaud, and d’Indy, as well as Rimsky-Korsakov and Scriabin. Plus, he lived to have the last laugh: in 1961, at the age of 86, he became principal conductor of the London Symphony (with a 25-year contract!), and in his last years recorded much music for the first time, including a complete Beethoven symphony cycle.

The two symphonies on this disc are among the last recordings Monteux made in San Francisco, in 1951 and 1952, respectively. Monteux’s Berlioz isn’t so much revelatory as it is retroactively obvious: even having played the piece often (I was an itinerant Eb clarinetist years ago), every time I listen to either of his SFSO recordings (the first is from 1945) I hear some orchestral detail or inner voice that I’d never noticed before, but that sure enough, is there in the score. And it all sounds simply right. By the way, the 1945 and 1951 versions differ almost not at all in interpretation; by that time, Le Maître knew how he wanted the piece to go.

The Schumann—the only work of this composer that Monteux ever recorded—is a typical Monteux performance: well paced, well balanced, energetic, and tender as appropriate. If he doesn’t milk the last drop of drama and mystery out of the transition from Scherzo to Finale like Furtwängler, well then, neither does anyone else. I believe this is this recording’s first appearance since it vanished from Schwann in 1956, and it’s good to have it back.

I don’t know what originals were used for mastering this CD—these recordings post-date RCA’s use of wax and shellac, but I doubt Preiser had access to the master tapes, and good-quality copies of the LPs are notoriously hard to find—but it sounds as though someone has processed the LPs to minimize surface noise, unfortunately filtering out too much of the high-frequency sound along with it. Worse, there is a loud and persistent hum throughout the first movement of the Berlioz; it disappears, only to return less obtrusively in the final three movements of the Schumann. Last, the Berlioz is pitched quite sharp, although I could tell only in an A-B comparison with the LP.

So, to buy or not to buy? Sadly, RCA’s 15-disc Monteux Edition, which beautifully documented the San Francisco years, is evidently out of print. The EMI “Great Conductors” volume devoted to Monteux includes nothing with the SFSO. The determined Monteux collector (and you qualify if you have the RCA set) should own this disc, warts and all: RCA uses the 1945 Fantastique, and does not include the Schumann. But use your rumble filters if you got ‘em.

Richard A. Kaplan, FANFARE
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Works on This Recording

Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14 by Hector Berlioz
Conductor:  Pierre Monteux
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1830; France 
Symphony no 4 in D minor, Op. 120 by Robert Schumann
Conductor:  Pierre Monteux
Orchestra/Ensemble:  San Francisco Symphony Orchestra
Period: Romantic 
Written: 1851; Germany 
Notes: Composition written: Germany (1841).
Composition revised: Germany (1851). 

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