on 18 March 2011
A helpful record store owner sold me an LP of Pierre Monteux conducting The London Symphony Orchestra performing Debussy Orchestral work - Images, Le Matyre de San Sebastian. Since then I have not heard a better performance. While some later recordings are 'cleaner' more free of underlying tape hiss, Monteux's simply pleases more than others. It just sounds 'right'.
So it is with this set. It is beautifully balanced between orchestra and choir, the individual instruments to the fore as needed for punctuation and a truly remarkable engineering of the original tapes. I believe that Monteux favoured the 20th Century composers for their spacious scores and inventive colours and textures; all of those things are brought out in this recording. The 2nd movement - Malguena - in Rhapsodie Espagnole pefectly demonstrates this, full of light and shade, the dynamic contrasts are present,the Oboe emerges from the black background clear, plaintive, yearning. Brilliant!
The Rhapsodie, coupled with Daphnis and Chloe and The Pavane this makes a wonderful representation of Ravel's breathtaking 20th Century music, highly recommended.
This very famous Daphnis, recorded superbly by Decca in 1959, has long been a standout reference. The remainder of the disc is of the same quality and was recorded a couple of years later. Monteux was adored by the LSO who gave him a 25 year contract as chief conductor in 1961 when he was a mere 86 years of age.
Monteux was not a showy conductor, or a ruthless dictator of the podium like so many of his colleagues. Instead he believed in intensive rehearsals and precise, but refined, signals to convey his requirements during concerts. These features inevitably lead to fine performances and to his being generally admired and liked by his players.
This Daphnis is a wonderful example of the results of such an approach to music making. Everything is clear, well-balanced and draws to an exciting conclusion. Monteux's understanding of the score is simply without peer - after all, he gave the first performances of Daphnis along with Stravinsky's Rite, Petrushka and Nightingale and Debussy's Jeux for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes so had a deep inside knowledge of how this music should be performed on stage based on practical experience. The players give it their all. The remaining two pieces, the Rapsody and the Pavane share the same exalted standards.
Fortunately for posterity, Decca, who were leaders in recording technology at the time, gave these recordings a particularly truthful recording of great range and fidelity. They simply have not aged as described below..
I would suggest most strongly that this disc deserves to be considered with the very best of the repertoire. It can only be considered as an alternative as there are none better. As an only disc of the program it is most attractive and collectors of multiple versions, if they do not already have it, should rapidly rectify the situation. For me it is one of those desert island discs.
Further note 1:
The new 24 bit remastering offers a significant improvement with sound that makes one realise how much was being achieved so long ago given an original of this quality. The tonal range has increased with an extra clarity and depth to the sound-stage with an overall gain in 'presence.' Purchasers therefore need to make sure they buy the latest remastering dated 2006.
Further note 2:
The mastering at 24 bits (dynamic range) and 96 kHz (frequency range) needs to be explained to be understood. Analogue recordings from the 1950's onwards had a wide dynamic and frequency range and certainly up to, and possibly beyond, the two above sets of figures. Early digital recordings were made on digital recorders with only 16 bits and 48 kHz of potential information. These figures clearly show the limitations of the recorded sound when comparing digital with analogue. Furthermore, the CD format was not capable of storing more information, unlike LPs or tape. All this explains why collectors using the top end of playback equipment were so often unhappy with digital sound. In summary this was simply a case of convenience over quality.
Nowadays it is possible to digitally record at these higher ranges and for discs, especially SACD, DVD and Blu-ray, to hold all the extra information. This is also why a remastering, such as we have here, from original wide ranging analogue tapes to modern wider ranged digital media, is so successful.
The result on this disc is the expected increased 'presence' with added dynamic and frequency response compared to the original CD releases. It is possible that by comparing original LP discs with these new CDs that the LP may still have the advantage, but that is not the real world for most purchasers.