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L’Art de Charles Munch
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)

Violin Concerto Op.77
Ossy Renardy (violin)/Concertgebouw Orchestra, recorded 1948
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Symphony No.7 Op.92
Congratulation Minuet – Allegro (1823)
Boston Symphony Orchestra, recorded 1949
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)

Symphonie fantastique
L’Orchestre de l’ORTF, recorded 1949
Pyotr Ilyich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Violin Concerto – first movement only, rehearsal
Michèle Auclair (violin)/Boston Symphony Orchestra, live 1951
Charles Munch (conductor) with orchestras above, as noted
Recorded 1949-51
TAHRA TAH 528-29 [2 CDs 73.58 + 64.52]


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We have here three relatively well-known commercial recordings from 1948-49 and the bonus of a previously unpublished rehearsal of the first movement of the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto given by French violinist Michèle Auclair in Boston in 1951. The Brahms Violin Concerto has already appeared, nicely transferred on Dutton, and is played by the short-lived Viennese fiddler Ossy Renardy (born plain Oscar Reiss in 1920). This is a recording that many admire. There’s certainly a mix of measured control and strong accelerandi, the lyrical and the passionate that intrigues. The second movement is sweetly lyric indeed though I have to say I find Renardy’s playing a little glutinous sometimes and claustrophobic; and, to be schoolmasterly, those repetitious slides in the finale simply won’t do – all too unvaried. The demerits of the performance are ones of youthful monochromaticism – there just aren’t enough tone colours for this of all works. Given the choice of this and the Dutton and the palm goes to Dutton. There’s some 78 hum on this Tahra and the strings do sound a bit starved high up – a Decca tendency and one that Dutton has dealt with much better. Some of the side changes are noticeable as well, with subtle acoustic shifts that are momentarily off putting. The Dutton is coupled with Furtwängler’s problematic recording of Brahms’ Second Symphony with the LPO – which may affect things.

Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony was recorded with the Boston Symphony the following year. There’s surface noise but a big and wide acoustic spread with some moments of diffusion. Munch was something of an underrated Beethovenian; take the Allegretto, which is fluid and flexible, not rushed though not dawdling either. The dynamics however are excellent and the weight in the tuttis is finely calibrated, not at all too emphatic. He may sound a mite cautious in the finale but saves his tinder for later in the movement where he presses on – though the original recording is unhelpful in bringing out string choir strands. The little "Congratulation minuet" is the rare filler to the Seventh Symphony. Munch of course made multiple recordings of the Symphonie fantastique, probably the best known being the Boston and L’Orchestre de Paris traversals. Tahra’s is the September 1949 78 set with the orchestra of ORTF. Consistently quicker than his French colleague Pierre Monteux, Munch offers a powerfully linear alternative and here, in his pre-Boston days one feels the strength and finesse he’d already cultivated. Wind solos are characterful; his Ronde de sabbat is powerfully driving, intensely so in fact, and the personality of the piece etched with tremendous outline – a genuinely involving, big reading and rather more so than his other three commercial discs – the Boston isn’t quite so larger than life and the later Paris LP recording had slowed down. The 1949 recording has appeared on A Classical Record, Albert ten Brink’s specialist label, but I think that will be hard to find now – there it was misdated 1945 and was coupled with Munch’s other Parisian discs of the period. Some of the sides in Tahra’s release are a touch scuffy and the middle voices are muffled in the recorded balance, with quite a bit of raw brass and booming percussion – but against that it’s an impressively immediate recording and exceptionally enjoyable.

Which brings us to the previously unissued Tchaikovsky, given by the twenty year old Michèle Auclair. This is a work she was later to record, twice, in Austria during an unusual career on disc, featuring on domestic French labels as well as such as on Remington. Those looking for explosions and temperament from the conductor will be disappointed. Munch had been a distinguished string player and had risen to the heights of orchestral leader and occasional soloist so he knew the ropes. He is concentrated and business like; occasionally he sings along, once he calls out "too loud" (in English – his introductory welcome to this most French of American bands was in French). Once or twice he raps out the rhythm when he feels it’s getting slack. There is admiring applause from the orchestra at the end of the movement; Auclair plays well, with elegance and a certain raffiné.

There are some notes, in French and English, outlining Munch’s career. A salutary couple of discs, then, that introduce us to a younger Munch than we are generally used to. I rate this Berlioz very highly and the Brahms and Beethoven are revealing of his conductorial priorities. The transfers, as I suggested, can be variable but at their best they’re convincing.

Jonathan Woolf


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