Monteux: The First NBC SO Concerts, Vol. I = BACH (arr. Respighi): Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor; MOZART: Symphony No. 35, “Haffner”; FRANCK: Psyché et Eros; DEBUSSY: Images: 2: Iberia; R. STRAUSS: Till Eulenspiegel – NBC Symphony Orcehstra/ Pierre Monteux – Pristine PASC 640 (76:11) [wwwpristineclassical.com] ****:
The concert of 13 November 1937 marked the official, inaugural debut of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, created specifically to serve Maestro Arturo Toscanini, who would assume control on Christmas Day. The newly created ensemble had been heard prior, in a 2 November 1937 radio broadcast under master orchestra builder Artur Rodzinski, a program including a Weber overture and the Richard Strauss autobiographical tone-poem Ein Heldenleben.
Pierre Monteux (1875-1964), at the time the leader of the San Francisco Symphony, by 1937 stood, according to critic Olin Downes, “at the height of his powers” in orchestral interpretation. Andrew Rose restores the evening, what has been described as “a particularly good one, [the orchestra] exceptionally accurate and well trained.”
The restored sound proves gripping and immediate. Monteux opens with a taut account of J.S. Bach’s organ Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor (c. 1706-1713) as arranged for orchestra by Ottorino Respighi. The piece proceeds as a theme and 20 variations that leads directly into a powerful fugue, or variation 21, if you will. A break in intensity occurs at Variation 12, followed by three variants of moderate concentration, which then transitions into a group of five, ardent variations. The fugue itself presents a mass of contrapuntal organization, often delineated as a double fugue, whose subject and counter-theme recur four times. Somber and urgent, the performance proceeds with a sense of acoustical veneration, the various NBC choirs’ contributing to a fabric woven in clearly defined, interlaced harmony, the stretto passages as imposing as anything wrought by Stokowski. The audience response erupts in appreciation of a first rate ensemble.
Monteux, like Bruno Walter and Arturo Toscanini, enjoyed a string affinity for Mozart’s 1783 Haffner Symphony, always investing youth and Italianate ardor into his interpretations. The dramatic contour of this work’s monothematic opening movement, strongly influenced by the C.P.E. Bach school of empfindsamkeit emotionality, revels in hurtling leaps, rocket figures, and diversions into fugato and the minor modes. Monteux presents the two middle movements as classic studies in period art, the refined Andante and regal Menuetto raised to chiseled monuments in their respective, lyrical and ceremonial, courtly forms. The last movement, Presto, Mozart instructed should be played “as fast as possible.” The vivacious musical filigree invites comparison to The Marriage of Figaro and The Abduction from the Seraglio, operas dear to Pierre Monteux’s heart. The NBC proves itself a virtuoso ensemble, responsive and pert, as required.
Monteux then turns to the music of César Franck, whose 1888 symphonic poem Psyché et Eros constitutes the last, third section of an erotic subject matter taken from pagan legend, the Metamorphoses of Lucius Apuleius Madaurensis (c.124-c.170 BC), a rare Roman novel that has survived in its entirety. The first recording of the complete score took place under Piero Coppola in 1932. The music for this last, the most popular of the three sections, proceeds in chromatic, lushly evocative tones, applying Wagnerian syntax to the scene of the lovers’ punishment and eventual redemption for their carnal relationship. We hear clear evocations of the composer’s familiar Symphony in D Minor, given the similarity of their harmonic and melodic tapestries.
Monteux treads fertile soil with Claude Debussy’s Iberia (1905-1912), the second of his set of orchestral Images. Although Debussy had barely traversed the Spanish countryside, he imbibed much of the native, Andalusian spirit, its colorful dances and folk impulses, like the sevillana, the Moorish sensibility, the often contrapuntal intermixing of syncopation and parallel harmonies. The second movement of this tripartite suite, Les parfums de la nuit, offers the NBC players an opportunity to demonstrate their craft in high, muted strings, the distant oboe, and “local” instruments like the tambourine, xylophone, celesta, and trumpets in mutes. Bells sounding in the distance announce a segue to the morning of a festival day, whose pageant resembles the sonorous strumming of a huge guitar. The tunes of earlier sections rise up, here in controlled abandon. Viola Carlton Cooley intones an impulse leading to plucked strings and the enlivened battery section, an exuberant display of vitality whose coda no less receives equal energy from the audience.
Monteux concludes with the Richard Strauss picaresque legend Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks (1895), the composer’s first of many international successes. French horn Harry Berv and first violin Mischa Mischakoff direct our attention to the fanciful tale and its principal character, whose impious and irreverent spirit touches our penchant for “the imp of the perverse.” The lush scoring of the symphonic poem in rondo form, its playful account of Till’s (the clarinet) various misadventures, compel us ineluctably forward to his rather graphic fate by hanging. Trumpet and timpani work proceeds first rate, as does John Wummer’s flute. The finale a kind of moral expressed in the sweet strings and winds, erupts once more, a vital expression that such insolence does not really perish. Announcer Ben Grauer seems as enthusiastic to recall Mr. Monteux as is this premiere NBC audience.