One of the conductors I most deeply regret not hearing in the concert hall was Pierre Monteux though I still recall a BBC Third Programme relay from the Holland Festival, a Wagner concert with Birgit Nilsson, which was incandescent. (Later I met someone who had been there to witness with astonishment so many distinguished-looking Dutch musicians being moved to Dionysiac frenzy by this stooping octogenerian with his precise beat and impassive manner.) Happily, Monteux's gift for spontaneously vivid music-making is pre-served by some technology-defying alchemy, on several recordings, not least his set of Berlioz's Romeo et Juliette and a Dvorak Seventh made with the LSO in 1961.
This 1962 Eroica, recorded in Monteux's 88th year, was subject to no special notice when it first appeared but it strikes me, hearing it in these brilliantly explicit new digital transfers to be a reading of astonishing freshness and insight. Of course, Monteux knew the orchestra intimately and they, in turn, were marvellous exponents of this music (under Erich Kleiber, among others) but this performance has Monteux's special stamp on it, a Gallic stringency of utterance that reminds us that this was music written in the midst of a French revolution under the partial imprint of French cultural values. If anyone is inclined to be sniffy about non-German Beethoven, then they should listen to this performance with its un-German concern for the very crispest kind of articulation and for textures that have a Stravinskyan bite and clarity.
There is a sense in which the Eroica was to its time what The Rite of Spring was to a later period teetering on the edge of war, and Monteux, who conducted the premiere of The Rite, treats it as a work of radical energy. The first two movements are grand and spacious (the complex transitions towards the first movement's recapitulation marvellously poised) but inwardly vital; in the Marche funebre the great trumpet summons anticipates Berlioz in its sharp-tongued anger. Thereafter the last two movements are played with coursing energy though never insensitively so. The horns in the third movement Trio are somewhat distant, but I find the effect charming and genuinely atmospheric. (Earlier, though, at fig. 1, bar 416 the flute might, with advantage, have been a shade more forward.)
Monteux does not take the first movement exposition repeat but, rarely for this period, he omits the spurious trumpet extension at bars 658 ff. and achieves a proper climax 13 bars later. Monteux needs no empty histrionics at this point when the Concertgebouw are producing that fierce, bright, glistening tone which has always been a sure sign that their collective psyche is aflame.
The glimpse of Monteux rehearsing the Marche funebre was originally put out on a separate record, and now joins the actual performance it prefaced. Monteux speaks in French, simply and clearly, adjusting details notably legato or non-legato phrasing and accentuation—and asking always for naturalness of expression.
But nothing he says in the rehearsal could possibly prepare one for the drama that is unleashed in the performance. What reserves of energy were held in store; what a man, and what a record!'
- Richard Osborne