Site review by ramesh August 13, 2005
|FRANCK- SYMPHONY in D Minor ; STRAVINSKY- "PÉTROUCHKA". 1911 Score with excision of three drum roll passages.
Monteux had special associations with both works. As regards the Franck, quoting from the booklet of the CD from the Monteux edition, "The Franck symphony was a cornerstone of Monteux's repertory, as it has been to the French symphonic tradition…It was the biggest work undertaken in his first group of sessions with the San Francisco Symphony in April 1941; he rerecorded it with that orchestra in February 1950, and eleven years later…it was the Franck symphony that became the sole work he recorded with the Chicago Symphony…"
Like Beethoven's 'Pastoral', this symphony appears relatively easy to conduct in a journeyman performance, but is a devil to conduct outstandingly. Even Furtwängler, with his famed mastery of transitions, came a cropper in this work. Some commentators have remarked upon an 'element of vulgarity' in the piece, but this seems to me a conflation of two misperceptions; firstly, that clerics as Franck was, possess the emotional temperature of eunuchs, and secondly, listening to performances which emotionally bowdlerized this into an orchestral showpiece. It is no more nor less vulgar than the Symphonie Fantastique, or the Liszt B minor sonata, with which it shares a similar cyclic structure and compositional length. Munch also recorded this in 1957 for RCA Living Stereo; I haven't heard this, but I can't believe it could equal this performance. Monteux brings fire allied to spectacularly precise Chicago ensemble. He allows the brass to sound out where needed, but they never blare or bray even in the heat of the moment, as they do for instance in Bernstein's live 1981 performance with the French National Orchestra on DGG. As exciting as the outer movement climaxes are, the second movement allegretto has such a sense of atmospheric repose, like a Gallic Brucknerian adagio but speeded up and condensed, which Monteux paces and balances exquisitely. It is the combination of Monteux's unerring choices of tempi and transitions between them, which always sound flexible, but doubtless emanate from his encyclopaedic knowledge of the score, plus the profound emotion of the allegretto, which convinces that this movement is the finest orchestral specimen in the French repertoire composed between Berlioz and Debussy, that make Monteux's performance arguably the best ever recorded.
As good as the CD transfer was in the Monteux Edition, this surpasses it in all significant respects, especially the taming of the glassiness in the high strings, which it is now revealed, had more to do with with the transfer technique, than the master tape itself. However, I have to comment on the valid criticisms regarding this as a botched recording. In my original review ( this is a revision ), I egregiously overrated the recording quality of the Franck, in large measure because playing the SACD layer was so much better than the nasty early RCA CD. There is analogue tape oversaturation on climaxes, especially when the brass ring out. This does not affect the Stravinsky, nor the contemporaneous RCA recordings made with the Chicago Symphony. Possibly the recording engineers made the initial volume high to reduce the tape hiss in the quiet opening, and didn't compensate by volume limiting the climaxes. However, playing this work over again, my I don't find it objectionable compared to the assessments of those with golden ears. Somehow, for me the DSD transfer mitigates the tape distortion on the original CD release, and the tape overload adds rather than detracts to the thrill of Monteux's demonic traversal of the climaxes. For sonic reassessment, taking into consideration the audiophile complaints, I have put the Franck at 1.5 stars, the Stravinsky at 4.5, for an average of three. Again, there is my subjective handicapping to make allowances for the age of the recording; 4.5 stars for the Stravinsky means it is an incredible recording for its time, even though the Telarc DSD version of Petrushka is superior in all technical respects by a wide margin. The enjoyment value of the Franck recording I would still rate very highly, as for me the low tape hiss at the mysterious opening of the work and at other places is a reasonable trade-off for the rawness at the climaxes.
Monteux conducted the premiere of 'Pétrouchka' in 1911, when it was the 'accompaniment' for the ballet. I have spelt it as its given on the RCA disc, rather than the more customary 'Petrushka'. The name is a Russian diminutive for 'Peter', and the name as it is spelt Gallically, was the way it was for the performances of Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. The more spartan 1947 version is the most commonly recorded, and played in the concert hall. Järvi's Telarc SACD version is the 1947 revision. Annoyingly, the liner notes of the RCA say nothing about the score, but I have no doubt it's the 1911. Abbado and possibly others have recorded a production combining elements of the two. The 1911 version is a treat to see in the concert hall, because of its phalanx of percussion instruments, which were severely culled for the 1947 edition. The latter is the one the composer recorded for CBS. Incidentally, it would seem quite logical to distinguish between the 1911 and 1947 versions of the score by spelling the former in French and the latter in American, for it also neatly divides where Stravinsky lived at the time.
There are also tempo fluctuations apparently marked into the printed score for the first tableau, which Stravinsky excised in his revision. Unfortunately, a brief audition of the opening of the Monteux performance will not do justice to its qualities, especially from someone used to the more symphonic ambience of the revised scoring. This is because the opening bars are taken at a far more measured gait than is the norm, before the lurches into the gear changes from about one-and-a-half minutes into the score; which, as alluded to, are actually directions by the composer, and not conducting eccentricity. Monteux omits the side drum rolls which divide the three scenes, and there is a minor delay in the cymbal entrance in track 9, 'the dance of the ballerina'. There may be other tweakings in the score which an expert can detect.
Listening to this 1911 version makes one appreciate how revolutionary this composition was for its time, and if one suspends judgement about Monteux's conducting for the first audition, one will realise by the end, how much more topical incident has been highlighted by him, which otherwise passes underremarked. The three great ballets are traditionally presented as an unbroken line of compositonal development, with the 'Firebird' being turbocharged Rimsky-Korsakov, 'Le Sacre…' being the most revolutionary work of the century, and 'Petrushka' somewhere in between. However, the 1947 score somewhat neuters this assessment, because the decimation of the percussion ensemble brings a greater prominence to the strings by default, as in any traditional symphonic composition, rather than highlighting the extraordinary sound field of the original. The tempo changes in the first tableau bring one closer to the freewheeling spirit of the ballet. After all, in 1911, Stravinsky was a young man, more enfant than terrible, out to make an impression, and wheedle more money out of Diaghilev. The rhythmic yo-yoing of the 1911 first tableau are more befitting of the dances which were choreographed, and doubtless extra percussion would carry better over heavy footfalls than strings. The 1947 version presents a more symphonic version, for academic compositional posterity, when his reputation was already sealed; plus it allowed him copyright again, a bit like Dr Sawkins over Hyperion, except Stravinsky merely made himself original again.
The simple summary of Monteux's unrivalled knowledge of the score over 50 years, is that all the elements described above have been admirably realised, together with exquisite engineering, which allows all detail of the percussion to register in an audiophile wide soundstage. The piano is nicely integrated into the texture of the percussion sound behind the strings, rather than being overly spotmiked, especially prevalent in recordings of the 1947 version. The woodwind playing is piquant and characterful, to the extent that the low grunts at the start of the second section of the first tableau sound hilariously like flatulent raspberries. The recording is so good that one wonders why RCA gave their 'Organ Symphony' release the accolade of a 'HiFi Spectacular', when either of these two performances are equally deserving. Monteux's performance shows immense pointing of detail and characterisation; by turns humorous, scatty, poignant, droll and so on. One imagines he was reimagining the dancers on stage, as he later also achieved in his Ravel 'Daphnis'. If one had to put in a nutshell why this glorious performance is more than conducting it as a showpiece, one would have to use the term, 'characterisation'. The tempi, instrumental timbres and phrasing are at the service of depicting the central protagonist in terms of humanity. The music depicts emotional action as much as it does on stage action. I have only one CD of the 1911 as comparison, Haitink's 1988 version with the Berlin Phil on Philips. As good a performance as that is, Monteux's is more sharply characterised, and the air and space on even the CD layer of this RCA SACD is superior. Splendid as the recording quality of the Järvi's Telarc SACD is, the RCA recording holds up pretty well, but the Boston interpretation and playing are really in the highest league.
An amazing SACD. As interpretations, both of these are in a class of their own, the Franck having strong claims of being the best ever performance of this greatest French late romantic orchestral work. Almost certainly they will never be equalled let alone bettered on SACD.