Pristine Audio brings back the Salle Pleyel of 1929/30: Pierre Monteux Conducts Stravinsky’s Sacre du Printemps, Ravel, etc.

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La Salle Pleyel

La Salle Pleyel

Orchestre Symphonique de Paris
Pierre Monteux, conductor
Recorded in 1929 and 1930

Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn

Stravinsky: Le sacre du printemps
Recorded 23rd – 25th January, 1929 in the Salle Pleyel, Paris
Matrix nos: CS 3172-1T1, 3175-1, 3176-1T1, 3177-2, 3178-2, 3186-1T1, 3173-2T1, and 3174-3
First issued on Disque Gramophone W-1008 through 1011

Ravel: Le petit poucet (Ma mère l’oye)
Recorded 3rd February, 1930 in the Salle Pleyel, Paris
Matrix no.: CF 2842-2
First issued on Disque Gramophone W-1108

Coppola: Interlude dramatique
Recorded 3rd February, 1930 in the Salle Pleyel, Paris
Matrix nos.: CF 2849-2 and 2850-1
First issued on Disque Gramophone W-1108

Chabrier: Fête Polonaise (Le Roi malgré lui)
Recorded 29th January, 1930 in the Salle Pleyel, Paris
Matrix nos.: CF 2818-2 and 2819-1
First issued on Disque Gramophone L-796

Ravel: La valse
Recorded 31st January, 1930 in the Salle Pleyel, Paris
Matrix nos.: CF 2839-3, 2840-1 and 2841-2
First issued on Disque Gramophone W-1107 and 1108

The special sound of the Orchestre de Paris playing in the splendid Salle Pleyel was still fresh in my ears, when the announcement of latest crop of releases from Pristine Classical arrived, offering recordings of Pierre Monteux conducting the “Orchestre Symphonique de Paris” in the Salle Pleyel itself. The most important of these extremely rare 78 sets, made between January 1929 and February 1930, is a complete Sacre du Printemps, the earliest of the seven live or studio recordings which have been released of Monteux performances. These recordings, made only a few years after the Salle Pleyel opened, bring us within two decades of the historic 1913 premiere with the Ballets Russes. Monteux’s authority in this score never diminished, and the performances from the end of his life are as vital as this early effort and are still revered today. Like the later ones, this performance is marked by its flow and coherence—a complete grasp of the shape and drama of the great ballet, which give the performance a sense of unity, without compromising its angular rhythms and its vivid, often harsh colors and textures. You will never hear a more musical Sacre than any of Monteux’s recordings.

What immediately struck me about these recordings, however, was the way in which the acoustic of the Salle Pleyel was immediately recognisable. The presence and bite of loud brass, the nuance of the solo wind pianissimi, and the sense of space around the instruments were strikingly well preserved, in spite of the fact that the 78 originals of these digital restorations were hardly of the best quality. As Mark Obert-Thorne, the restoration engineer, says in his notes:

Adding to their rarity are the difficulties involved in their transfer. None of them were released on particularly quiet shellac, and much of the original engineering was not state-of-the-art for the time. The volume levels of several of the recordings were adjusted downward as the recordings went along, requiring compensating increases on the part of the restoration engineer; and the recorded sound is sometimes rather raw and harsh.

Most problematic of all is Monteux’ first recording, the Stravinsky. Four of the eight sides were only issued as sonically-compromised “dubbings”. These were re-recordings made from the original metal discs or shellac pressings in order to decrease volume levels so that the discs would pass the “wear test”, particularly needed for the many loud passages in this work. Being copies of copies, dubbings had inherently inferior sound. They also had similar volume decrease problems, which I have attempted to mitigate by matching the dynamic extremes against Monteux’ 1956 Decca recording with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra.

Although this is most likely the best that can be done with this compromised source, it is hardly representative of what Obert-Thorne and Pristine Audio can do with good materials. In spite of this, even the Sacre is quite listenable, and you can expect to be able to hear what the musicians are doing and even the acoustical space around them.

Mark Obert-Thorn is renowned in the world of historical recordings as one of the most gifted and skilful experts in the “restoration” of historical recordings. I use the word “restoration,” because the principles behind this work have much in common with at least part of what art conservators do, although most conservators today detest it. Their goal is to bring out as much of the sonic information stored on older recordings by reducing the artefacts introduced by the recording equipment and media of whatever time is in question. Just as in art conservation, a good worker will not introduce anything that is not contained on the original, and he or she will not remove any artefact which requires the removal of any of the music. Hence, one can’t expect background scratches and swishes to disappear entirely. Digital techniques have enabled impressive progress in this field, but a sensitive ear, a knowledge of the music and the musicians who are playing it, and good taste are most important of all, and the process is as much art as science. Hence personalities like Mark Obert-Thorn, a Williams graduate who was able to resist the charms of Wall Street, are much admired among early recording enthusiasts. His work can be heard on the Music & Arts label as well as Naxos, although precious little of it is available in the United States, thanks to absurd American copyright laws. He provides restorations for Pristine Classical on a regular basis as a “guest artist.”

Although there have been numerous small labels doing excellent work in sound restoration, Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio has set a standard of his own, through innovative digital techniques, an acute ear, as well as his discrimination and learning as a curator of his catalogue. You can look to Pristine Audio for the very best transfers of the monuments of early recording—Edwin Fischer’s Well-Tempered Clavier, Furtwängler’s Beethoven, Elgar from Boult and Sargent, Bruno Walter’s great Walküre Act I, Gerhard Hüsch’s Schubert and Schumann, the Budapest Quartet of the 1930’s, the Busch Quartet, and, just now, the famed Bayreuth Ring Cycle under Clemens Krauss, a special production to celebrate Pristine’s fifth anniversary. Most of these are available from the major labels that originally released them; in every case the Pristine versions are superior by far. There are also rich holdings of Toscanini and Cantelli. Oddly enough, one of Mr. Rose best-sellers is Toscanini’s 1935 performance of Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. On the other hand, Rose has unearthed many great recordings which have been known only to a few specialized collectors, either because of the rarity of the recordings or because the artists have fallen from view. A telling example of this is the conductor Selmar Meyrowitz, whose passionate recordings of Liszt’s Faust Symphony and Schubert’s “Unfinished” are in the Pristine catalogue. Virtually forgotten until recently, Meyrowitz was appointed director of the Berliner Staatsoper in 1933, but he had to leave Germany after the NSDAP came to power. He pursued a career in Paris, where these recordings were made, but had to flee again in 1940, when the Germans invaded France. He died in Toulouse, from the physical strain and deprivations of his flight.

Rose, in collaboration with another talented engineer, Peter Harrison, has also made available a wealth of superb music-making from a neglected period in the history of recording, the era of the mono lp. Beginning in 1948, this medium lasted only until the mid-fifties, when the advent of stereophonic recording pushed the recordings out of print, as they were replaced by the new medium. Every music-lover owes it to him or herself to hear the Trio Santoliquido, the Fournier, Janigro, and Badura-Skoda Trio, the Quintetto Chigiano, the pianists Kathleen Long, Moura Lympany, and Noël Mewton-Wood, who committed suicide at the age of thirty-one.

There is jazz, as well, jazz on the same level as the classical greats I have mentioned: Duke Ellington’s Carnegie Hall concert of 1944, Parker, Gillespie, Powell, Mingus, and Roach at Massey Hall in 1953, Miles Davis in Paris (1949). Blind Lemon Jefferson is among the blues singers, and who can resist the charm of Jean Sablon?

Pristine sells both CDs and downloads, which in this day and age are most definitely the way to go. Not only do you introduce less plastic into the environment, you have the convenience of storing your collection on a hard drive or server, and you have the options of receiving your recording in a variety of formats, including 24-bit FLAC files, which are sonically superior to CDs, and “XR Ambient Stereo,” which has nothing to do with the fake stereo of the 1960’s, merely adding a bit of dimensional ambience to the sound picture.

The techniques which enable us to appreciate the acoustics of the Salle Pleyel in a mediocre 78 of 1929 are fascinating in themselves (Andrew Rose has discovered how to extract frequency response up to 15,000 Hertz from 78s), but I’ll leave that for another occasion. I’ve wanted to write about this impressive enterprise for some time. Consider this article no more than an introduction.

About the author

Michael Miller

Michael Miller, Editor and Publisher of New York Arts and The Berkshire Review, an International Journal for the Arts, was trained as a classicist and art historian at Harvard and Oxford, worked in the art world for many years as a curator and dealer, and contributed reviews and articles to Bostonia, Master Drawings, Drawing, Threshold, and North American Opera Journal, as well as numerous articles for scholarly and popular periodicals. He has taught courses in classics, the English language, and art history at Oberlin, Rutgers, New York University, the New School, and Williams. Currently, when he is not at work on The Berkshire Review and New York Arts, he writes fiction, pursues photography, and publishes scholarly work. In 2011 he contributed an introductory essay to Leonard Freed: The Italians / exh. cat. Io Amo L’Italia, exhibition at Le Stelline, Milan, and wrote the revised the section on American opera houses in The Grove Dictionary of American Music. He is currently at work on a libretto for a new opera by Lewis Spratlan, Midi, an adaptation of Euripides’ Medea set in the French West Indies, ca. 1930.

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