Pierre Monteux was 86 at the time of this concert, the second offering of it at the 1963 Holland Festival, in which he conducts music by Richard Wagner – “It haunts me and at times I feel possessed by it.”
With the Concertgebouw Orchestra in committed and characterful form, the music-making is of a very high order. The Overture to Tannhäuser is notable for Monteux’s integrity with it, a binding of its episodes without denuding any one of them – much nobility, excitement and beauty. One might mention though that the brass was quite obviously too loud – blaring – on the night and that cymbal clashes belong more to the bandstand than the concert-hall, but there is no doubting the thrill of the occasion. After which, Siegfried Idyll offers balm to the ear in this flowing and eloquent account, which is affectionate without cloying.Birgit Nilsson was available for these concerts, ending part one with the ‘Liebestod’, following a tension-filled, soulful and impassioned Prelude to Tristan and Isolde, conducted with certainty to a fervent climax. Nilsson, as the doomed Isolde, is an unstinting owner of the role, fearless in sustained top notes, which here have knife-edge sear. Nilsson stayed on to end the evening with ‘Brünnhilde’s Immolation’, that famous extract from Götterdämmerung preceded by equally celebrated snippets from it, a transcendental ‘Siegfried’s Rhine Journey’ (with concert ending) that sends shivers up the spine (in the best possible way) and then his ‘Funeral Music’, which is sinewy and glowering.
As for Brünnhilde being immolated, it is full of electric charge and overwhelming redemption, Nilsson riding the waves, and creating them. You wonder, when musicians get to the great age that Monteux was at this point, whether they have in mind it could be their last union with a particular piece; here the sheer intensity of the closing bars suggests so and, frankly, it is tear-jerking. Monteux would pass away exactly one year later.
The mono sound is perfectly good – full, detailed and dynamic – and has been carefully re-mastered by Paul Baily to capture powerfully and to preserve some notable performances. The two CDs sell for a “reduced price”. Richard Osborne’s booklet note is enlightening.