PAUL PARAY

1886-1978

Just as Pierre Monteux was closing down his interesting tenure in San Francisco in 1952, his countryman Paul Paray was taking over the imperiled Detroit Symphony for what would be an extended and delightful run, chronicled for the ages with a large shelf of recordings exhilaratingly engineered by Mercury Records with its celebrated trio of stationary microphones out in front of the orchestra, eavesdroppers extraordinaire. Paray and Monteux tend to be paired, a couple of indestructible Frenchmen who took over ailing orchestras and sent them on their way, recording a repertoire almost identical in its embracing of French and Russian repertory, along with just enough Beethoven and Brahms not to get in the way (especially in Monteux’ case at RCA) of very big names inextricably associated with that repertoire. Paray was first at bat with Wagner, a composer dear to Monteux as well. Both recorded Schumann, Paray doing more symphonies but Monteux repeating the Fourth.

Now before I looked into the matter very closely indeed I might, oh dear, have rated Paray a shade lower than Monteux. The Paray style is leaner, plainer if you will, quarters and eighths can be a bit shorter. To borrow a phrase from a favorite novelist, in a Paray performance notes can be heard “in rows as true as surveyors’ lines.” But to say that Paray’s style tends to a certain verticality, a kind of straight-upness of phrase, is to miss the charm and imagination of his musicmaking, its gliding undulant quality that makes him seem at times a French cousin to Felix Weingartner. It helps to see a video: look at the 85-year-old Paray conducting a Paris radio orchestra in Faure’s Pelléas et Mélisande suite, his face highly animated, hand to heart, arms expansive while he stands, like the much chubbier Monteux, mostly in place. No, we are not Lennie or Michael. With the death of Mélisande his eyes float heavenward, there you are! A conversation with the orchestra is clearly Paray’s goal, and the arabesquing, cajoling body lingo of a younger, well theoretically younger man, is his instrument. Bewitching.

Now an alphabetical journey through (mostly) Detroit recordings by Paray:

BEETHOVEN SECOND SYMPHONY – Quite a serioso, even stressful introduction, proto-eroico, with a palpable change of atmosphere when, bar 24, with great nobility, Paray introduces the affecting vignette of the violas and cellos moving up a minor third and down a diminished seventh, a subtle variation, this, on the final notes of the symphony’s very opening clause. In the development of a brisk allegro con brio Paray shakes sequences from the orchestra as gracefully and methodically as an upstairs maid snapping a rug out a window to shed accumulated dust. The slow movement is characteristically dainty and courtly, the scherzo, less fast than some, a regular hen party of mincing conversationalists.

BEETHOVEN PASTORAL SYMPHONY – This classic, done with Paray’s Paris orchestra the Concerts Colonne about 1933 — you can almost hear the honking taxis outside — is a near-forgotten gem. The Arrival in the Country is sunny, even sassy, tempers could be flaring! Paray elbows the music right along while a big step below Beethoven’s famously mad metronome mark of 66 beats to the help-get-me-out-of-here minute. “Come on, mes amis,” the music seems to be indicating, “last one in the swimming hole is a rotten oeuf.” Elegant woodwinds play with great panache and personality by Beethoven’s Brook, contributing to an increasingly passionate scene. The Storm is one of the most alarming, hair-raising ever: strings caught in the path of brass and drums scamper like mice.

BERLIOZ SYMPHONIE FANTASTIQUE (Back in Detroit now) — A more delicate Fantastique, this, than Monteux’ Californian Berlioz, and sharper edged. Exciting it is without a doubt. For this observer the best of all in a springy package is the lilting, wide-awake Scene in the Country which, thanks to pacing fractionally above the 84 beats of the score, is catchier not to speak of more urgent than the norm.

BRAHMS FIRST SYMPHONY (“live” from Detroit 1962) – Something different: a tout droit introduction on a single wave of pathos-inflected energy, with lyric grace aplenty, this giving way in a reversal of the usual slower-to-faster routine to a BROAD allegro carrying a big stick of gravitas. Such spaciousness, reminding a bit of elderly Klemperer, constitutes a zoom up expressivity’s ladder and when the lyric second subject arrives Paray is already in a non-rush mode eminently suitable for the pining easily detectable at this turn of sonata form events. Paray’s reverse engineering has pulled a good tempo right off the rack, clearly avoiding a case of “all dressed up in the intro and nowhere to go in the allegro.” In a passionate second movement Paray secures a hummily vibrant sound while his strings contrive to splinter concurrently with emotion. Perhaps the intermezzo movement is too feathery and urgent, very late for the duchess, but a good foil for the finale, begun in great SADNESS.The famous horn is a knight in shining brass, the big tune friendly, but danger lies ahead . . . Next the BRAHMS FOURTH SYMPHONY – Good adjectives here: undulant, languorous, moonlit. An echo of his “contrary” Brahmsian tempo arrangements in the passacaglia when he pairs relatively propulsive pacing for mellow variations 14 and 15 with a slower-than-usual tempo to follow . . . And we pass by estimable DEBUSSY (check those winged Wayne State Sirens soaring on festive clouds after an exceptionally breezy Festivals!) to: — LISZT, LES PRELUDES – Certainly not as rubber-burning a Les Préludes as many, this one is however as sinuous as can be, intimo grazioso galore, with conversational inflections from sexily delicate winds and snappy brass. Yes, the spirit of Weingartner could be hovering.

RACHMANINOFF SECOND SYMPHONY – A grand, enunciatory and weltschmerzy opening, with an almost demented procession of pizzicati in the lower strings: we’re in a kind of gorgeous wasteland. The allegro moderato is lilting, zephyrean, more svelte than voluptuous. The scherzo verges on the monolithic but remains engaging. In the slow movement the clarinet sings on hopeful breezes. Monteux, they say, didn’t like this highly saleable music much; Paray at times seems truly enthusiastic about its charms and tensions . . . and RAVEL – Paray recorded a shipload of Ravel, all good. This man’s favorite is a Tombeau de Couperin with a windborne Prelude so leggiero as to be almost not there, and a Rigaudon with phrasing that dances on the head of an anorexic pin.

Comparing Paray and Monteux’ Valses Nobles et Sentimentales is a satisfying exercise, especially as both recordings, Paray’s from ’59, Monteux from ’46, while some stylistic miles apart, are ultra engaging. Paray begins in that infinitely leggiero mode, the music bubbling as if a soufflé could dance. And the second waltz out of Michigan is as coy as it is light, dawdling fascinatingly. Monteux enters the ballroom a beefier character, a tad less elegant, but in that second waltz he finds a misterioso element, and as the set proceeds his ardor, depth and capacity in what you might call the role of climax-tician keeps us totally involved. The haunting, heartbreaking finale finds two excellent advocates, Monteux more seriously plaintive, Paray more debonair but scarcely less caring, that light touch from Detroit transporting us into an exquisite ether with possibly orgasmic properties.

RIMSKY KORSAKOFF RUSSIAN EASTER OVERTURE – Motown grooves! Note the dancing allegro soaked it seems in vodka, then the almost jazzy trombone solo, fast and bouncy cum pathos.

Now while General Motors pumped out big-finned Cadillacs for their Ike Age customers Paray attended to SCHUMANN SYMPHONIES — Dialing into Paray’s Schumann Second contented listeners will find a characteristically rhythmic performance, luminous with a stained glass sound pleasantly lean and brassy. Musing and lilting is the gorgeous slow movement, the rather mysterious contrapuntal passage midway along breathing hard in Paray’s poco nervoso mode of mid-movement travel. Good momentum and atmosphere here where both can be lacking! Then the finale, a hearty mobilization of Detroit energies, a real March of Joy. Propulsive while crisply chordal, the opening of Paray’s Rhenish is made from sturdy chunks of orchestral building material, the horn call at the end of the development delightfully brassy. An excellent tempo decision for movement 2, that scherzo marked with maddening imprecision very moderate (a prescription for paralysis, this) — Paray simply takes off, giving this slightly wishy-washy movement the perkiness it needs. The nicht schnell “slow” movement is sweet and hummy, moving like the fingers of a lover. And the famous Cathedral Scene: Paray understands very well it’s a long upbeat to the scintillating finale . . . Also from Detroit a sleek and springy Schumann No. 4, more pinstriped than herringbone. The windswept scherzo, with a torrid trio of sinuous legato eighths, is especially fine.

And “live” from Amsterdam in dark January of 1940:  –  STRAUSS’ TILL EULENSPIEGEL – A high flying performance, all flicks, specks and bubbles, avoiding level ground as deftly as the Tombeau de Couperin mentioned above. Then back in Detroit, chunks of WAGNER – Paray’s first act Lohengrin prelude pleads its case sweetly, sounding more truly caring than many of its gramophonic brethren. The Meistersinger act 1 prelude sets off in the irony of a pedantic tramp, becoming in due course perky as can be and very exciting, the texture light, contrapuntal lines in very bold relief. Good fun from Michigan is had by all in a Tannhaeuser overture with a pilgrims’ procession that sounds like a trombone concerto!

Another rouser Paray does nicely enough to win him our equivalent of a couple Michelin stars is Saint-Saens’ Third Symphony. But guess! The straightest route to the dark soul of this charmer is taken by none other than Arturo Toscanini in the NBC broadcast of 11-15-52. Taut and tenebrous, ever spacious in tempo (and this is late Toscanini, mind you) this is a performance stamped all over with the love and conviction of its author. I would toss half of Toscanini’s Verdi into the Po for this half hour of airwave Francophilia . . . Have I missed anything? Yes, Paray’s wonderful Detroit recording of music from Mendelssohn’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, the overture with any lurking gravitas flushed out, a skirt-swishing scherzo staccatissimo as one might expect from this particular conductor, then a propulsive nocturne in which we meet again that soulful hornist Bill Sabatini, a temporary exile from San Francisco, his delicate-yet-forceful tone as inimitable as ever.

And from Gerald Jackson, that top London flutist, a telling vignette: “The Frenchman Paul Paray was at once very grave and very gay. I still recall an intensive rehearsal of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice when suddenly he gave us the off-beat with a twitch of his backside instead of the baton.” (But the departed conductor who, I think, used more of his body than anyone, a whole quivering network of bone and muscle, was Klaus Tennstedt).