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Beethoven, Strauss, Saint-Saens, Stravinsky / Monteux, Schwalbe, Berlin Philharmonic

Beethoven / Berlin Philharmonic Orch / Monteux
Release Date: 02/12/2013 
Label:  Testament   Catalog #: 1476   Spars Code: DDD 
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

PIERRE MONTEUX: BEETHOVEN, STRAUSS, SAINT-SAËNS, STRAVINSKY Pierre Monteux, cond; Michel Schwalbé (vn); Berlin PO TESTAMENT 1476, mono (2 CDs: 91:04)

BEETHOVEN Leonore Overture No. 3. STRAUSS Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche. SAINT-SAËNS Violin Concerto No. 3. STRAVINSKY Read more Petrushka (1911 vers)

Monteux only conducted the Berlin Philharmonic twice. His April 5, 1933, concert included Franck, Dukas, Chopin (with Lili Kraus), Debussy, and Stravinsky. It wasn’t until October 6 and 7 of 1960 that he appeared with the orchestra once more. The conductor pursued a very active schedule both as a principal and guest conductor right up to the time of his death in 1964—less than a year before he planned to announce his retirement from the podium, at the age of 90. That he took the time to go to West Berlin was considered an event in itself by the local press, and the concerts that resulted were well received by critics and public alike.

This set does not explain which of the two nights were caught on tape, and subsequently broadcast, or whether the tapes were a composite drawn from individual movements. The sound is in any case spacious, balanced, and only slightly dimmed at the top to show the passage of years. The audience is attentive, and enthusiastic with its applause at the conclusion of each piece.

The concert begins with an above average Leonore No. 3, notable for its attention to dynamic markings and breadth of phrasing. A few uncharacteristic flubs aside, it doesn’t forsake beauty of tone while achieving a level of intensity over a subtly flexible beat. The Till Eulenspiegel that follows is slightly faster than usual, beautifully played, and a bit stiff in its early pages. It takes off with the appearance of Till among the clergy, and carefully distinguishes that and each subsequent section of the tone poem both by texture, and by Monteux’s usual care to build musical sections up from a firm rhythmic foundation. Details sometimes ignored in a pursuit of sweep are given their due, though the conductor’s avoidance of a few Accelerando s and Ritardando s traditionally followed but not noted in the score may raise a few eyebrows.

Michel Schwalbé first met Monteux years earlier in Paris, where he took the latter’s conducting class. Towards the end of his long life—he died late in 2012, at the age of 92—he recalled his 1960 collaboration over the Saint-Saëns Third Concerto as something less than a meeting of the minds. Schwalbé claimed that Monteux was very old and fixed in his opinions, and wanted the solo part played metronomically, and that the result was far worse than he’d played it before or after those concerts. Yet the tapes don’t bear this out. He certainly sounds more immediately focused at the start of the work than in another live performance (Biddulph 164) from 1961 with Frederick Prausmitz and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, and matches that well-received concert in all other respects. Schwalbé, who was the Berlin Philharmonic’s concertmaster from 1957 to 1985, was trained by Moritz Frenkel, and subsequently by Georges Enescu. His tone is rich and full in a Russian manner, with plenty of heavy accenting and burnished tone. His technique as heard here is solid, and it’s hardly a surprise that he wishes to rhapsodize expansively. Monteux does provide Schwalbé with opportunities to do so, but stands rather closer to the French tradition of fast tempos, textural clarity, and classical refinement, than doubtless was to Schwalbé’s liking—especially in the slow movement. It doesn’t dawdle; but then, it is marked Andantino quasi allegretto.

Monteux’s leading the 1911 version of Petrushka of course has historical value, but then, so do all of his other live and studio versions, given that he gave the work its premiere. This one is fresh and lovingly detailed, with an energy that drives the Berliners. Once again, meticulous phrasing and great care with rhythms are evident. The BSO studio version from 1959 remains my favorite, yet there’s no lack of characterful playing, here.

Monteux never liked the recording studio because, as he repeatedly pointed out, it led to a kind of lifeless perfection. There are certainly excellent studio recordings of his available, but live ones such as this give a more vivid idea of what he could achieve on the conducting platform. Recommended.

FANFARE: Barry Brenesal
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