For someone who grew up in the San Francisco Bay Area, the name Pierre Monteux conjures stories from those fortunate to see and hear him conduct the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra from 1936 to 1952 (with a guest appearance and recording session in 1960). Monteux was the first major conductor to lead the SFSO and he virutally "rescued" the orchestra from oblivion in the major 1930s, when it suffered so greatly from the financial woes of the Great Depression. The story of his hiring (at a "mere" $10,000 a year) and how he not only saved the orchestra but built it into an excellent ensemble worthy of radio broadcasts and numerous RCA Victor recordings is quite remarkable. Unfortunately, after his departure in 1952, the orchestra went into decline that lasted a little over a decade, until the Austrian maestro Josef Krips took over and began the rebuilding process.
Long before Monteux came to San Francisco, the French master (called the "maitre" in French) had led the Boston Symphony Orchestra, from 1918 to 1924, and set the stage for that orchestra's "golden age" under Serge Koussevitsky and Charles Munch.
Monteux lived a very long life. He was born the same year as French composer Maurice Ravel, 1875, but he greatly outlived his countryman and friend. In his later years Monteux led the London Symphony Orchestra, continued to make recordings, and became a teacher of young, promising conductors. His wonderful London Symphony recordings appeared mostly on the Philips label and were superbly mastered. I am still amazed at his recording of the Brahms second symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, which demonstrates that he was not at limited to the French repertoire.
This disc includes wonderfully remastered recordings of the best of Ravel's music. Yes, some will compare Monteux's work to that of Charles Munch or Jean Martinon, two very capable conductors whom this writer was fortunate to see in guest appearances with the San Francisco Symphony. It is difficult to compare conductors, especially when they are conducting the same music. I witnessed Munch's interpretation of Claude Debussy's "La Mer" was overwhelmed by it. I was also quite impressed with Jean Martinon's performance of Deryck Cooke's restoration of the Mahler tenth symphony. These were two very fine conductors in their own right and, fortunately, they also left us numerous recordings. I never saw Pierre Monteux in person, although I certainly might have, but my parents were not particularly interested in classical music and they did not take me to San Francisco Symphony concerts. I finally saw and heard the orchestra in person in February 1964, when Munch made a guest appearance in an all-French program.
I was quite aware on Pierre Monteux while he was still alive. People talked about his work in San Francisco and we heard his recordings. I remember reading about his 50th anniversary concert of Stravinsky's "The Rite of Spring," which was so amazing because he had conducted the world premiere in Paris, with its legendary riot, and then he was back there in 1963 for the anniversary, when he was 88 years old. (Stravinsky himself was alive and able to attend the anniversary performance, then recall for CBS cameras what had happened at the premiere.) Then there was the report that Monteux had fallen off the podium during a concert in his final year and, miraculously, survived for a few more months. He died in July 1964 at the age of 89!
Some of the recordings on this disc date from Monteux's final months and are ample testimony that, to the very end, he was still quite competent in bringing out the best in Ravel's music. I've heard earlier recordings that Monteux conducted, including some of the RCA Victor recordings made in San Francisco, and it's clear he was ALWAYS clearly in charge. He was greatly admired by Toscanini and given the honor and privilege of leading some of the rehearsals and first performances by the NBC Symphony Orchestra in 1937, prior to Toscanini's own first concert with that legendary ensemble.
Here we have the superb London Symphony Orchestra, certainly one of the finest orchestras in the world, in top-notch performances that display Ravel's brilliant orchestration and his many musical moods. Monteux clearly understood what Ravel was about; the composer was a small, innocent, and sensitive man who had a great love for children. That is particularly apparent in works such as the complete "Mother Goose," which is usually heard in a concert suite; this recording has the full score and it is a delight and wonder. I especially enjoy Ravel's depiction of "Beauty and the Beast."
"La Valse" is a glimpse at the past, seen through twentieth century eyes, which has mystical and magical qualities throughout. The Vienna of the nineteenth century has vanished, largely obliterated by the first world war, but Ravel chose to honor that time, then show that it had indeed passed and virtually been destroyed. There is clearly fire and passion at times and, despite his advanced age, Monteux was able to produce a very exciting performance.
"The Pavane for a Dead Princess" has always seemed to me a somewhat somber and tragic work, which also contains some nostalgic and charming moments. There is a story behind the music which we can only imagine. Monteux managed to capture the many moods present in this relatively short work.
"Rhapsody espagnole" is one of the best works about Spain to be composed by a French composer, probably rivaled only by Claude Debussy's "Iberia." It is a very intense and exciting work, once again containing some mystery and wonder. This performance compares favorably with those recorded by Charles Munch and Fritz Reiner.
Finally there is all-too familiar "Bolero." The challenge of this music is to play it slowly and steadily. Ravel insisted the tempo was never change. The magic of the constantly repeating theme is the way Ravel continues to add instruments until everyone is playing and then he suddenly ends this intense work. This recording is clearly among the best of all.