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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Symphonie fantastique Op.14 (1830) [50:02]
Hungarian Radio and Television Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Hungary, 1966, ADD.
PHILIPS ELOQUENCE 476 7962 [50:02]

Australian Eloquence has unearthed yet another long-forgotten recording, a Symphonie Fantastique from that most mercurial and red-blooded of Berlioz conductors, Charles Munch. His recordings of this composer's output for RCA with the Boston Symphony Orchestra are the stuff of legend.

This recording, despite bearing Munch's interpretative stamp, is not in the same class. The biggest problem is that the orchestral playing is less than inspired. The Hungarian orchestra sounds tentative and under-rehearsed. There is some very attractive string playing in some of the slower sections of the music - and in the bucolic third movement in particular - but when Munch pushes the tempo their playing becomes scrappy. The brass and winds are anaemic, and they are not flattered by the foggy, reverberant sonics, which obscure the wind and percussion behind the strings. The sound comes into better focus if you turn the volume up. However, this does not overcome the recording's distinct lack of bass. The huge tuba notes that are such a feature of the March to the Scaffold are inaudible here.

That said, this recording is not all bad. Munch aficionados will be interested to compare this interpretation with his other recordings. His approach is generally as one would expect: rhapsodic and thunderously violent by turns. Compared with his Boston recordings his tempi are generally slower. He is even more dreamy and opiated than usual in the opening of the first movement and, despite the problems noted above, Munch paints an atmospheric picture. The second movement's scene at a ball fares better still, with some lovely string playing. As noted above, the third movement comes off best. Munch is less manic than usual in the March to the Scaffold and the final Witches Sabbath, but there is more fire here than a lesser conductor could ignite.

You could do a lot worse than this disc. However, the Symphonie Fantastique is very well served on disc, and "not bad" is not quite good enough. Those who want to hear Munch in this music at his maniacal best should look to either of his recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra for RCA. His 1962 recording, which is now available as part of a double CD of Munch's Berlioz recordings (RCA 74321 845 872), is the better of the two, but his 1954 recording with the same forces is also excellent (RCA 09026 68979 2). Those who want a good budget-priced recording of this symphony can also do better. Australian Eloquence already has an excellent recording on its books Solti's searing 1972 recording with his crack Chicago band. For a more heart-on-sleeve approach at budget price, Bernstein's recording on EMI Double Forte is a prime recommendation, and is coupled with an equally exciting Harold in Italy. Colin Davis's most recent recording on LSO Live is also available at budget price and should not be overlooked.

In the final analysis, Munch's Hungarian Symphonie Fantastique is good, but not good enough to unseat his other recordings or to lay a claim on the general collector. Avid Berlioz collectors and Munch completists, however, will find much here to catch their interest.

Tim Perry



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