Aureole etc.




Golden Age singers

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Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette op.17 (1838) (A) (B) [2 versions: 91:27, 91:31], Les Nuits d’Été op.7 (1838, orchestral version 1856) (C) [30:14], Les Troyens (1856-58): Chasse royale et orage (D) [10:59], La Damnation de Faust op.24 (1845-6) (E) [121:52], Béatrice et Bénédict (1862): Overture (F) (G) [2 versions: 07:18, 07:17], Le Corsaire op.21 (1844-55) (H) [07:58], Benvenuto Cellini op.23 (1834-1837): Overture (I) [10:26], L’enfance du Christ op.25 (1850-54) (J) [93:26], Harold en Italie op.16 (1834) (K) [37:44], Le carnival romain op.9 (1843) (L) [08:01], Grande messe des morts op.5 (1837) (M) [83:33], Symphonie fantastique op.14 (1830) (N) (O) [2 versions: 46:20, 48:54]
Victoria de los Angeles (soprano) (C), Suzanne Danco (soprano) (E), Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano) (B), Margaret Roggero (mezzo-soprano) (A), Florence Kopleff (contralto) (J), Leslie Chabay (tenor) (A), David Poleri (tenor) (E), Léopold Simoneau (tenor) (M), Cesare Valletti (tenor) (B) (J), Lucien Oliver (baritone) (J), Martial Singher (baritone) (E), Gérald Souzay (baritone) (J), Donald Gramm (bass) (E), McHenry Boatwright (bass) (E), Yi-Kwei Sze (bass) (A), Giorgio Tozzi (bass) (B) (J), William Primrose (viola) (K), Harvard Glee Club (A) (E), New England Conservatory Chorus (B) (J) (M), Radcliffe Choral Society (A) (E)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch (all items)
Recorded 1949 (F), 22nd-23rd February 1953 (A), 21st-22nd February 1954 (E), 14th-15th November 1954 (N), 12th-13th April 1955 (C), 23rd-24th December 1956 (J), 1st December 1958 (G) (H) (L), 6th April 1959 (D) (I), 26th-27th April 1959 (M), 23rd-24th April 1961 (B), 9th April 1962 (O) in the Symphony Hall, Boston
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876-60393-2 [10 CDs: 67:24 + 66:06 + 74:26 +74:04 + 72:50 + 66:52 + 60:26 + 69:50 + 73:14 + 75:06]

 

Munch’s Berlioz used to get a regular beating from the British press. The EMG Monthly Letter regularly bandied about phrases such as "large-scale insensitivity", accusing him of being interested only in "getting the strings to play with a big, beefy tone". I discovered while at University that there could be another point of view, when I read David Wooldridge’s "Conductors’ World" and found Munch - and several other conductors with American-based careers who were looked down on by the British establishment - rated as a truly great figure, and not only in French music. I must ask my American readers to bear with this introduction which may seem to them merely quaint, but while the British critics later discovered the calibre of Reiner and Szell, Munch still seems to be regarded with suspicion.

It is true that England had another, and very healthy, Berlioz tradition, going back to Hamilton Harty and obviously encompassing Beecham. While not lacking in brilliance or zest, this tradition underlined the classical base behind Berlioz’s muse. A similar classical approach could also be heard in London from the French conductor (and one of Munch’s predecessors in Boston) Pierre Monteux. One can perhaps understand the English critics’ pique when Munch recordings of the major works started to arrive from Boston and the interpretations by Beecham and company remained mainly unrecorded, and of course it is a great pity that we can compare Munch with Beecham in only a few of these works, but that was no reason to belittle a masterly conductor who identified wholeheartedly with the equally important romantic, Dionysian side of Berlioz’s imagination.

In the United States and in much of continental Europe Munch was looked on as a supreme Berlioz interpreter; the very existence of these recordings tells us as much, for this was a time when Berlioz’s larger works were widely dismissed as the eccentric failures of a fascinating but unstable genius. After the Berlioz centenary in 1969 and the long series of recordings under Colin Davis this particular battle has been won, but let us not forget the role played by Munch’s missionary zeal and RCA’s faith in him. No conductor before Colin Davis was permitted to record so much Berlioz (apart from the operas the only major work missing is the Te Deum) so let us welcome the chance to hear the whole range of Munch’s Boston recordings of this composer, in infinitely better sound than those earlier British critics heard.

Roméo et Juliette

The virtually identical timings of the two performances disguise the fact that in 1961 Munch was actually slower in almost every movement, though not always by very much (2 seconds in the case of the Queen Mab scherzo!). However, in 1953 he was considerably slower in the three sustained slower pieces, Roméo seul (05:05 against 04:28), the love scene (15:42 compared with 13:14, a quite different interpretation) and the Invocation (04:10; 03:41). These differences may be at least partly accounted for by the acoustics. Although we are told that the recordings were all made in the Boston Symphony Hall, I find this hard to believe in the case of the first Romeo, where the acoustic is extremely dry without a trace of the longish reverberation we associate with that venue. This, I believe, encouraged Munch to generally faster tempos, but also to his very sustained versions of the slow movements, where it can be sensed that he is struggling for a resonant string sound that a more sympathetic acoustic would have given him automatically. Some early Boston recordings sound pretty marvellous but this, aside from the dryness, is one-dimensional and shallow, though it is smooth and not actually unpleasant. Add to this that the earlier choir is less good and the little-known soloists are only adequate (the weakest is the tenor, the best is the bass) and you might begin to wonder if it was such a good idea to include both versions after all.

And yet I shall sometimes bring the older one out for it has a quite different character. Perhaps because of the lean sound, perhaps because of the more monumental slow movements, the performance takes on a classical character, presenting Berlioz as a successor to his beloved Gluck – and this is clearly an important aspect to the work. Furthermore, the third part is incandescent (Giorgio Tozzi’s more flexible voice inspires Munch to a more elegiac interpretation of Friar Laurence’s aria in 1961), reminding me, however, that this particular ingredient of a Munch performance had been relatively lacking up to that point.

Incandescence begins much earlier on in 1961 and the slower tempi are not aurally evident – indeed, hearing them in the typical Boston Symphony Hall reverberation I could have sworn they were faster. A spacious stereo recording, still sounding remarkably fine 44 years on, allows us to hear a wealth of subtle shading from the orchestra and the love scene, this time, is fresh and ardent. Prior to this, the balance between chorus and orchestra is magical as "the young Capulets leaving the hall pass by singing" – it sounds a different piece of music compared with 1953. This performance is a far more headily romantic affair, giving us the Berlioz who looked ahead to Tchaikovsky rather than the Gluck-oriented classicist. Both views are valid, but how interesting that the same conductor should provide them. With fine contributions from the three soloists (a typical Met line-up of the day) this 1961 Roméo remains a pretty stunning achievement. Munch’s Queen Mab scherzo, by the way, will not appeal to those who want it fleet and Mendelssohnian; both times round he uses his slowish tempo to prize out menace and malice as well as delicacy.

Les Nuits d’Été

With the last two versions of this cycle that came my way (von Stade/Ozawa, Ameling/Shaw) I had to complain that the conductor sleepwalked through the thing; Munch provides a dream of an accompaniment, full of colour and warmth without ever trying to hog the limelight. At the time of recording Victoria de los Angeles was ten years into a career which was to last a good long time yet. It is always a pleasure to go back to earlyish recordings of much-loved singers and hear the voice in its pristine, scratch-free state. The charm of the opening Villanelle could perhaps be taken for granted from this source, but would she find the darkness for some of the later numbers?

In fact, she has several cards up her sleeve, and in order to illustrate them I give below a list of the keys adopted for each song by her and the other two singers I’ve mentioned:
  I II III IV V VI
de los Angeles A B c G flat D F

von Stade

F C d G flat B flat F
Ameling A D d G flat C F

So de los Angeles actually sings the two darkest songs in a lower key than the "true" mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, while she sings no.5 higher than the "true" soprano Elly Ameling. Oddly enough, all three, whatever their voice-labels, agree to sing nos. 4 and 6 in the higher key. It is notorious that this cycle seems to be unsuited to one type of voice all through, leading Sir Colin Davis to essay a recording divided between four voices. But if the singer can divide herself into soprano and mezzo? This is exactly what de los Angeles does, and in her two mezzo numbers she descends to her chest register as to the manner born, lavishing a rich, plangent tone on these two pieces. Indeed, perish the thought, I’m not sure that I don’t prefer her as a mezzo than as a soprano, having always found the piping charm a little shallow. But enough of these irreverent thoughts, for she soars up effortlessly in the soprano pieces and altogether we have one of the few satisfactory recordings of this challenging work. The recording of the voice is excellent, that of the orchestra fair enough for the date.

La Damnation de Faust

Though a 1954 mono recording is hardly the ideal vehicle for the splendours and subtleties of Berlioz’s orchestration in this richly fascinating work, it is a considerable improvement on the 1953 Romeo; the acoustics are warmer and if the big moments inevitably lack space and dimensionality it is all reasonably clear and the actual dynamic range is wide. The mastery with which Munch realizes Berlioz’s colouristic effects is still strikingly evident.

The Harvard and Radcliffe choirs have once again been prepared in a somewhat syllabic manner, but this time Munch is far more successful in drawing them into his interpretation of the work and much nocturnal magic is to be heard in "Dors, heureux Faust". The soloists all acquit themselves well; the all-important tenor maintains an easy emission even in his highest-lying lines while parts 3 and 4 are graced by the contributions of the always welcome Suzanne Danco. But the real hero, apart from Berlioz himself, is Munch, who encompasses every aspect of the score from extreme vitality and sinister revelry to delicacy (in the "Ballet des Sylphes" and the "Menuet des follets"), warmth (the expressive yet unindulgent introduction to "D’amour l’ardente flame") and sheer poetry ("Voici les roses" and the final chorus). But apart from all these "moments", even more importantly he realizes the dramatic shape of the work as a whole with the assurance of an operatic master, which is all the more remarkable when his career was almost exclusively in the concert hall (I can find no mention in his curriculum that he ever conducted opera at all, though he was offered the directorship of the Paris Opéra during the war – and refused it because it would have meant collaborating with the Nazis). And remember that this was at a time when Berlioz was still claimed to be an "interesting" but sprawling and undisciplined composer. It would be idle to pretend that there haven’t been other fine recorded performances since, in superior sound, but collectors of vintage performances will treasure this.

L’enfance du Christ

We are now in the stereo age and the sound immediately has space and dimensionality around it. There is perhaps a trace of distortion in some of the high-lying choral passages but all things considered this wears its half-century astonishingly well (an occasionally excessive spotlighting of the wind soloists didn’t disturb me, least of all because they play so well); the circulation of this performance certainly needn’t be limited to historically attuned ears.

In the opening scenes Munch draws string tone of quite extraordinary richness from the Boston players, superbly caught by the recording; later on, in the more intimate scenes between Mary and Joseph and in the angelic choruses, he obtains pianissimos of the utmost refinement. Once again he is the complete master of all aspects of the score, knowing just when to drive and when to relax (perhaps a little too much at the end of the Shepherds’ Chorus, but this is a minor miscalculation), and above all he knows how to bind it all into a single narration.

Some of the soloists are better remembered than others today, but all are good. I was particularly struck by the rich, even timbre of Florence Kopleff, a name new to me, while Valletti and Tozzi, not to speak of Gérard Souzay in his prime, are always welcome. The Harvard/Radcliffe outfit has been replaced by the much more flexible New England Conservatory Chorus, the Boston Symphony’s regular choral partner for many years to come. The fact that it was recorded on the two days preceding Christmas must have made it particularly moving for those taking part, and must account for the particularly heartfelt quality which makes it a competitive version even today.

Harold en Italie

Received wisdom has it that this was the least impressive of William Primrose’s three recordings of this work (the others were with Koussevitzky and Beecham; a live version with Toscanini has also been issued). I’m not able to comment on this, but however good the others are, I don’t see how the present one can be judged as other than superb. The first movement moves easily between meditation and elation and I love Munch’s tempo for the Pilgrims’ March. Too swift a tempo can sound unfeeling, while too footsore a trudge, maybe impressive for the first minute or so, becomes a bore. Munch seems to me to get it absolutely right; the pilgrims sound happy to be alive – they have, after all, just crossed the Alps and their goal is in sight – without being in any way frogmarched. The serenade has much nocturnal magic and if in the Orgy of the Brigands, as in the Queen Mab scherzo, Munch takes a slower-than-usual tempo, such is the fiery clarity of the articulation and the complete lack of heaviness – the performance has true Munch zest – that it sounds exactly right. The stereo recording comes up as fresh as paint so this has now become one of my favourite versions.

Grand messe des morts

This is terrific, awe-inspiring, as much so in its moments of hushed intensity as in its moments of blinding drama (the augmented Boston brass make a spectacular impact). For all the grand scale of the piece it is Munch’s dedication which shines through, not least in the heartfelt Sanctus where he also has the advantage of Léopold Simoneau’s presence, incomparably at ease even in the highest register. The recording stands the test of time incredibly well; like the best recordings of the 1950s, it may not really be encompassing the full harmonic and dynamic range of the performance (as will be evident if it is tested against a more recent version), but it has a way of convincing you that it is doing so; indeed, I would say that in its symbiosis of music, artists, conductor and recording, this is one of the truly great recordings. Like the Furtwängler Tristan or the Klemperer Brahms Requiem it will never be wholly superseded no matter what other versions come along. I have written relatively little about what is perhaps the crowning glory of Munch’s Boston Berlioz, but what else can I say?

Symphonie fantastique

Munch’s recordings of this symphony (the Boston two are not the only ones) have drawn a fair amount of flak over the years and it is true that, looked at in cold blood, he does some naughty things, like starting the first movement Allegro a few bars before it is marked, accelerating through the March to the Scaffold (in the earlier version, particularly) and generally applying a generous amount of agogic freedom. But nobody will ever bring a work like this to life by simply reproducing the notes. And bring it to life he does, triumphantly, above all in the "naughtier" 1954 version. In truth, he plays the symphony as if he wrote it, as if it were a part of his whole being, and I am quite prepared to set aside all academic considerations in exchange for an imaginative recreation on a level with Furtwängler’s similarly libertarian but life-enhancing Schumann 4.

Fundamental to the success of this performance are Munch’s sense of orchestral colour (reproduced in an astonishingly good early stereo recording), his feeling for the narration of the music – the first movement sounds remarkably succinct simply because we always know where the music is going – and above all his ability to shape Berlioz’s long, often unaccompanied melodic lines. The Scene in the Countryside can seem insufferably long and meandering; under Munch every phrase has a beginning, a middle and an end, and for this I would rank him, in this work, above every other conductor I have experienced.

The downside is that, as can happen with Furtwängler’s Schumann 4, you may get the sound of this performance in your ears for ever after and so not want to hear it any other way.

And the 1962 recording? Well, only a critic with a job to do would listen to them both the same evening with only half an hour in between. A few months hence, perhaps I should try listening the other way round. Certainly, the recording is richer and more spacious, but I repeat, the 1954 one was already so good that I wouldn’t let that sway me. I did feel at first that I wasn’t being involved to the same degree, but can you get caught up to that degree twice the same evening? The first movement, fractionally slower, seems not to catch fire quite so easily, and, perhaps realizing this, Munch sometimes forges ahead impetuously. The Waltz is also a mite heavier this time. On the other hand, the later stages of the Scene in the Countryside are realized with even more poetry and the March to the Scaffold is held more steadily – and is no less enthralling for that. Indeed, by this time Munch’s adrenalin seems fully flowing and the last movement uses the marginally slower tempo to create an even weirder-sounding, phantasmagorical Witches’ Sabbath. So in the latter stages Munch perhaps surpassed his earlier achievement, though I still stand by the 1954 one as a whole. Both surely stand among the pinnacles of the symphony’s discography.

Shorter works

These were originally gathered on one LP but are now scattered around the set. Never mind, we have an ineffably joyful Roman Carnival and a Corsaire which, while thoroughly swashbuckling where needed, finds time to shape warmly yet purposefully the long melody near the beginning (another of those passages which can meander hopelessly in the wrong hands). The drama of the Royal Hunt and Storm is unsurprising, but the closing pages give the lie (once again!) to the idea that Munch was short on poetry. A powerful Benvenuto Cellini and an affable Beatrice and Benedict complete the package. However, we also have a version of the latter from the very beginning of Munch’s period in Boston. The sounds is remarkably good at the beginning and, though it does get raucous in the heavier passages, it nevertheless allows us to appreciate a more brilliant, unbuttoned performance than the later one. It can also be heard that the whiplash clarity and attack of what was still basically Koussevitzky’s orchestra had loosened fractionally ten years on; Munch was not a podium dictator and was primarily interested in getting the right colours (the horns have acquired a degree of French-style vibrato by 1958) and the right spirit. Nonetheless, we can also hear that he took over a great orchestra and handed a great orchestra on when he left.

This package, with its inbuilt repertoire duplications, exudes a generosity of spirit similar to Munch’s own; a generosity not matched by the booklet which has brief notes on the works and conductor but no libretti of the choral works. For those as fascinated as I am by past performing styles this is nevertheless a wonderful way to snap up at one fell swoop all the Berlioz performances recorded by one of the composer’s greatest interpreters during his vital years in Boston. The more general listener wanting to collect virtually all of Berlioz’s concert works under one cover will make the consideration that the dryly recorded, vocally inferior first Roméo is virtually expendable, that he may need a more modern Faust as a supplement and that the differences between the two Fantastiques may not be so obvious to the layman as they are to the practising musician. On the other hand the overall price of the set could be said the "absorb" the duplicated items. He may also discover that the sense of a burning missionary zeal, deriving from the fact that several of these were first recordings and several of the others firsts on a major label, still communicates today, outweighing other considerations.

May I finally remind readers of two other Munch releases, both 2-CD sets, which I have reviewed enthusiastically, one dedicated to Debussy, the other to various French composers, including the Symphony by César Franck and Saint-Saëns’ Third?

Christopher Howell



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