Monteux was an avowed literalist. "I have no interpretation," he is qooted as saying in the program notes. "I play the music." This stance could have led him to become Mr. Monotony like Erich Leinsdorf. Literalism has more than one face, however, and where Leinsdorf, Rodzinski, and their present-day heirs, like Mackerras and Charles Dutoit, rule over an interpretation-free zone, this seems like dullness and lack of imagination, Monteux was a very feeling conductor, just not a flashy one. He put himself second to the music, but that didn't stop him from infusing his performances with a kind of relaxed mastery. You see the smile behind that nineteenth-century walrus mustache.
BBC Legends has issued a series of Monteux concerts from his last phase, meaning his seventies and eighties. This collection is a grab bag that uses three different orchestras and ranges from Nov. 1960 to May, 1963. Since we encounter four different venues, there's no consistency to the sound except that it's all mono. The opening number, the Prelude to Act I of Die Meistersinger, happens to be in distant, mushy sound; the reading is straightforward and well handled. The second item, Siegfried Idyll played in its orchestral version, comes in better sound. But the pacing is brisk to the point of impatience, a characteristic I've observed in the aging Monteux. Strokowski was the same way more often than not, as if both wanted to prove that the passing years hadn't diminished their energies. Whatever else one might say, this no-nonsense Siegfried Idyll is energetic, and well played, too, by the Royal Phil. At 16 min., Monteux's account is 8 min. faster than Celibidache on EMI but not that far off the average, which is just over 17 min.
Monteux wanted to be taken seriously conducting German romantic music from Beethoven onward, but one notices a jump in vitality and authority when we get to the next number, "Iberia" from Debussy's Images. This is by far the most popular section of the whole work. Recording in Royal Festival Hall in 1961, the BBC Sym. plays with alertness and enthusiasm; Monteux is in best form, too, and the recorded sound, although mono, is very clear and details, the best so far. From the same occasion comes Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms, another success. All of Monteux's postwar Stravinsky readings are more flowing, relaxed, and legato than what the composer offers on disc. This is no exception, and I particularly like the strong, emotional singing of the BBC chorus, even if Stravinsky might have greeted it with a witty barb.
French conductors are expected to have an affinity with Russian music, going back to the turn of the century, and Spain is generally included. Stravinsky, Debussy, and Falla all wrote for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes, after all, where the younger Monteux was frequently the pit conductor. It's no surprise, then, that we end with two dances from Falla's Three-Cornered Hat, played beautifully by the London Sym. in 1961; we also get the best sound, actual studio quality done in Kingsway Hall. The reading is a bit slower and more rounded than the norm, perhaps, but full of force and punctuations of passion.
At 72 min., this is a fairly generous Cd, with much to enjoy even if the Wagner items fall a bit below the rest. As an introduction to a beloved conductor who managed to be in the right place when musical history was made - and more than once - it's very satisfying.