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
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.