idea persists - in England, at least - that Munch was a great
conductor of French music but a fairly mediocre one of anything
else. I gave a partial answer to this criticism in my review
of the issue, in this same Living Stereo series, of his splendid
readings of Mendelssohn’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies (see review
). But, you may say, Mendelssohn is a lightweight
among German-Austrian symphonists. How does Munch stand up
it comes to the
real nitty-gritty, the Mozart, the Beethoven, the Brahms?
or two points need to be made at once if you’re a general
collector looking for a good coupling of these particular
symphonies. Nowadays, particularly on records, it is considered
desirable to give all Beethoven’s repeats. Munch would appear
to have been allergic to repeats. It is true that even now
not every concert performance may include the repeat in the
finale of the Fifth, but very few of the discs in my collection,
including many of the golden-oldies, omit that in the first
movement. This is because it otherwise seems too short in
view of all that has to follow. Conversely, the repeat in
the first movement of the Pastoral
, which is a lengthier
movement anyway, used to be considered more of a luxury but
the only other version I know which even omits the repeat
of the Scherzo is Weingartner’s. I’ve always assumed this
was because he had to get it onto a single 78 side. So, if
this matters to you, you’ve been warned.
question is that of the odd touching-up of Beethoven’s orchestration.
A handbook by Weingartner made much of the fact that the
instruments of Beethoven’s day, particularly the brass, were
not able to play all the notes he manifestly wanted them
to play. Now that our modern instruments can give him all
he wanted, ran the argument, we have to help him out. Weingartner
and others also pointed out that Beethoven was almost completely
deaf by the time he wrote his mature works. He therefore
didn’t have the opportunity to make the adjustments he would
doubtless have made if he had heard them properly. Weingartner
later disowned this handbook, but it remained influential
for many years.
more recent counter-argument is that while Beethoven, with
our modern instruments at his disposal, might
unthinkingly written something akin to Weingartner’s retouchings,
the necessity for an alternative solution often inspired
a further stroke of genius from him. One example which the
most inexperienced listener can immediately notice occurs
in the first movement of the Fifth. The motto theme which
introduces the second subject is boldly sounded on the horns
the first time round. When it comes back later, the new tonality
means that Beethoven’s horns couldn’t play it, so he gave
it to the bassoons. Munch follows Weingartner in reinstating
the horns and only a very few conductors before today’s authenticists
were prepared to accept that the ghoulish/comic effect of
having this motto unexpectedly blurted out on the bassoons
was actually a masterstroke by the composer. Also in this
same symphony, there have been some fairly substantial adjustments
to the brass parts in the finale, while I noticed no deviations
from the score in the Pastoral
. So again, if you have
strong feelings, you’ve been warned.
last question regards a criticism which has been made of
the Munch/Boston recordings down the years and I still can’t
quite decide if it’s Munch or the engineers that are at fault.
Undoubtedly, these recordings have lost the abrasive qualities
which disturbed European ears in the old RCA LP pressings,
but the close miking needed to counteract the long Boston
Symphony Hall reverberation period has resulted in a narrowing
of the dynamic range. So when, after the stern opening motto
of no.5, the answering “piano” from the strings is not really
much softer than the “forte”, are we to blame Munch or the
engineers? Did Munch really have the strings play the beginning
of the second movement with such a full tone? I don’t know!
What I do know is that there is the most lovely soft string
playing in the Pastoral
, not exactly “pianissimo” but
golden-toned and mellow. Munch in a more benign mood? Or
were the engineers seeking to improve on their previous efforts?
I think the latter, for in this case it is the fortes, in
the storm particularly, that lack the impact of a modern
recording. I suppose that SACD listening – I heard the disc
as a normal CD – might clarify all this but let’s face the
reality that these recordings are over fifty years old. The
sheer fact that they sound so much better than the mono recordings
of Toscanini and Furtwängler made only a few years earlier
should not tempt us into listening to them as modern recordings.
historical recordings and allowances do
to be made.
that having been said, what does Munch’s Beethoven have to
of all, he was a notable orchestral stylist. When you hear
his recordings of the French repertoire, and the typically
French vibrato he encouraged from the wind and brass of this
orchestra, you may think that this combination of orchestra
and conductor could never make a proper Beethovenian sound.
In fact, the wind and brass play completely straight and
the close miking allows us to appreciate some lovely, mellow
and very Austrian playing from the woodwind, while the strings
produce a broad, gutsy sonority. In other words, in this
repertoire Munch succeeds in obtaining a wholly Germanic
sound from his orchestra. While I don’t pretend to have better
ears than anybody else’s, I must say I’ve never seen Munch
given credit for this in anything I’ve ever read. It also
raises the question that the conductor’s almost exclusive
concentration on the French repertoire after his retirement
from Boston may not have been simply a case of mental retrenchment.
He mainly conducted French orchestras in his last years and
he surely knew that in those days neither he nor anyone else
could make them sound German.
on disc at least, Munch had a very fine feeling for the pace
which would accommodate all the events in a particular movement.
I say “on disc” because I have distinct memories of a re-broadcast
of a live performance of the Pastoral
given some time
in the 1950s with one of the RAI orchestras. The tempi were
almost rabidly fast – and it was equally repeatless. I don’t
have a tape of this so am unable to check my memory but the
point is that Munch was wont to treat public performances
as experiments, on which he would draw for his recordings.
Common wisdom has it that Munch came under the shadow of
Toscanini in this repertoire, but the first movement of the
fifth is trenchantly expounded at a tempo which does not
exclude lyricism in second subject territory.
second movement is a set of double variations whose alternating
note values – 16th
-notes, triplets, 32nd
-notes – mean
that not many conductors manage to hold a steady tempo right
through. In reality Beethoven indicated just one short passage
in a faster tempo towards the end. Munch sets out at a fairly
mobile tempo which he holds steadily, but with a warmth of
phrasing which avoids any suggestion of rigidity. In spite
of my comments above about the rather fulsome tone at the
beginning, I have seldom enjoyed so much this movement, which
can seem prosaic. If Klemperer had been conducting, this
interpretation would have been called magisterial, but of
course it can’t be really, for any fool knows that Klemperer’s
Beethoven was magisterial and Munch’s wasn’t.
scherzo is also fairly steady, but buoyant in its march rhythms
and with an energetic yet unhurried trio. Though other recordings
may have a more hushed transition to the finale, I must say
I have rarely heard more clearly the changing drumbeats and
the descending bass lines, and this counts for much. Munch
belongs to the school of conductors who seek a common tempo
throughout the last two movements; another was Klemperer.
Many conductors who start the finale off broadly find they
have to slip into a faster tempo later on but Munch keeps
it steady, yet with a feel of real elation in the playing.
Though I regret the missing repeats, I think that the next
time I want to hear a really grand-sounding performance of
this symphony I’ll be taking this down from the shelf rather
than Klemperer’s. There are days, of course, when I prefer
to hear it with Toscanini-like drive. At this point I have
to declare that, regardless of what “any fool knows”, Munch’s
magisterial, no less than Klemperer’s.
It has a quite different ethos, though, much more warm and
humane than the austere, wintry Klemperer.
as I have suggested above, is bathed in a warm romantic glow,
but I don’t mean by that that Munch wallows in it. For one
thing, textures are beautifully clear and transparent. A
great many things are all happening at the same time in the
later stages of the Scene by a Brook
, and I don’t
know if I’ve ever heard them all quite so clear, so perfectly
in relation to one another. Furthermore, Munch, without a
trace of the furious driving I remember from that Italian
broadcast, keeps things mobile, with a most delightful lilt
to the first two movements. I’m afraid I’ll never get used
to a repeatless scherzo and Munch - or the engineers - gets
another black mark for separating the scherzo slightly from
the storm. Nor is the pattering of rain at the beginning
quite as menacing as in some other performances. Thereafter
it goes with plenty of energy and the finale is splendid,
with a tempo which allows for exaltation and glow in equal
measure. Altogether, one of the most warm-hearted Pastoral
I’ve heard for some time.
hope it is by now evident that Munch’s Beethoven is not to
be sneeringly dismissed. I trust further reissues will follow.
There is not a complete cycle but there are a few more symphonies
and a disc of overtures. In the meantime I would draw a comparison
with another European conductor working at that period with
a great American orchestra, whose Beethoven was not universally
admired at the time but has been somewhat reassessed since,
namely Fritz Reiner. I suggest that Munch’s Beethoven is
not less worthy of our attention.