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Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Bolero * (1928) [13:49]
La Valse # (1919-20) [11:21]
Rapsodie espagnole ◙ (1907) [14:54]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Images for Orchestra (1905-12) [32:42]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston: * January 23, 1956; # December 5, 1955; ◙ January 23, 1956; Symphony Hall, Boston, December 16, 1957 (Images)
BMG RCA RED SEAL SACD 82876 66374 2 [73:37]

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I listened in awe to the ‘sharp as a gnat’s-kneecap’ clarity of the ghostly effects of the Boston Orchestra flute player’s triple tonguing in Ravel’s La Valse. It is amazing to realize that this classic recording was made as long ago as 1957. This album is another in the latest incarnations of the renowned RCA Living Stereo series, each incarnation revealing more and more detail as technical advances moved onwards through acoustical LP, digital, CD etc to this new superb SACD format.

Charles Munch, a conductor of the widest musical culture, but noted particularly for his interpretations of French and German music, was music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1949 until he resigned in 1962 at the age of 70. The Boston Symphony first performed in public on October 22, 1881. The orchestra personnel were appointed by virtue of their virtuosity by the conductor, not the orchestra management. This album is testimony to the requisite high performance standards.

Munch’s La Valse shimmers excitingly, sensually; the music is ghostly, erotic, flirtatious. The mind’s eye so easily can visualise sweeping gowns, fluttering fans and  peacock-proud hussars in elaborate uniforms. But beyond this, Munch points up Ravel’s markings thus presenting an unflinching picture of decadence, of a doomed world from which the glitter would soon fade in the holocaust of world war.

The ever-popular Bolero is given a taut and characterful reading full of pride and swagger but also with sly sardonic humour. Ravel’s Rhapsodie Espagnol, under Munch, is equally persuasive. ‘Prélude à la nuit’ is mysterious, slightly sinister and threatening, the jazz element sounding deliciously decadent. This is a night that is glamorous and sensual with a perfumed atmosphere of dangerous love and romance. Malagueña’s voluptuous slides are redolent of swishing skirts, castanets and clicking heels. The ‘Habanera’, proud disdainful, exciting and sexy, with its abrupt twists and turns, also has a sweet poignancy. Munch gives the final ‘Feria’ movement all this too but contrasts it with threatening sudden darkness. Throughout there is wonderful ensemble playing and marvellous clarity.

Turning to Debussy and Images performed in full (not every recording includes all the sections of this colourful, atmospheric work). For ‘Gigues’, Munch realises the mocking irony behind the folkdance material; probably, as the notes claim, from Normandy but equally the provenance could be somewhere over the Channel as far north as Scotland or west as Ireland.  The misty opening is quite magical, the folkdance (recognisable as the Keel Row) tentative at first then oscillating between the merry, the plaintive and the jaunty. Pleasingly subtle touches abound and, often, ear-catching phrasing fires the imagination. The three-movement Iberia section forms the greater part of Iberia. The first is ‘Par les rues et par les chemins’ (In the streets and byways) and Munch seems to capture its very heart and spirit in phrasing, rhythm and dynamics. Munch floats the music of ‘Les parfums de la nuit’ (Fragrances of the Night) beguilingly. Here is all the sweet tremor and languor of a summer night, aromatic with hints of tiny hidden movements then a sudden darkness and chill as if a cloud is passing over the moon suggesting amours dangerous as well as sweet. Suddenly dawn brings all the bustle and excitement of ‘Le matin d’un jour de fête’ (The morning of a Festival Day) and castanets, harps, xylophone, snare drums and trumpets usher in the festivities, the music growing in excitement and anticipation; the mind’s eye seeing gorgeously dressed young girls riding side-saddle behind proud young grandees, colourful dancing in the streets, street performers and excited jostling crowds. The final movement ‘Rondes des printemps’ is a sophisticated setting of an ancient dance song ‘Nous irons plus au bois’ In it there are elements of the wood magic and languor of L’Après midi d’un faune and the eager folkdance material of earlier Images movements. Once again the virtuosity and imaginative playing of the Boston musicians encourage the most extravagant flights of imagination. 

Another RCA Living Stereo classic recording wonderfully enhanced by the new SACD technology. Heartily recommended.

Ian Lace



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