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Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony no. 3 in C minor op. 78 (rec. April 1959)
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)

Escales (rec. October 1956)
Vincent D’INDY (1851-1931)

Symphonie sur un chant montagnard (Symphonie Cévenole), op.25 (rec. March 1958)
César FRANCK (1822-1890)

Symphony in D minor (rec. March 1957)
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)

Bacchus et Ariane – Suite no. 2 (rec. October 1952)
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)

Symphony no. 5 – "Di Tre Re" (rec. October 1952)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch, with Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer (d’Indy) and Berj Zamkochian, organist (Saint-Saëns)
Dates as above, location not given (presumably Boston Symphony Hall?)
BMG/RCA RED SEAL 74321 987152 [2 CDs: 75:12 + 76:05]


In an age where the orchestral product is becoming irretrievably homogenised, historians of playing styles are looking with increasing wonder at the American scene in the 1950s and early 1960s when each of the "big five" orchestras had its own special characteristics stamped on it by its reigning Music Director – Chicago (under Reiner), Philadelphia (Ormandy), Cleveland (Szell), New York (Mitropoulos, then Bernstein) and Boston (Munch).

Of these, perhaps none was more individual than the last-named. Unlike the central European martinets favoured in the United States, Munch was a warm-hearted, kindly man who galvanised the orchestra, not by the crack of the whip, but by communicating and sharing his own irrepressible enthusiasm for the music he was performing. He encouraged the players to make their own individual sounds, with a wide vibrato from the wind and strings (listen to the opening of the Honegger, so different from the sleek response we usually hear today) and braying brass. All the characteristics, in fact, of a typical French orchestra of the time, though with a corporate virtuosity which was rarely attained in France. His climaxes in Saint-Saëns and Franck are not rounded, full-organ affairs, but characterful, even over-the-top, with each player allowed his head. There is some dangerous living on these two discs, but never a trace of a routine, dulled response.

Though every centimetre a proud Frenchman (in the few years that remained to him after his departure from Boston Munch conducted almost exclusively his national repertoire), Munch was actually born in Strasbourg when it was still German territory, originally spelt his name Münch and had his most important formative experience playing in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Furtwängler. However, with the rise of Nazism he left Germany and, though he remained in France during the war he refused any collaboration with the occupying forces and unstintingly threw in his lot with the Résistance; his country home became an escape route for allied pilots and refugees and when the war was over he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur.

In many ways Munch was the antithesis of the classically restrained sort of French conductor typified by Pierre Monteux; he could be described as the ideal interpreter of that part of the French repertoire which leans towards the Germanic style, whether because it is really Belgian (Franck) or Swiss (Honegger), or plain cosmopolitan (Saint-Saëns). The Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony is about as convincing as I have ever heard it, thrilling when Munch is in full cry, but full of heartfelt tenderness in the slow movement. If Munch allows his brass to bray out in the climaxes, the balancing of the organ and piano is as well done as I have ever heard; that moment when the slow movement starts and one realises there is an organ supporting the strings is magical indeed, and the emergence of the piano in the finale is no less so.

In the Franck Munch’s tempi are bracing and urgent, similar to those of Sir Adrian Boult whose interpretation was modelled on that of Franck’s pupil Pierné. No doubt Munch had also heard Pierné conduct the work. However, while Boult goes for the big architectural arch, Munch is more instinctive and dramatic in his pacing. He allows himself some big rallentandos, as well as some impulsive surges forward, but somehow it all holds together. In the last resort I find a deeper satisfaction in the Boult, who lacks nothing in gut conviction even beside Munch (it really is one of the finest records he ever made), but I would not be without either, for Munch also explores a range of colour and offers much felicitous phrasing.

If these recordings are good, that of the Ibert is quite amazing. Sample the first upward rush of the strings after the poetic opening and you could almost believe the recording was a new one. Most attractive music, too, with plenty of bold primary colours for Munch to relish.

When the recording of the d’Indy is so fine orchestrally, I wonder why the piano is so backward and lacking in tonal bloom, although I suspect the Mme Henriot-Schweitzer’s playing is not remarkable tonally in any case. I’m afraid I find d’Indy’s inspiration as thin as the mountain air which inspired it, a seven-minute work puffed out to over twenty by playing everything two or three times over, in admittedly gorgeous orchestral drapery. But for the joyous finale I forgive the composer the rest.

The Roussel Suite was one of Munch’s party-pieces and the archives of most radio stations around the world must be full of live versions in which his tow-path shouts can be heard goading often second-rate orchestras to play as if their lives depended upon it (as in Rome in 1963 and 1966). Nothing second-rate about the Boston orchestra, obviously, and they enable Munch to explore much colour and poetry before exploding into the orgiastic finale. You do notice the passage from a stereo recording to a mono, but the sound is still remarkably good and the Honegger is frankly incredible for its age.

The performance is pretty incredible too. The symphony had been completed only the previous year and so I take it this was its first recording, one of those pioneering recordings in which the total identification of the conductor with the composer and his evident thrill of first discovery produce results of burning conviction; a historic document and I bet Honegger himself was overwhelmed.

Munch’s no-holds-barred interpretative style used to be regarded with suspicion in England, but when these recordings were new they reached us in rather crude LP pressings which lent credence to the idea that the finer shadings passed Munch by. The engineers of these transfers have done wonders with them and it sounds as if Munch’s Boston recordings need a general reassessment.

The package comes with a brief and business-like note in French only, but the unattributed pencil sketch of Munch, with his shy but very human smile, makes more than amends.

Christopher Howell


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