Our Symphony and the Ghost of Recordings Past

We all know (I hope!) what a wonderful jewel we have in the San Francisco Symphony. It has been an integral part of the City for almost a century and enriches all of us in countless ways.

Many of us are eagerly following the SFSO's almost-complete series of Mahler recordings. However, the orchestra was making records long before Michael Tilson Thomas became musical director. Bit by bit the recorded legacy is fading away, but fortunately it's still possible to hear the SFSO of yesteryear.

Pierre Monteux, the symphony's director from 1935 to 1952, brought the orchestra to the attention of both NBC and its recording arm, RCA Victor. The San Francisco Symphony became an RCA Victor orchestra, a kind of West Coast counterpart to RCA's big East Coast groups such as the Boston and Chicago orchestras. Beginning with 1941 Monteux led the orchestra in a series of recordings, most of which are still available if you know where to look.

Monteux — famed for conducting the premieres of Stravinsky's Petrushka and The Rite of Spring — was a strong interpreter of French repertoire and so it shouldn't be surprising that the balance is definitely tilted towards the Gallic in the SFSO catalog. Some of the works Monteux committed to disk remain rarities to this day; the SFSO introduced Vincent D'Indy's Symphony No. 2 to American audiences and the subsequent 1942 recording remains one of the very few extant. Several other obscure D'Indy works such as the prelude to Fervaal and the oddly-named Istar: Symphonic Variations are also nearly unique.

Ernest Chausson's music is rarely heard outside a few quasi-popular chamber works, but Monteux led the orchestra through a blazing rendition of his Symphony in B-flat Major, Op. 20.

Selections from the standard repertoire are a bit lacking in the Monteux/SFSO discography (RCA usually gave those to Boston or Chicago), but by no means completely absent. A very fine Brahms Symphony No. 2 in D Major is one of the orchestra's finest recorded achievements — so naturally it's totally out of print, but you can find a used copy — and a Schumann Symphony No. 4 in D Minor, recorded in the 1940s, a perfectly decent (somewhat sloppy) rendition of this problematic score.

One must keep in mind, however, that the San Francisco Symphony of Monteux's day was less of a full-time orchestra than it is today. The musicians played for the Opera part of the season, and then for the Symphony thereafter. (After all, they were sharing the Opera House.) As a result, there is no denying that it was a considerably less polished orchestra than today's stellar ensemble.

Two criticisms were commonly leveled at Monteux's SFSO: the first concerned raspy and sloppy string playing, and the second focused on scrappy woodwind intonation. The many extant recordings bear those criticisms out, but neither issue is a deal-killer nor true across the board.

The orchestra was blessed with a stellar brass section — as the knockout live recording of Messaien's L'Ascension makes clear, its joyous trumpet trio bang-on solid and radiant. The orchestra also featured the superb violinist Naoum Blinder, whose recorded solos surely rank among the finest in any orchestra, anytime, anywhere.

Picking up Monteux/SFSO recordings isn't all that difficult, even if the big RCA "Pierre Monteux Edition" 15-CD compilation is out of print.