Thursday, February 8, 2007

Monteux redux

Pierre Monteux: Decca and Philips Recordings, 1956-64 (Decca 000797902, seven discs)

Was Pierre Monteux the greatest conductor of the past century? Not according to conventional wisdom, which rates Monteux as a second- or third-round pick in a field headed by Toscanini, Furtwängler, Karajan, Mravinsky, Bernstein and Solti.

A rotund Frenchman with pomaded hair, a bushy mustache and twinkling eyes, Monteux did not display the usual kinds of conductor charisma. His public face was not glamorous, or sternly learned, or artistically rarified. By the time he had an international reputation, he was a grandfatherly presence with an authority born of long experience (and with many pupils trailing behind him).

As a master of the craft behind the orchestral art, he had very few peers. (Thus the pupils, among them René Leibowitz, André Previn, Neville Marriner and David Zinman.)

Monteux conducted the premieres of Stravinsky’s "Pétrouchka" (1911) and "Le sacre du printemps" (1913), Ravel’s "Daphnis et Chloé" (1912), Debussy's "Jeux" (1913), Prokofiev’s Third Symphony (1929) and other music from the modernist hotbed of Paris in the first three decades of the century.

He was the most versatile conductor of his time. Today, we assume that any competent maestro can lead credible performances of repertory from the baroque to the contemporary. Monteux was the first major conductor to demonstrate such breadth. His proficiency evolved into distinction over the years, and he remains one of the few conductors on record who is equally persuasive in Bach and Tchaikovsky, Brahms and Stravinsky, Beethoven and Debussy.

He was a master manipulator of orchestral sound. Look back at that list of premieres; imagine the skill required to guide a theater pit orchestra through a first performance of something like "Le sacre" or "Daphnis." From then on, not surprisingly, Monteux was able to obtain exactly the sonorities, colors and balances he wanted from an orchestra. That ability proved especially beneficial in making recordings.

Monteux was born in 1875 and lived until 1964, not just a long life but a fortuitous working life for a classical musician. He was old enough to have experienced romanticism at first hand, then to have participated in the birth of modernism and to have seen the modern symphony orchestra take shape, and then to have spent 50 more years performing – time enough to document his work with first-tier orchestras in modern recordings.

"Pierre Monteux: Decca and Philips Recordings, 1956-64," part of the "Original Masters" series of mid-priced reissues, generously samples the recordings Monteux made in his last years, one of the great Indian summers of performance history.

Some of these recordings have circulated fitfully on CDs: Bach’s Orchestral Suite No. 2, Mozart’s Flute Concerto in D major and Gluck’s "Dance of the Blessed Spirits" with his son, flutist Claude Monteux, and the London Symphony; a Sibelius Second Symphony, recorded in 1959 with the Vienna Philharmonic.

Monteux’s 1959 Vienna recording of the Brahms Second Symphony has long been my reference version of this work – full-blooded but unindulgent and propulsive, and a performance that equals or surpasses any other recorded by the Vienna Phil in the 1950s and ’60s. Monteux recorded the "Tragic" and "Academic Festival" overtures and "Variations on a Theme of Haydn" with the London Symphony, which he served as principal conductor from 1961 until his death.

Most of the rest of the set dates from Monteux’s London tenure, and features composers and works in which he was authoritative – Ravel ("La Valse," "Ma mère l’oye," "Bolero"), Debussy (Nocturnes, "Images," "Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun," orchestral fragments from "The Martyrdom of Saint Sebastian") – plus a warmly lucid reading of Elgar’s "Enigma Variations" and a suite from Tchaikovsky’s "Sleeping Beauty," a reminder of Monteux’s early mastery of ballet music.

Monteux leads the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in mid-'50s monaural recordings of the Stravinsky ballets "Pétrouchka" and "Le sacre" and the "Firebird" Suite, and the Vienna Phil in an eminently sensible 1959 reading of Haydn's Symphony No. 101 ("The Clock").

These were demonstration-quality recordings of the late-monaural/early stereo period. They still sound vivid, and more naturally balanced and in better perspective than many digital or super-audio productions.