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
while the other ranges much more widely in terms of repertoire
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
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
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
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
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
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
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