Pierre Monteux conducts Debussy’s Rondes de Printemps

For many years Debussy’s final orchestral work, the ballet Jeux, was thought to represent a falling-off in the composer’s powers. That is not so now, since Pierre Boulez and others have demonstrated its innovative and prophetic qualities, and it is regarded as a work of seminal importance. 

French conductor Pierre Monteux as he appeared in 1933
French conductor Pierre Monteux as he appeared in 1933

The status of Debussy’s immediately preceding orchestral composition, the three Images, is less clear-cut. The central movement, “Ibéria”, itself consisting of three sections, is the most immediately attractive, and is often played on its own: in complete performances of the work some conductors, including Boulez, have played it as the end piece, since it has a brilliant last section. “Rondes de printemps”, which itself has a good climax, should be the final movement, but it is often uncomfortably tucked between the opening “Gigues” and “Ibéria”. “Gigues” is an arresting piece in its own right, and makes a perfect opening movement, but “Rondes de printemps” is elusive, and suffers from being juxtaposed with its more extrovert neighbours. In the 1950s Edward Lockspeiser wrote, “The rare performances of this work have unfortunately seldom succeeded in conveying much of its intangible character: if it is to produce an impression comparable to that recorded by the young composers who heard it at its first performance, among them Ravel and Stravinsky, it still remains to be discovered”. If this is still largely the case today, there is one performance that yields seemingly endlessly new rewards, even on repeated hearings. 

“Pierre Monteux had to leave San Francisco for San Francisco to discover how firm and endearing a place he had won in their affections. He is gone for good now, at 89, after a rich and full and rewarding life of the kind given to few men. And thousands upon thousands of Bay area citizens whose lives he enriched as ‘Papa’, their maker of fine music for 18 years as conductor of the San Francisco Symphony, know a deep sadness.” 

San Francisco Examiner, 2 July 1964

This is the piece’s debut recording, with Pierre Monteux conducting the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra (Victor set M-954 and HMV D.B.6182/3, recorded on 2 March 1942, reissued in the RCA Monteux edition). Even allowing for the heightened effect that youthful first exposure to a work can produce, I still do not feel that any version made since has quite captured its heady exhilaration. So often conductors approach the beginning cautiously, but Monteux sets a vigorous rhythmic pulse from the start and points the piece’s complex twists and turns of pulse and mood with consummate skill and energy. 

Monteux made a second San Francisco recording nine years later as part of a complete Images, but it has a lower voltage, and his final stereo recording is idiomatic but rather dull. Jean Martinon’s early 1970s version with L’Orchestre de l’ORTF (EMI/Warner) has the right kind of propulsive energy but it lacks the insightful subtlety of Monteux’s first inspired reading. 

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