PIERRE MONTEUX, who was chief conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra when he died 19 years ago at the age of 89 (having earlier headed both the Boston and San Francisco orchestras), is remembered as one of the towering masters of his art, unostentatiously satisfying in a remarkably broad repertory.
Fortunately for us, he made many fine recordings with orchestras in Vienna, Paris, London, Amsterdam, Boston, San Francisco, New York and Hamburg. Some of the most valuable ones, however, have been unavailable here for years.
Many of the stereo recordings Monteux made with the Boston Symphony for RCA and most of his subsequent recordings for Philips and London/Decca are in circulation now, and on low-price labels, but the material recorded in Boston and San Francisco in the early years of microgroove has been discontinued. While RCA has given no encouragement to devotees who petition for the reissue of these pre-stereo items, its French company has begun bringing them back and is doing a superb job with the sound.
Within the space of two years, 1911-1913, Monteux conducted the world premieres of Stravinsky's "Petrushka" and "The Rite of Spring" and Ravel's "Daphnis and Chloe." He recorded all these scores in stereo, and his "Daphnis" with the London Symphony is still a knockout (London STS-15090). His Boston "Petrushka" is gone now, but his Paris remake is still current on STS-15197, with the "Firebird" Suite filling out the disc.
Monteux recorded "The Rite of Spring" four times--an early 78 rpm version in Paris, a later one in San Francisco, a 1951 LP in Boston and a stereo remake in Paris a half-dozen years later. The stereo version, circulating now on London STS-15318, is a nice souvenir, but can't compare with that magnificent Boston performance, surely the definitive one among the four from Monteux. Now, happily, this recording is available again on French RCA GM 43274, perhaps the most valuable item so far in this series imported by Harmonia Mundi USA. The sound is amazingly vivid, actually more impressive than that of London's stereo disc, and the suggested price of $7.98 is not bad for an import of this quality.
Among the other Monteux titles in this reissue series, the stunning disc of ballet music by Delibes, with generous helpings from "Coppe'lia" and "Sylvia" (GL 43708), is almost as welcome as "The Rite of Spring." In this case we have "members of" the Boston Symphony--from the soloists listed, the orchestra would appear to be more or less the Boston Pops.
Also, with the "full-dress" Boston Symphony, there are the classic performances of Debussy's Three Nocturnes and "La Mer" (GM 43366), and two Mozart piano concertos--No. 12 in A, K. 414, and No. 18 in B-flat, K. 456--with Lili Kraus as soloist (GM 43276). This was apparently Monteux's first Mozart recording (he made only two more--the Symphonies Nos. 35 and 39 in Hamburg, and the D major Flute Concerto with his son Claude in London), and it is the only recording made by Lili Kraus with a major American orchestra.
With the San Francisco Symphony, there are discs devoted to Berlioz, Beethoven and Rimsky-Korsakov works subsequently re-recorded by Monteux in stereo editions still in circulation, but there is also an especially treasurable pairing of the Chausson Symphony in B-flat with the same composer's "Poe me de l'Amour et de la Mer"; the latter work is played by RCA's house orchestra, with the wonderful American mezzo Gladys Swarthout as soloist (GM 34557).
The annotations are not too tidy. Col. Higginson, the founder of the Boston Symphony, is described as "Sir Henry Lee Higginson, a New England gentleman, veteran of the War of Secession," and the authorship of the Monteux biography "It's All in the Music" is attributed to "Boris Monteux" instead of the conductor's American wife, Doris. But what counts is what is in the grooves (or on tape--all items are available as cassettes as well as discs), and much of it is just plain wonderful. Now that RCA France has made this heartening start, let's hope we may have the magnificent performance of the D'Indy Symphony No. 2 in this series soon; it is perhaps the single most deserving candidate for reissue in the entire Monteux discography.
In the meantime, Philips has just announced deletion of Monteux's Brahms Second with the London Symphony (Festivo 6570.108, cassette 7310.108). This is a better performance than the one he recorded with the Vienna Philharmonic, now on London, and it comes with a rousing "Academic Festival" Overture. Copies are probably still on hand in many shops.