I once had the Mozart items on a CD and could tell that the performances were fantastic. The problem was that the transfers were horrible with pitch problems so bad I gave it away… or maybe used it as a coaster. I haven't heard playing of this intensity since Pablo Casals conducted Mozart where his orchestra, too, played by the seat of their pants. So, when I saw this set reviewed in "Gramophone" I had to have it. Not available in the good ol' USA, I ordered it from Crotchet in England. The transfer problems have been solved and you can now hear as exciting a Mozart as you will ever. The playing is so dynamic I had to check the timings to see if Monteux was really going as fast as it seemed. I discovered that his speeds were not significantly different from Bruno Walter's New York Philharmonic recordings. It was to those performances I turned first and was correct in assuming that these were, as you could hear through the pitch problems in the earlier release (on some 'pirate') not only good but memorable. The Tchaikovsky doesn't come across as intense, but is an excellent performance even though it doesn't displace my preference for Stokowski's "Stokowskized" version.
Next I turned to the Berlioz. There are many good recordings of the Fantastique (Munch and Martinon among them) but no one does it better than Monteux. I already knew this from listening to his San Francisco Symphony 1945 recording on RCA. The sound here is naturally better and the performance, again, intense, brooding and eerie in the last movement. The Borodin was a surprise. You will not hear the sensuousness of a Stokowski. What you will hear is, to use the phrase that came to mind repeatedly as I listened, the most intense performance ever. To use another platitude, it swept me away.
On to the Beethoven, a composer not usually associated with Monteux. The RCA Monteux edition did include a recording of the 4th and 8th (again with the SFSO) and he did, in fact, record a complete cycle (all but the Choral were released on Decca and it was released on Westminster). In addition, he recorded one of the finest recordings of the 'Eroica' with the Concertgebouw (on Philips 420853, nla) and you can hear another excellent one from a live concert with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in a 1960 performance on BBC 4112. Now, back to these recordings. This is, ahem, intense for lack of a better word. These recordings are not Beethoven the classical composer but the Beethoven of the Eroica and 5th Symphony. I like it.
Finally we come to disc three. (Some readers have complained that I don't review the discs in the order they are listed. So it goes.) The Wager items are excellent though, again, I prefer Stokowski in this fare. If it weren't for my predilection for Stokowski I might find it even better and I am certain many of you will and none will be disappointed. I fear the same comments apply to the other two items on this disc. If it sounds like I am not as enthusiastic about this disc as the other three, well I'm not but that is more me than you.
There is one quibble I have with this release. There are absolutely no notes at all related to the recording of these pieces. The insert notes talk about the music and give a generic bio of Monteux but that's it. This release will likely appeal mainly to collectors of recordings by this conductor and/or people who appreciate the 'Golden Age of Conducting'. What I know is that the 1964 recordings were among his last, if not his last, and a fitting testament to the legacy of one of the finest conductors of the last century.
For those of you who skip to the last line first, shame on you.
Copyright © 2004, Robert Stumpf II