Tahra TAH 665, 75:45 [www.tahra.com] *****:
Tahra restores the concert of 6 November 1958, the last appearance of eighty-three-year old conductor Pierre Monteux (1875-1964) in Paris before an orchestra. The program also included the Hindemith ballet Nobilissima Visione, which this disc could not accommodate. Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony long endured as a Monteux specialty: he concluded each season with the San Francisco Symphony under his tenure–seventeen years–with the Ninth; and Monteux chose this massive work with which to celebrate his eighty-fifth birthday before the Boston Symphony Orchestra.
Monteux opens with a flavorful, intensely ceremonial performance of the Couperin work, a piece in transcription I know only from Mitropoulos renderings from New York and Cologne. The ensemble becomes a bit muddy at times, but the pomp and ceremony, especially in the upper registers of horns and piccolo, vivaciously dig into our solar plexus.
Many will find better favor with this miking of the Beethoven Ninth than with the multi-microphone technique offered by Westminster (via MCA) of the Ninth from London’s Walthamstow Hall. The French players seem particularly alert to the agogic ambiguities Beethoven generates in the first movement, and Monteux exact a spacious, sinewy energy at al cadences. The momentum assumes a colossal vigor early, Monteux already aiming for stratospheric heights, despite sarcasm from the bassoons and an insistent, earth-bound tympani. The arioso passages enjoy a generously grand sweep, a spiritual largesse that has the woodwinds piping in sympathy before the deep strings introduce a gigantic contrapunctus whose lofty might reminds us how much Prometheus dominates the Romantic mind. A terrific volley of stirred sound hits us to announce the recapitulation, touching Empyrean heights and Dantesque depths at once. Monteux insists on the palpable presence of the basses’ line, a serpentine coil around everything dances or revolves. The titanic brew finally coalesces in a cauldron of martial and consoling emotions, from whose final pages we find ourselves shipwrecked, wracked by vertigo.
No respite follows, as the Scherzo proceeds, Molto vivace, with that same inexorable determination of spirit that marked the final chords of the first movement. The deft fugato resounds from all parts, the strings articulated with an hysterical frenzy we would be more apt to attribute to Toscanini than to the seemingly amiable Monteux. If this is to be Monteux’s Beethoven swan-song in France, he will not go gently into that good night. Monteux takes the Trio at its designated Presto tempo, although the arioso theme enjoys a degree of melodic leisure, the woodwinds and horns basking in their dialogues as the string ascend the more martial scale. The music diffuses into the aether, the Furies quelled, but only for a moment. Risoluto, the da capo returns more forcefully than before–if possible–the sense of mortal urgency multiplied by an unnerving frenzy in the harried metrics. The kettledrum seems to be marking Destiny out, a world where the Pierre Monteuxs of this world cannot subdue the oncoming storms.
At last, a song of consolation, the exalted Adagio molto e cantabile: Monteux adopts a tempo whose stately poise approaches the Furtwaengler notion of cosmic space. The recorded sound of strings and horns roves exemplary, as fine an example of the Monteux craft as I have heard from Boston or the Concertgebouw. The music proceeds in large waves; rounded, heartfelt periods that swallow up Bruckner in one, melodic gulp. Once more, we must pay homage to the forgiveness of which Beethoven alone is capable. The double theme and variations proceeds with resonant security, the acoustic of the Theatre des Champs-Elysees projecting a warm, ambient acoustic for the horns and pizzicato strings, then the French horn solo and the outcry of the tutti strings in singular, harmonized space. The tempo has assumed Toscanini’s proportions, the regularity of movement appearing to be faster than it actually is. The exalted melos over a sustained pedal creates a most telling effect, the longing for eternity in the midst of ardent life.
Thunderbolts open the last movement, the orchestral recitative infused with groaning passion. When at last Beethoven “finds” his theme, Monteux’s orchestra elicits the musical equivalent of “Eureka!” and segues to its series of dynamic variations. Josef Greindl, of Wagnerian fame, intones the sentiment to end “absolute” music from the proceedings and, instead, ask the human voice to plead for universal brotherhood. Thus, the Allegro of the first movement recapitulates itself in vocal sonata-form, Maria Stader’s high soprano barking out in a flute tessitura of idiosyncratic beauty. Some of the acoustics for the vocal quartet become distant, although the tympanic bass line can be heard distinctly. A swollen climax–a suspended chord–and the scherzino opens with janissary pomp. Is Wagner’s Loki derivative of this entire movement? The fugato romps with light-footed heraldry. The trumpet filigree beside the chorus plays with fervent, strident power.
We enter the slow movement, “Seid umschlungen,” with a direness suggestive of the Dies Irae, the heavens opening up in Final Judgment. This is no longer Beethoven, but the Verdi Requiem. Suddenly, the pathos softens to a mystical, lavender vision. As the pageantry accelerates and ascends Pelion and Ossa, the magnanimity of design stops the breath. A short, staccato transition and we begin the last movement proper, oh God-descended Daughter of Elysium, besieged with some potent magic to change men’s hearts. The dry-accompanied vocal quartet quivers on high, with Greindl’s bass tone grounding the sentiments in this life. The janissary rush to the Apocalypse is just sort of out-of-control, a spasm of musical purity from the venerable Maitre of French Music whose legacy never ceases to reward us.