BBC Legends – Pierre Monteux

0 of 5 stars

Le Tombeau de Couperin
Symphony No.3
Variations on an Original Theme (Enigma), Op.36
Le Roi malgré lui – Fête Polonaise

BBC Symphony Orchestra [Pijper, Ravel]
London Symphony Orchestra
Pierre Monteux

Recorded between 1961-63 in London – BBC Studios, Kingsway Hall, and Royal Festival Hall

Reviewed by: Antony Hodgson

Reviewed: February 2006
BBCL 4172-2
Duration: 77 minutes

Knowing that the conductor made an excellent commercial stereo version (in 1959), the initial reaction of those who enjoy the musicianship of Pierre Monteux might be to have reservations on account of this Enigma Variations being a mono broadcast recording (from 1962). To do so would be hasty.

It is a disappointment that some years into the stereo era the access here is only to a mono tapes for this well-planned programme but it does give the opportunity to hear Monteux at his best and this ‘Enigma’ is certainly worth exploring.

The interpretation is very expressive – no eccentric tempos, just a natural flow from one variation to the next. ‘Nimrod’ gives an excellent idea of Monteux’s approach, which avoids subjective manipulation of tempo yet has subtle flexibility of phrasing. This differs from Barbirolli’s nobly steady build-up to a shattering climax at the peak of this Variation, which in his hands was strongly rhythmic, giving a funeral march effect. Monteux is forceful but the close has the nature of a gracious summing up. The closing section of the work has great brilliance and the bite of the brass in the final pages is thrilling. The Variations are provided with the best sound on the disc – perhaps because it is free of the slight background noise evident elsewhere.

The Chabrier has the same excellent Kingsway Hall acoustic and the balance is excellent too but it is less than quiet in softer passages. Good studio sound makes the Pijper convincing. This is a work full of tension: a one-movement piece, which after a fierce opening sequence takes very measured strides as it builds to its long-anticipated climax. Commentators have called Willem Pijper (1894-1947) an atonal composer but maybe that description is misleading for one who writes tunes underpinned by logical (albeit modern) harmonies. The work was composed in 1926 for Monteux and no-one feared this music when, in the past, Eduard van Beinum championed it as enthusiastically as Monteux did. The arresting opening shows Monteux in passionate mood and the full orchestra is displayed with excellent clarity.

The same venue reveals the delicacy of the Ravel and Monteux clearly delights in moving the music firmly forward – a sparkling performance. Overall the refurbished sound is very acceptable with no evidence of re-mastering interference, but the source material for Weber’s Jubel Overture was probably less good. The sound is rather dull and none too spacious (although perhaps a true enough reflection of the Royal Festival Hall in 1963). The British National Anthem is used as a final peroration in this work – by no means its only appearance in orchestral music. Borrowers include Clementi, Beethoven and Ives to mention only a few but somehow, borrowed National Anthems can rarely be taken seriously (in its guise as ‘America’ Ives has great fun though).

Somehow, in his Symphony, Smetana manages to get away with Haydn’s Emperor’s Hymn, but that is an exception. I don’t expect many listeners to thrill to the Weber, but there is so much subtlety in Monteux’s conducting of the remainder and this decent-sounding CD offers rewards.

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