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CD Review

Pierre Monteux

RCA 16342

The "Complete" RCA Stereo Recordings

1 Henryk Szeryng, violin
2 Leonid Kogan, violin
3 Risë Stevens, Orfeo
3 Lisa Della Casa, Euridice
3 Roberta Peters, Amore
4 Boston Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
5 Chicago Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
6 London Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
7 Orchestra & Chorus of the Rome Opera Theatre/Pierre Monteux
8 San Francisco Symphony Orchestra/Pierre Monteux
RCA 16342 8CDs 7:47:26
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

Well…they tried. This bare-bones box is inexplicably missing the 1954 Debussy Nocturnes, recorded in excellent early stereo and which is a matter of no small frustration for any of us who missed the truly complete Monteux set from RCA a few years ago. You can still find the Nocturnes on the conductor's all-Debussy program from the long-unavailable Pierre Monteux Edition, because at time of writing ArkivMusic is dumping their CD-R reprints all over Amazon like candy. I can't speak to whether that's a sonic downgrade from the Monteux big box, nor do I know if this present set sounds any different from the bigger box. Sony/RCA didn't exactly win any prizes here.

Most of these remaining performances have been issued and reissued countless times, in countless ways. The Franck, Stravinsky, and Tchaikovsky should be particularly familiar to veteran collectors. All these performances have aged extremely well and remain benchmarks for both the conductor and the orchestras involved. The Franck – for anyone who started collecting music, say, yesterday – documents Monteux's only recording in Chicago. The Stravinsky and Tchaikovsky (especially the latter) show the Boston Symphony Orchestra's strong relationship with this conductor who had led them decades before. Yes, Charles Munch achieved even more exciting results in Tchaikovsky on the same label with this very orchestra, but for elegance and class wedded to supreme virtuosity, these remain classics of their type. Also, unlike in the 90's reissue, the three symphonies each have an individual disc, which eliminates any need to switch halfway through the Fifth as in…every CD set since the beginning of time (Karajan, Markevitch, Maazel…). We also get some short pieces from Boston, as well as a snippet of La Mer in stereo (the complete version with the missing Nocturnes is in still-excellent mono).

However, this set contains some genuine rarities. The Khachaturian was last coupled (outside of mega-sets) on Living Stereo with Fritz Reiner's absolutely pulverizing Alexander Nevsky. For some reason, that disc was never reissued in the SACD Hybrid line. In any case, it felt like an afterthought, but this is a truly great performance of a concerto that seems to have fallen out of favor with everyone but people who transcribe stuff for flute. If we're being perfectly honest, the work isn't a top-tier masterpiece (though it's equally fun on violin and flute), but the opportunity to hear Kogan in vintage form on a major label is nothing to sneeze at. The Brahms, meanwhile, is typically available as an import. I've seen discs from both Europe and Japan, but Szeryng's two later performances of this concerto (with Dorati and Haitink, respectively) have been marginally easier to find. There's also a live performance on Orfeo, for those who must have everything. All three (or four) performances are very fine, but Monteux was always an underrated talent in Brahms and this version has a singing warmth that is very appealing. It never was successful enough to compete with Heifetz in the mid-century RCA catalog, but that's not really an excuse for not making it readily available on CD.

Monteux's partnership with the San Francisco Symphony was probably the real reason to acquire the big Monteux box, and probably the reason that set didn't last very long in print. After all, this is hardly Tilson Thomas' powerhouse orchestra we're talking about. Monophonic remembrances of then second-tier orchestras aren't exactly flying off the shelves, which I suppose proves that even classical music people have limits. As for the music included here, it's typically superb, and the lone San Francisco disc in stereophonic sound to boot. This was also his final recording with these forces. The Strauss is a wonderful example of Monteux's mastery of music outside of Russia and France. So is the Wagner, though to be honest I find this particular work to be overly cloying and sentimental. No matter; if you are going to play it, you'd do far worse than this lovingly shaped and flowing account. In both works, the playing is very fine, if noticeably less polished or powerful than in Boston and Chicago.

That leaves the Gluck, and I honestly had no idea this recording existed. RCA recorded very little with Monteux outside of the U.S. (the Brahms concerto was taped in London) and even less in the operatic setting, so it's somewhat surprising that this recording happened at all. This is a big, old-fashioned reading that initially seems out of place with the orchestral blockbusters on display. Still, everything goes very well. Sure, the chorus has a really wobbly kind of vibrato that feels like a 60's American Christmas album (it isn't; these are Roman forces), but the three leads are wonderful and very nicely caught by the microphones. Monteux doesn't drag, though you'd still never play the opera this way today. I don't exactly know who is going to play through the whole thing more than once or twice, because this set really is about Monteux's late work in America. Still, at less than 20 dollars, anyone who doesn't already own most of this stuff will want to snap this bargain up as soon as possible.

Copyright © 2018, Brian Wigman