At one time, Pierre Monteux was such a fixture in San Francisco spectators riding on trolley cars could count on seeing this world-famous conductor walk his little poodle up the hill as a kind of a tourist attraction if they boarded at the right car at the right time of day. However, in 1952 Monteux's San Francisco contract expired; he was 77 years old and one might have thought this a good time to consider retirement. Not Monteux; he went onto the Boston Symphony Orchestra, maintaining a relationship with them until his death 12 years later, and founded his summer conducting school in Hancock, ME, which continues to thrive. These last years also afforded Monteux the opportunity to renew his broken ties with Europe; he served as principal conductor of the London Symphony Orchestra, appeared often with the Concertgebouw Amsterdam and with various orchestras in his native France. Monteux's work as a conductor was better documented in this period than any; he enjoyed multiple recording contracts and Monteux more or less could record what he wanted.
Decca's seven-CD Original Masters box Pierre Monteux: Decca & Philips Recordings 1956-1964 documents many of the high points dating from Monteux' European renaissance. One of the reasons Monteux was accorded such great respect in these years was his position as elder statesman in much of the material he led. Monteux conducted Debussy's La mer from the perspective of one who remembered playing the viola part in its world premiere, and led the orchestra during the infamous debut of Le Sacre du printemps at the Champs-Élysées; he had earlier conducted the first Petrushka as well. In his mono Le Sacre from 1956, Monteux does not linger; like his colleague Ernest Ansermet, Monteux uses the 1929 edition of the score, different from the familiar 1947 revision in almost every bar. This performance, with the Paris Conservatoire, is a little loose, but tense, dense, and highly compelling. It is authoritative for what Le Sacre must have sounded like before Stravinsky cleaned it up. Monteux is also heard in a slightly diffuse, but spirited Petrushka and in the Firebird Suite in its 1919 incarnation. He never conducted the full Firebird ballet. From Debussy and Ravel this set includes Ma mère l'oye in its seldom-heard version as a complete ballet, and Monteux's Prélude á l'après midi d'un Faune, like Le Sacre, is unusual in that he never slacks the tempo. Having been the first to conduct the Debussy work as a ballet, Monteux was still concerned with keeping the tempo accessible to dancers even in a concert situation. His generous set of specially chosen pieces from Tchaikovsky's Sleeping Beauty -- recorded with the London Symphony in 1957 -- sparkle, have considerable properties of dry wit and never drag, and the Brahms on here is wonderful: rich, expansive, and unambiguously romantic in style. In older music, the results are a bit more variable. The orchestral body in the Bach and Mozart works seems a bit heavy in retrospect, though in the Bach, Monteux scrupulously observes ornaments that few orchestras bothered with in 1963, and the session that produced these items is notable as the only instance in which Monteux pooled his efforts with his son, flutist Claude Monteux. His Haydn Symphony No. 101, "The Clock," however, is solid, well reasoned, and expressive, seemingly on the money even though the orchestra is larger than is commonly the case more than five decades on.
Overall, the recordings, principally in stereo but partly in mono, range from being near digital sounding quality (the items from Philips) to slightly muddy (the 1963 recordings with Claude Monteux). What is simply astounding across all seven discs is Monteux's consistent level of energy, musicality and devotion to the work that he is interpreting. Monteux was in his eighties for all of it, and while there are wizened moments of music-making that clearly could not come from a relatively inexperienced hand, Monteux's advanced age never drags down the music anywhere. Indeed, his tempi tend to be a bit faster than most established norms. If you like great music in first-class performances, Decca's relatively inexpensive set Pierre Monteux: Decca & Philips Recordings 1956-1964 is a great value, both musically and historically. Monteux was a man who was often in the right place at the right time concerning important milestones in music; that recording equipment followed him so closely in these last years of his life is something to be grateful for.