Intense, historical readings of Berlioz
madamemusico | Cincinnati, Ohio USA | 04/30/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Though this album also contains excellent performances of the "Benvenuto Cellini" overture and the Prelude to Act 3 of "Les Troyens," it is the 1930 performance of the Symphonie Fantastique that is, rightly, this disc's selling point. As explained in William Malloch's liner notes, this performance has always been hailed by musicians - even by Monteux himself, though he made four more recordings of the work - because he was following detailed score instructions given to him by Edouard Colonne, founder of the Colonne Concerts and a man who had known Berlioz, attended the composer's performances of his own music, and who made copious notes as to Berlioz' own phrasing, dynamics and tempi. Sadly, Monteux lost this marked-up score when the Nazis invaded France. They drove a truck up to his Paris residence, stole all of his scores and other prized possessions, and drove away with them, never to be seen again. Perhaps this is one reason why Monteux's later performances of Berlioz were never as detailed. He could remember some of the score changes he had made, but not all of them.
The performance has typical 1930 sound: very clear in the high instruments (strings and winds), boomy and tubby in the bass instruments (cellos, basses and tympani). Some reduction of bass is recommended to fully enjoy the recording. And there are several interesting features of the performance. One that will strike the listener immediately are the incredible fast tempi of the first and last movements. Many critics (including Toscanini) used to complain of the speed of Charles Munch's performances, but Monteux's Orchestre Symphonique version is even faster. Munch's last movement (in the acclaimed 1962 stereo recording) is 9 minutes and 18 seconds; Monteux's is 8 minutes, 54 seconds. The first movement is even faster: 12'58" compared to Munch's 14'51". "The Ball" is also very fast, 5'44" compared to Munch's 6'22". But because Monteux, like Toscanini, had such a firm grip of his orchestra - these were, after all, hand-picked young musicians, the cream of Paris' conservatories - even the fastest tempo sounds perfectly under control. Also like Toscanini, Monteux exposes a wealth of detail not normally heard in the symphony, even in modern digital recordings: all the inner voices of winds, violas and trombones are exposed as if in X-ray effect, yet the orchestra sounds very well-blended. Another interesting feature is that, except for a descending passage in "Un bal" where it is marked, there is no trace of portamento in this performance. This is highly unusual for that era; of rival conductors, only Toscanini used as little portamento in his performances.
Perhaps the highlight of the recording is Monteux's reading of the "Scene aux champs," a perfectly-controlled adagio which has perfect repose yet never loses sight of the overall musical shape. When the Orchestre Symphonique played this symphony in Berlin in 1929, it was this movement in particular that elicited an impromptu explosion of applause, an event that actually pleased Monteux because it was "an unprecedented mark of approval for the French woodwinds and tympani." Yet his reading of the Witches Sabbath is also extraordinary as, in a way, is the entire recording.
After such detailed praise of the Symphonie, it may seem unfair to merely point out that the performances of the "Benvenuto Cellini" overture and "Troyens" Prelude are very good, but seventy more years of recordings and performances have made those pieces much more familiar to listeners, and are represented just as well by such conductors as Colin Davis. If you decide to acquire this recording, good as those shorter works are, it will be for the unusual phrasing and fiery, restless interpretation of the Symphonie, a performance that stands apart in some little ways from every other that has followed it.