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Munch conducts Romantic Favorites
CD 1
Robert SCHUMANN (1810–1856)
Cello Concerto in A minor, Op. 129 [24:38]
Pierre Fournier (cello)
rec. 6 December 1957
Symphony No. 4 in D minor, Op. 120 [25:32]
rec. 26 October 1956
Richard STRAUSS (1864–1949)
Tod und Verklärung [22:50]
rec. 6 October 1951
CD 2
Johannes BRAHMS (1833–1897)
Concerto for Violin, Cello and Orchestra in A minor, Op. 102 [32:26]
Zino Francescatti (violin)/Samuel Mayes (cello)
rec. 13 April 1956
Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 73 [39:17]
rec. 30 September 1955
CD 3

Johannes BRAHMS
Academic Festival Overture, Op. 80 [10:26]
rec. 6 December 1957
Concerto for Piano and Orchestra No. 1 in D minor, Op. 15 [46:49]
Rudolph Serkin (piano)
rec. 20 January 1956
CD 4
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841–1904)
Symphony No. 9 in E minor, ‘From the New World’ [40:39]
rec. 8 October 1954
Richard STRAUSS
Don Juan, Op. 20 [17:17]
rec. 30 September 1955
CD 5

Richard STRAUSS
Orchestral songs: Allerseelen [3:04]; Wiegenlied [3:32]; Morgen [3:45]; Ständchen [2:42]
Irmgard Seefried (soprano)
rec. 12 November 1954
Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40 [43:27]
Richard Burgin (violin)
rec. 15 February 1957
Divertimento (after Couperin), Op. 86 [21:59]*
rec. 26 July 1953
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
All recordings made in Symphony Hall, Boston, except *at Tanglewood
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA6017 [5 CDs: 73:31 + 71:51 + 57:16 + 57:57 + 78:32]

 

 

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The West Hill Radio Archives label has already issued two enticing boxes of live recordings by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra. One consists entirely of Beethoven performances (see review) while the other ranges much more widely in terms of repertoire (see review). This companion volume focuses on romantic repertoire and, with one exception, all the pieces are from the German tradition. Munch is often thought of as a specialist in French music but this collection proves that he was just as adept in German music.

There are two excellent essays in the booklet. One, in English, is by the conductor and biographer of Pierre Monteux, John Canarina. The other, in French, is by Michel Tibbaut. The essays complement each other very nicely but both stress that Munch was most emphatically not a “mere” specialist in French music. Both writers point out his Alsatian lineage and that he was born in Strasbourg, which at that time was part of Germany. Also, we are reminded of his early career in Germany, not least as concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhauseorkester. As Tibbaut puts it, from the start Munch was immersed in German culture.

Disc 1 contains two major works by Schumann. The Schumann Cello Concerto is not, perhaps, one of the pinnacles of the cello repertory but it’s a good piece nonetheless. Pierre Fournier plays it very well and he gets committed support from Munch. I admired the lovely soulful singing tone of Fournier’s instrument right from the very start of the concerto. He and Munch bring a fine feeling of grace to many of the concerto’s pages.

The Fourth Symphony, a piece that Munch never recorded commercially, also comes off well. Munch obtains clarity from the orchestra, belying the accusation of thick orchestration sometimes levelled against Schumann. Indeed, there were several occasions when I thought his interpretation made the music sound highly reminiscent of Mendelssohn.

The final offering on this disc brings us the first of several pieces by Richard Strauss. Munch brings off the hushed opening pages of Tod und Verklärung very successfully – there are some lovely flute and violin solos, though perhaps the harp is a touch too prominent. The main allegro is very powerful and dramatic, with strongly delineated bass lines. The transfiguration music itself has genuine nobility and Munch avoids any bombast. John Canarina says that the performance is “ a bit hectic at times”. I’m not entirely sure I agree: Munch’s volatility in the more dramatic passages is appropriate, I feel, and it also serves to throw the more tranquil pages into sharper relief.

The next two discs are devoted to Brahms. Disc 2 includes a performance of the Second Symphony, a work that Munch did take into the studio – in the very year of this present performance, I think. I should point out that the tracking of this performance is not as stated in the booklet. Tracks 4 and 5 do not contain, as stated, the first and second movements respectively. In fact the first movement is spread across both tracks. That’s not much of a problem. Unfortunately, track 6, which purports to contain the third movement, lasting a rather improbable 14:52, encompasses both the second and third movements – the third movement starts at 9:05. It’s not a major issue unless, of course, one wanted to listen to the third movement in isolation. However, it’s a surprising error in what is otherwise a pretty scrupulously documented set.

As to the performance of the symphony, those who like a good forward momentum in the first movement may find Munch’s chosen pace a trifle autumnal. However, he does speed up later on in the movement. The BSO strings are rich and full in tone, which makes for very pleasing listening. Typically, Munch eschews the first movement repeat. Overall it’s a convincing, if big-boned, performance though at times I felt Munch was a bit too emphatic - for example, in track 5 around 2:40. The slow movement is lyrically sung though, once again, some passages are too emphatic for my taste. There’s charm and delicacy in the third movement and Munch leads a jubilant, extrovert account of the finale, which must have been particularly exhilarating in the concert hall, as the cheers of the audience at the end suggest.

The Brahms Double Concerto brings an interesting pairing of soloists. Often one will encounter in performance either two leading virtuosi or the principals of an orchestra. Here we get one of each, with the great violinist, Zino Francescatti, joined by the BSO’s long-serving principal cellist, Samuel Mayes (1917-1990), who occupied the first cello desk at the BSO from 1948 to 1965. Let it be said straightaway that there is no sense in this performance of any inequality between the soloists, who sound very well matched. I’m afraid this is not one of my favourite Brahms works but it’s a good performance. Mayes plays with a rich, nutty tome while Francescatti’s sound is gleaming, silvery and lithe. As evidence of the equality of their partnership I’d cite the opening of the slow movement where they play the lovely theme in unison octaves with complete unanimity of style and intent. Munch is a fine, attentive accompanist throughout. One small detail is that no attempt has been made to edit out the gaps between the movements, including discreet retuning by the soloists, and I really like that as it recreates the ambience of listening to the performance live on the radio.

Disc 3 is dominated, in every sense, by a performance of the First Piano Concerto by Rudolf Serkin. Munch recorded this work commercially with Gary Graffman but a commercial collaboration with Serkin would have been more or less impossible since he and Munch were under contract to different record companies. This may not be a note-perfect rendition but it is still a towering performance by any standards. Serkin brings a leonine strength to the first movement and in addition the more relaxed passages find him poised and lyrical. The reading is tempestuous at times - sample the passage in the first movement beginning at 10:11 - and Munch, again accompanying superbly, sustains the tension just as much as does Serkin. The slow movement is patrician and elevated. Serkin distils real poetry here yet his is not a dreamy account; one can sense the inner strength in this really mature account of the music. The finale is headlong and vibrant, with an exciting degree of impetuosity. The barnstorming coda is animated by tremendous drive.

This performance alone would justify the purchase of this set. The partnership between Serkin and Munch is superb. Both artists seem to strike sparks off the other but this is by no means a showy account. It’s a reading by two musicians who have a deep understanding of Brahms and in particular of the fact that this is the music of the young, passionate Brahms. I’d put this reading on a par with CD performances by the likes of Curzon and Gilels. It’s a magnificent traversal, caught on the wing and it’s no surprise that in Symphony Hall on 20 January 1956 it brought the house down.

Disc 4 contains the only non-German work in the set, Dvořák’s ‘New World’ Symphony. There is a studio recording of the Eighth Symphony by Munch (see review) but he never took the Ninth into the studio and Johan Canarina states that the present performance, given to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Dvořák’s death, was the only time he programmed it in Boston and may, indeed, have been the sole occasion on which he conducted it anywhere. It’s not the most memorable performance of the work that I’ve ever heard. It has some good points but there are several occasions when I feel that Munch lays too heavy a hand upon the music. The second subject of the first movement (track 1, 3:18) is a case in point, where the music lacks any real sparkle – Munch omits the exposition repeat. On the positive side of the ledger, the quieter passages tend to be shaped affectionately – there are some lovely flute solos – and the end of the movement blazes convincingly.

There’s some fine wind playing in the second movement. The famous cor anglais solo is very well played and later on the contribution of the solo oboe is, if anything, finer still. The scherzo, however, is a bit too broad for my taste, lacking the essential spring in its step. The finale is exciting and urgent – with some audible cries of encouragement from Munch to the orchestra – but I don’t like at all the spurious cymbal clashes that Munch introduces (at 8:31, 9:25 and 9:33.), an effect I’ve never heard from any other conductor.

Though this ‘New World’ is not, I think, essential listening, the account of Don Juan is much better. This is a volatile, thrusting reading, full of passion. Munch brings out very successfully the turbulent side of the music but it’s also a reading of no little subtlety. Thus the lovely oboe solo is tenderly phrased and the very end of the piece is marvellously realised, with the music sounding completely drained.

Disc 5 is devoted entirely to Richard Strauss. The first treat is to hear Irmgard Seefried in four orchestral songs. She’s a captivating soloist. Her tone is beautifully clear and her care for the words is evident throughout. Munch’s accompaniments are marvels of sensitivity. Seefried spins a gorgeous, long line in ‘Wiegenlied’, the accompaniment gossamer light, and her purity of tone in ‘Morgen’ is simply ravishing. The latter also features a luminous violin solo and though the player is not credited I presume it’s Richard Burgin, the BSO’s concertmaster from 1920 to 1962.

Burgin is definitely the soloist in Ein Heldenleben. This is a work Munch would probably never have got the chance to record commercially for his company, RCA, also had that great Straussian, Fritz Reiner, under contract and his several 1950s recordings of music by Strauss dominated the catalogue and still hold an honoured place there some five decades later. Reiner’s superb Chicago recording of Heldenleben is one of the finest that I know and, to be honest, Munch and the BSO don’t quite match it in terms of virtuosity and sheer panache. That said, this is still a reading of no little stature.

Right at the start the hero’s theme is surging and confident. Later, the hero’s critics are sharply etched, thanks to some sharp characterisation by the BSO wind principals. Burgin excels in his portrayal of the hero’s companion and the love scene itself is ardent and sweeping, even if the climax does rather overwhelm the microphones. The battle is graphic and white-hot. The recollection of the hero’s deeds of peace unfolds at a pace that I feel is just a fraction too relaxed but the playing is pretty marvellous. In the closing pages there’s some more fine playing by Burgin, matched by the principal horn. However, the very end is something of a disappointment. The concluding brass chords are placed too emphatically and the effect is clumsy and lacking in finesses. Matters aren’t helped by the sonic dictation on the very last chord. However, there’s a great deal to enjoy and admire in this Heldenleben.

I’m afraid I can’t be so enthusiastic about the final item, the Divertimento (after Couperin). This is not to be confused with the Dance Suite, also after Couperin. Frankly this suite represents shavings from the workshop floor. The music, though well executed by Munch and his players, is pretty thin stuff and I wish something more interesting could have been unearthed from the archives. There are a couple of small flaws in the recording, which are clearly pointed out in the booklet, but these are not such as to mar the overall listening.

This is a splendid set, which I’ve enjoyed enormously. The sound isn’t perfect but for its age, and given that the recordings were not made under commercial studio conditions, it’s pretty remarkable. Certainly no one will find their enjoyment of the performances impeded by sonic considerations. I found myself a bit irritated by the tendency of the Boston public to begin applauding any work that ends loudly while the final chord is still playing. It’s a pity they couldn’t curb their enthusiasm just for a few seconds.

This collection of performances reminds us what a fine conductor – and orchestra trainer – Charles Munch was. His interpretations are always musical and interesting and he’s well served by some fine soloists and consistently excellent playing from his Boston orchestra. I do hope that WHRA will continue their fruitful exploration of the Boston Symphony archives, which clearly contain an abundance of treasures.

John Quinn

 

 

 


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