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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette, Op. 17 [1:31:10]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73 [37:50]
Margaret Roggero (mezzo); Leslie Chabay (ten); Yi Kwei Sze (bar)
Harvard Glee Club and Radcliffe Choral Society
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. mono, Boston Symphony Hall? 1953, 1952
ARCHIPEL ARPCD 0206 [57.52 + 72.15]


It's good to be reminded of Charles Munch's expertise as a Berlioz interpreter. Certainly this Alsatian-born conductor's mercurial temperament was uniquely suited to the composer's stark, abrupt changes of affect, which juxtaposes passages of febrile intensity with others of simple, aching lyricism. He effectively plays up the pictorial variety of Berlioz's brilliant orchestral palette: the bronze-toned low brasses of the Prince's proclamation; the bright, piquant woodwinds of the choral recitative; the deeper, more pungent reed colors of the Invocation.

Yet Munch's most singular asset may well have been his instinctive grasp of the irregular shapes and quirky curves of a Berlioz phrase. When the themes are laid out with this sort of clarity, it becomes easier to comprehend the larger-scale structures; so, paradoxically, the score sounds unusually cohesive. Few conductors, for example, have successfully sorted out the introduction to the Scène d'amour, which too frequently bogs down in numerous short, repetitive motifs and fragments. Munch precisely weights each of the various musical elements within the overall sonority, clarifying the arc of a passage which is, after all, preparatory to the real business at hand.

So, as a Munch document, this Roméo automatically acquires a certain significance. The question relates to its usefulness for the general, as opposed to the specialist, collector. This is a decidedly cloudy issue, as Munch's 1961 stereo remake apparently remains available (RCA 74321 34168 2). The acoustic of this mono issue is dry - you hear rather a lot of bows scraping on strings in the vigorous opening Combats fugue - with an unpleasantly insistent treble response. The tuttis suffer blasting distortion along with a fair amount of good old-fashioned pre-echo, the latter suggesting that Archipel's source was a clean LP copy rather than RCA's original masters. And the intermittent ambient hum on the second CD, which drops out distractingly between tracks 5 and 6, suggests that Archipel's playback equipment was not ideally adjusted. So, purely on sonic grounds, the stereo is to be preferred.

Turning to performance values, the Boston Symphony sounds very much itself in both versions. The monaural recording makes it easier to sort out the diverse strands in the more complicated passages, but the stereo account's more blended sheen falls more easily on the ear. The remake also scores in the choral department, offering the polished New England Conservatory Chorus. The enthusiastic Harvard and Radcliffe groups here are nicely tuned in some tricky spots, but their French enunciation is too doggedly emphatic and Americanized.

But the soloists provide for some serious competition. Munch's starrier 1961 line-up of Rosalind Elias, Cesare Valletti, and Giorgio Tozzi sing well and musically. However the present, lesser-known singers - about whom, sadly, Archipel provides no biographical data - are equally scrupulous and better in touch with the style. In the Strophes, Margaret Roggero displays a clear mezzo with a good tonal depth and warmth, and an elusive floaty quality even in the solid mid-range. She keeps her emotional "cool," eschewing superfluous sentiment, and her sensitive phrasing and lustrous timbre won me over. Leslie Chabay's tenor is a bit nasal, but basically well-balanced, and he brings the right "verbal" dexterity and lightness to the scherzetto. Yi Kwei Sze intones Friar Laurence's lines with solemn dignity (backed, once again, by Munch’s broad, arching accompaniment); his French, though cautiously inflected, is excellent.

For a substantial make-weight, Archipel have unearthed a 1952 concert performance of the Brahms Second Symphony. You won't find autumnal warmth in this first movement, which tends to push forward nervously. Munch generally favored brisk tempi in the central Austro-German repertoire. You will hear purposefully built climaxes highlighted with assurance. Similarly forthright pacing projects the ’cello themes of the Adagio non troppo as ardent, long-breathed songs. The third movement's easy, vernal flow is indeed grazioso as prescribed, while the Finale rounds things off powerfully, with a blaze of heel-kicking energy. Once past some generous coughing at the outset, audience noises are minimal, but the sound remains plagued by break-up and a fierce treble.

Stephen Francis Vasta



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