PIERRE MONTEUX

1875-1964

Back in the 1940s an inspirational and engaging theme song titled This Hour is Yours introduced prime time Sunday evening radio concerts played in alternation by the San Francisco Symphony and Los Angeles Philharmonic. No commercials intoning the merits of Standard Oil of California intruded from the voice of the kindly-sounding but rather saccharine announcer. The sponsor did, however, place an embargo on musical selections longer by a few measures than 20 minutes. Procrustean as this populist policy could be – a few relative symphonic behemoths were snuck in under the wire – it did foster the programming of rousing overtures galore, quick-exiting classic symphonies (with a few repeats jettisoned), forgotten but worthy tone poems and charming tidbits-encores-lollipops not likely to be scheduled at regular subscription concerts. Thankfully a large number of these broadcasts have come down to us in CD form and the bounty allows us to savor in spades the tremendous versatility of that style-savvy conductor who presided over most of the transmissions from San Francisco, the benignly mustachioed Pierre Monteux.

Veteran of the Diaghilev Ballet (Rite of Spring premiere and so forth), Great War trenches, the Boston Symphony (briefly!), the Amsterdam Concertgebouw (as co-conductor with Mengelberg) and his own Paris Symphony (with which he made the first of his almost countless recordings of  Berlioz’ Symphonie Fantastique), Monteux would settle into San Francisco’s Fairmont Hotel for the winter (another War coming on, but the quarters more comfortable), and devote his time to: 1) rehearsing and conducting his heavy schedule of subscription dates and broadcasts, 2) playing viola in informal chamber music gatherings with orchestra personnel and visiting celebrities, 3) dining on oysters and other good things at Signor Mondin’s Blue Fox down by the morgue, 4) walking a poodle named Fifi up California Street in plain view of strap-hanging cable car riders likely to wave at Frisco’s Frenchman as Time Magazine had dubbed this fellow who looked like a cartoonist’s dream but whose professionalism was No Joke.

Monteux’ arrival on the Opera House podium for a San Francisco concert (and broadcasts too, after the sardine-tin Studio A at NBC’s Moderne headquarters downtown was abandoned) was generally preceded by his concertmaster Naoum Blinder’s rather flamboyant entrance. Blinder was followed after a slight pause by a stout little man who negotiated a small military turn just behind the fifth stand of first violins, stepped carefully to the podium and then, supposedly commencing at his wife Doris’ cue from Box A, would with precise signals from a vibrant baton and an exceedingly rhythmic left hand, as well as a regular encyclopedia of mustache twitchings, benign little gazes and slight but encouraging deviations from a rigid head-to-torso relationship, produce one after another of his highly satisfying performances. Exhilarating they were, beautifully proportioned, yes, a tad stout sometimes, and full of mood projection tucked neatly into scrupulously harmonized layers of sound, these layers indebted somewhat in their transparency perhaps to L’Orchestre Symphonique de Paris. Carefully enunciated but lilting, Monteux’ performances laid the music’s cards on the table most agreeably.

And have I told you already, Doris was Monteux’ third wife and he called this formidable lady the Eroica.

Very likely because Monteux’ San Francisco musicians when he took over their musical care and feeding for seventeen mid-century seasons did not boast a complacently glamorous sonic personality, his Come on, boys! exhilaration as well as his extraordinary care for transparent textures were embraced by his new band as mother’s milk. The result was a distinctively bright and forward sonority, not un-French and sometimes organ-like, which could not be confused with that of any other recording orchestra of the time. That exhilaration, it cascaded as a matter of course from this portly, dapper musician who in personality was witty, contented, unflappable. His musicmaking reflected that personality, never the sometime anger of a Toscanini, the occasional grimness of a Guido Cantelli, the momentary near-hysteria, however effective, of a Koussevitzky. One doubts any of those stars of the conductorial firmament would have asked an orchestra to notice that “these second violins [in the scherzo of Beethoven’s Ninth], they are always laugh-ing.”

“I’ve been educated with Beet-HOVEN,” Monteux told an interviewer when he was 80. He was still a teenager when, the violist of a touring string quartet, he participated in performances of all the Beethoven quartets every season. Beethoven became at that time and remained for seven decades treasured company on Monteux’ musical journey and luckily for us he left much sonic evidence thereof. A 1961 recording of the Fifth with the London Symphony, Monteux’ last orchestra, is a suave, jaunty, likeable performance. But if you want to experience one of the most youthful, unbuttoned Fifths ever caught by microphones there’s the composite version erupting from a pair of San Francisco broadcasts when Monteux was, well, 71 and 75 years old rather than the somewhat advanced 86 of his London Fifth. The first movement from San Francisco (2-16-47) is brisk, intense, extremely light-footed; at six minutes and 29 seconds versus the seven minutes and eight seconds of the LSO (and this includes the exposition repeat) Monteux’ Wild West allegro con brio offers a virtually unparalleled combination (combustion?) of urgency and ping. The finality of his fortes is devastating. Also not found in the Mayfairian Fifth is a rather dark scherzo positively reeling into a no-time-to-spare finale (12-10-50).

Here, in the large nutshell of the Fifth, is the essential contrast between Monteux’ San Francisco Beethoven of his 70s and the London Beethoven of his 80s, a contrast not unfavorable to either (although my heart belongs rather more to the San Francisco oeuvre, on which as a matter of fact I grew up). The contrast is about energy versus elegance, passion versus delicacy and wit, neither necessarily excluding its “opposite.” The difference derives somewhat from the tightening muscles of age — although one can find plenty of octogenarial Monteux performances with enough energy to give those damn morticians pause: think for instance the BBC Northern Brahms Third — but also has to do with Monteux’ reaction to the personality of the LSO, an orchestra more glamorous in sound than the San Francisco group of his time in that city.

Also from San Francisco comes an important performance of Beethoven’s Consecration of the House Overture (12-4-49). Log here a stately introduction tellingly restrained in tempo, and a maximally Elysian account of that lovely interlude of calm midway along, this state of affairs facilitated by the fact Monteux feels this is where Beethoven’s meno mosso should be invoked, to make a nice contrast with the  staccato fugato just delivered with enviable transparency. And up the celebratory road there’s a majestic delivery of Beethoven’s great fugue which moves very well but never too fast along its heroic track.

Monteux made only one Mozart symphony recording, an autumnal pairing of the Haffner and No. 39 with the NDR Orchestra in Hamburg. While the Hamburg Haffner is an estimable piece of work, quite elegant in fact, I prefer the livelier and more liberally shaded San Francisco broadcast of 3-24-46. Note for starters a warm and snappy first movement traveling with great vividness an echt-Mozartian course squeezed dramatically between jollity and desperation. For all its briskness this flying allegro con spirito is not one iota inflexible in pacing, a case in point the generous relaxation of tempo for the quiet response to the opening forte at measure 6. The succeeding andante is flowing, delicate, extremely attractive. Ravishing is not too strong a word for the Beechamesque hairpin – that’s Sir Thomas Beecham — Monteux applies to the tiptoeing sixteenths in bar 24. And note the expressive broadening at the exposition’s benedictory close. Monteux’s emphatic Haffner minuet San Francisco-style is pompous enough to suggest the terrifying major domo in Richard Strauss’ Ariadne prologue; and the contemplative trio, noticeably slower in this performance, evokes old folks chattering in the corner of a Jane Austen salon – only to be startled when Mr. Minuet storms in to interrupt them. Next, a hell-for-leather finale complete with very assertive timpani, that snappy Walter Larew, but graced by discriminating dynamics when appropriate.

Mozart overtures? There are no commercial recordings but archival ingenuity has preserved for us California broadcasts of the opening of Don Giovanni (2-5-50), full of tension and demons, and Abduction from the Seraglio (1-21-45), a model of breeziness and contrapuntal clarity. Performances, these, that have that characteristic Monteux quality of being ALL THERE at any given moment. One dreams of a complete Mozart opera conducted by the drama-keen, fun-loving Monteux, and also from this wittiest of conductors a good batch of Haydn symphonies. Alas, Monteux programmed about the same amount of Haydn as the next fellow, which is not very much, and he was only asked to record Nos. 94 and 101, with the Vienna Philharmonic. No surprise that his San Francisco broadcast of the 88th (1-21-45) is a gem. A wonderfully expectant introduction is followed by a rousing and wistful allegro with several sonic one-liners. The best joke involves the suddenly exposed low E flat staccato of violas and cellos early in the development (bar 109, then 111, etc.), a delightful case of Oops, Sorry – or perhaps this is a series of Pierre-ian winks? Again as in his Haffner third movement there’s a charming minuet-trio contrast. In this case the urbane trio seems to be making a slightly disdainful comment on the busybody of a minuet.

Like Wilhem Furtwaengler Monteux found Gluck a very congenial composer – not surprising, this, when one thinks of Gluck’s influence on the Berlioz with whom Monteux is so associated. Majestic and urgent as well as impeccably tailored, Monteux’ ’45 broadcast of the Iphigenia in Aulis overture suggests the consecration of a House no less mighty than that of Beethoven’s great overture. Treating Gluck’s music with dignity but not too much starch Monteux as he invariably did finds just the style for the music at hand.

Brahms was one of Monteux’ most favorite composers: “my love and my ideal.” Doubtless he would have taken him, along with Beethoven and Wagner, to his desert island, where, of course, an Island Philharmonic would be warming up. In Monteux’ programming as I remember it no favoritism was shown one Brahms symphony over another, but due to some quirk of fate and merchandising he made four commercial recordings of  Brahms’ Second and none of the other three. The coming of the Long Playing record explains the second San Francisco recording. But then, in fairly quick succession, came Seconds (Second helpings?) with the Vienna Philharmonic and London Symphony, the Vienna version more introspective than the energetic, affectionate San Francisco LP with its characteristic organ-like textures, the London Second leaner and less autumnal than its Mittel Europa sibling. The lack of a Monteux First, Third or Fourth from the 1945-54 period relates, of course, to his sharing RCA’s stable with such estimable runners as Toscanini, Koussevitzky and Stokowski, but the narrowing of these particular ranks did not, for one reason or another, result in commercial documentation of Monteux’ love affair with the titans of the Brahmsian oeuvre. Millennially released Amsterdam broadcasts have filled some major gaps. Shortly before his death an obviously hallucinating Monteux told his student Werner Torkanowsky he must apologize to Brahms for “the way I’ve played his beautiful music.” Well, no apology is necessary for the sturdy and reassuring Brahms performances it was Monteux’ habit to give. Who could want more than the grand, intense opening of that BBC Northern Third, broad as autumnal Klemperer in his studio mode, or the special mix of suspense and regret in another 1962 broadcast, a Tragic Overture from Amsterdam in which the Old Moustache allows himself more introspection than in a hugely exhilarating San Francisco sibling. Defiantly un-fancy, the chunky/heroic First from Holland ’63 feels like a pulsating machine constructed out of the best copper piping money can buy.

Now a conductor need not be a German to be a three-star Wagnerian. Arturo Toscanini is a prime example, and Pierre Monteux was a no less exciting conductor of this meaty repertoire. Wagner overtures and scenes frequently salted and peppered Monteux’ programs with the San Francisco, London and Amsterdam orchestras under his wing, but he recorded only the Siegfried Idyl with his California band (it was released nine years after the recording date!) and a trio of preludes with Hamburg’s NDR orchestra on a relatively obscure label. In his two brief terms at the Metropolitan Opera he was employed as a French specialist. He resigned the second time around because general manager Rudolf Bing refused his request to cross the barrier into the German wing – how different things had become in the James Levine era! But when he guest conducted at the San Francisco Opera in 1954 he was given carte blanche and emerged with a contract to conduct Beethoven’s Fidelio.

Monteux’ fervid way with the Parsifal prelude (4-9-50 in San Francisco) is absolutely stunning, and as for his zingy and rapturous Meistersinger prelude (11-16-47) it’s a veritable catalog of delightful detail all students of conducting would be well advised to hear. Put in your notebook especially the exhilarating, almost impulsive attack of the violins’ running upbeat to the Masters’ theme in bar 36, echoing the impetuosity of young  Stolzing who would a Franconian Pavarotti be, and the welcome spotlight shone on the oboe’s espressivo in the triplet-rich love scene at 108. In the act 3 suite from Meistersinger (4-23-50) Monteux’ slight speedup for the solemn passage of the horns early in the prelude might disappoint some of the Bayreuthian brethren but the fact is these golden measures are simply swept aloft by his radiant urgency.

Weber’s Euryanthe overture was a Monteux perennial, but of course he never recorded it. Thanks to a San Francisco broadcast from 1-29-50 we can enjoy the perfect swagger of an unrushed timpani doing its imperial annunciatory thing at measure 53, just before the sweet second theme emerges in this performance like a lovely young lady introduced by a chivalrous wave of the hand. Even Toscanini in his celebrated pension fund concert with the New York Philharmonic in 1945 doesn’t duplicate this effect. The second theme itself Monteux phrases with great delicacy and the cello arpeggios tucking themselves under the theme at measure 70 have a particular animation reminiscent of Weingartner – or, as Monteux would have said, Weingart-NER. He and Monteux in their different ways were champions of orchestral underdogs, assorted inner and supporting parts, the instrumental butlers and parlour maids frequently glossed over by less attentive maestri.

Then Monteux out-Pathétiques much of the competition in the Euryanthe overture’s nocturnal midsection with a reading ultra-slow, ultra-quiet, vibrantly haunting as can be.

Next, Monteux the comedian! Exhibit A is the 4-6-52 San Francisco broadcast of Rossini’s L’Italiana in Algeri overture, a pointed and saucy performance christened by a regular enchantress of an oboe. What a podium imp Monteux turns out to be, here and in a 1952 Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dukas so graphic and hilarious in its tale of unintended inundation as to suggest some aquatic footnote to the Flying Dutchman. Meanwhile we mustn’t forget Monteux’ snappy account of Sousa’s Stars and Stripes Forever. The rhythm here is electric, this is the rhythm Monteux professes to have learned as a 14-year-old fiddler in the pit at an X-rated Folies. And north to Finland. Monteux was as formidable a Sibelian as a zany Rossinian and his ’49 broadcast of the Valse Triste turns what could be a vapid vignette into a touching little tone poem. Beginning at a distinctly slower tempo than many conductors select Monteux proceeds over several minutes through profound sadness, animation, hope, extreme wistfulness, a bit of daring, finally desperation. It’s an epic in a teapot.

Considering that Richard Strauss was probably Monteux’ fourth favorite composer (following Beethoven, Brahms and Wagner) he made scandalously few commercial recordings of this composer’s music, only a Death and Transfiguration delivered to the microphones in 1960 and released nine years later, and a Heldenleben from ’47 that led a shadow life as a record club offering until it was released to the general public forty-seven marketing years down the road. Enter here a welcome brace of San Francisco and Boston broadcasts. For me the best of a generally outstanding lot is the San Francisco Don Juan of 1-29-50, a supple and steaming performance with an ecstatic violin solo by Naoum Blinder just before the second theme (incidentally, all hands should experience Constantin Silvestri’s uniquely slow, ultra-amorous way with this theme in a broadcast from Bournemouth) and, in Strauss’ haunting central episode, a remarkable oboe solo by Merrill Remington that catches ideally this passage’s “strange and ominous beauty,” its “autumnal richness of regret” (the quotes are from Sir Thomas Armstrong, via Norman del Mar’s landmark study of Strauss). Remington, obviously with Monteux’ blessing, and perhaps to some extent at his direct request, achieves his magic with a little diminuendo here, a mini-hesitation there, neither precisely indicated in the score, or with a slight departure from Strauss’ legato in the direction of an intermittent staccato – do it, in short, the way you feel it! — all of these devices designed to foster the espressivo Strauss does indeed request. No wonder that Monteux when he returned to his old San Francisco orchestra in 1960 and was confronted by a less than stellar associate principal oboe, asked plaintively, “where is my Reming-TON?”

Now compare Monteux’s San Francisco Don Juan with his Boston Symphony broadcast dated nine years later and we find the Eastern orchestra’s premier oboe treating his solo, relatively speaking, as if it were a minefield marked DANGER. The Boston oboe gives us the notes, rhythm and markings of the printed page down to the last stress accent, and considerably less characterization. We sit helpless by the CD player, wondering if Monteux was afraid to ask for more – ah, he was back as principal guest of the elegant orchestra that had rejected him for Koussevitzky in 1924! — or did the oboist simply not have it in his soul to give? Upon reflection, I think it’s something of each but more of the second.

Meanwhile as a veteran of Mediterranean long-distance ferry journeys in weather smooth and foul and not entirely certain which constituted authentic Impressionism I’m not sure why Monteux’ Boston recording of Debussy’s La Mer, 7-19-54, strikes me as little more than streamlined/humdrum — although after hearing Wagner’s Dawn on the Rhine from Massachusetts Avenue with heavenly tone but not the despair and swagger of a Californian transmission I’m a tad suspicious. But even a greater passion emanating from Symphony Hall that summer of ’54 would have found extreme competition in the remarkable La Mer, a “live” one, which Monteux conducted in Amsterdam as the “phony war” settled into its dangerous meander October of ’39.

For Monteux at that time there was a boat ride in his near future, he had to cross the submarine-infested Atlantic to catch the Twentieth Century streamliner in New York and its well-chromed sibling the City of San Francisco in Chicago to get to his annual winter gig with the San Francisco Symphony. Could this state of affairs explain at least in part the extreme sense of uncertainty and danger registered early on in this performance, a prevailing tension that shades into a deep sadness in the last minutes of the opening movement, From Dawn to Noon on the Sea?

Monteux, of course, survived his journey, an Atlantic zigzag perhaps, and twenty-four years later he was still conducting at the Concertgebouw — a Schubert Unfinished, for instance, in which the amazing calm of the opening movement’s second theme rocking in its hammock (and an exotic key!) provides, without perceptible tempo change, a startling and wondrous contrast to the prevailing URGENCY . . . like a stormy ocean taking a few moments Time Out, allowing the birds to fly . . .

And we’ll have much more about the Unfinished in the Leopold Stokowski chapter. Meanwhile: how did I miss Monteux’ sweet & libidinous Franck Psyche from San Francisco, 12-3-44? And lest I be thought too California partisan, well, there are some captivating items out of Boston, a relay of D’Indy’s Istar for instance, Mendelssohn’s Hebrides, Haydn’s Surprise, his most turned-on Beethoven Eroica, an amazingly feng shui Schumann Rhenish: it’s the balancing, the rubati . . .