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Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roméo et Juliette op.17 (1838) (A) (B) [2 versions: 91:27, 91:31], Les Nuits d’Été op.7 (1838, orchestral version 1856) (C) [30:14], Les Troyens (1856-58): Chasse royale et orage (D) [10:59], La Damnation de Faust op.24 (1845-6) (E) [121:52], Béatrice et Bénédict (1862): Overture (F) (G) [2 versions: 07:18, 07:17], Le Corsaire op.21 (1844-55) (H) [07:58], Benvenuto Cellini op.23 (1834-1837): Overture (I) [10:26], L’enfance du Christ op.25 (1850-54) (J) [93:26], Harold en Italie op.16 (1834) (K) [37:44], Le carnaval romain op.9 (1843) (L) [08:01], Grande messe des morts op.5 (1837) (M) [83:33], Symphonie fantastique op.14 (1830) (N) (O) [2 versions: 46:20, 48:54]
Victoria de los Angeles (soprano) (C), Suzanne Danco (soprano) (E), Rosalind Elias (mezzo-soprano) (B), Margaret Roggero (mezzo-soprano) (A), Florence Kopleff (contralto) (J), Leslie Chabay (tenor) (A), David Poleri (tenor) (E), Léopold Simoneau (tenor) (M), Cesare Valletti (tenor) (B) (J),  Lucien Oliver (baritone) (J), Martial Singher (baritone) (E), Gérald Souzay (baritone) (J), Donald Gramm (bass) (E), McHenry Boatwright (bass) (E), Yi-Kwei Sze (bass) (A), Giorgio Tozzi (bass) (B) (J), William Primrose (viola) (K), Harvard Glee Club (A) (E), New England Conservatory Chorus (B) (J) (M), Radcliffe Choral Society (A) (E)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch (all items)
Recorded 1949 (F), 22nd-23rd February 1953 (A), 21st-22nd February 1954 (E), 14th-15th November 1954 (N), 12th-13th April 1955 (C), 23rd-24th December 1956 (J), 1st December 1958 (G) (H) (L), 6th April 1959 (D) (I), 26th-27th April 1959 (M), 23rd-24th April 1961 (B), 9th April 1962 (O) in the Symphony Hall, Boston
BMG RCA RED SEAL 82876-60393-2 [10 CDs: 67:24 + 66:06 + 74:26 +74:04 + 72:50 + 66:52 + 60:26 + 69:50 + 73:14 + 75:06]



This significant box should not be confused with a previous Berlioz-Munch compilation from RCA. That was an eight-disc set but this ten-disc set goes two better in including both recordings of the Symphonie Fantastique and of Roméo and Juliette. In this way contrasting performances can be analysed and, more importantly, this cache of eminent recordings can be consolidated in one box.

And eminent is very much the word. Though there will be residual reservations concerning some enshrined performances there can be little doubt that Munch was one of the greatest Berlioz conductors of his century, let alone his generation. Let’s look at La Damnation de Faust. Munch has a good and badly underrated tenor in David Poleri, whose occasionally odd French is only a mild inconvenience. His choir makes a favourable impression (Munch was not always so lucky with his Berlioz choirs as other recordings attest) in their brisk boldness in Les bergers laissent. Tricky questions of balance in this 1954 recording have clearly been thoughtfully addressed, as one can verify in the Part II’s Easter Hymn (Christ vient de ressusciter) where tenor, choir and, especially, winds are held in appropriate focus. To sample Munch’s control at its most sovereign try to listen to Assez! Fuyons ces lieux and the passage onwards. The lyric cantilever is impressive enough but Munch builds up and relaxes tension, brings up bass pointing, and contours the music with unflinching command. Maybe the Ballet des Sylphes is not quite on this exalted level of conducting but we can savour the crisp trumpets in the conclusion to Part II as well as the operatic aeration of Que l’air est étouffant! Munch certainly had something of a reputation as a speed merchant in Berlioz. I have to say that I find his tempo relationships for the vast majority of times perfectly judged. If one had to draw attention to examples of vitesse perhaps one could cite Autrefois un roi de Thulé which is certainly on the quick side. If one thinks that, then perhaps the corollary is that in a passage such as Part IV’s Ride to the Abyss his faster than usual tempi pay rich and tangible emotive rewards. The music sounds energised and dangerous, as it should. The whole remains a substantial achievement, recorded over two days, and a lasting legacy of Munch’s command both of detail and broad scope.

L’enfance du Christ shows comparable virtues. His grip on structure, both paragraphal and beyond, is definitive in such as Qui vient? from Part I. The music swells to a flexible peak, neither too static (a danger in this work) nor too precipitant. He has the advantage of Giorgio Tozzi, whose Les sages de Judée is mightily impressive. Less well-known than Tozzi is the contralto Florence Kopleff; try to hear her O mon cher fils which is sung with uncommon understanding and intelligence, as well as voice; she reminds me a touch of Lorraine Hunt Lieberson. Munch always brings out the warmth of the Boston strings, not that they needed much bringing out, and also the clarity of the wind section, a perfect example being the overture to Part II. The choir’s contribution is affable but it’s Munch who rewards the listener the most with a tempo in Entrez, entrez, pauvres hébreux that is objectively brisk but that still manages to allow room for phrases to breathe and phrase; a masterly piece of symphonic-operatic conducting. Such also is the moving peroration; the women’s voices are the particular highlight of the choral contribution and this is still, interpretatively speaking, one of the most moving of all recordings of this work. 

The Requiem differs in a number of ways from the BBC recordings with Richard Lewis and Beecham, which was recorded in the same year as this Munch directed performance, 1959. Here we do find deficiencies in the recording detail for Munch, none of them attributable to the conductor. Lack of definition and detail is perhaps inevitable in a recording made at this time and shouldn’t be allowed to obscure the very real virtues of the interpretation and playing. Thus whilst the chorus tends to be somewhat occluded the brass and percussion are well - and mightily - to the fore in the Dies Irae. Munch finds the right tempo, and importantly the right “tone” for Quaerens me. But the most remarkable moments to me are in the Lachrymosa and Offertorium. In the former the brass waves are like some huge Arnoldian or Homeric ocean-surge. The diminuendi to the end, after the earlier blaze, is rapt and measured magnificence. In the Offertorium listen from 5.50 onwards to some truly magnetic lyricism, heart-strainingly wondrous. Simoneau is the tenor soloist in the Sanctus and he is vigorous in the higher registers, as is Lewis for Beecham, and launches a molten, heraldic climax. And so in the consoling moments of the Agnus Dei we can still also feel the implacable, inevitable Munch rhythm driving one with galvanic direction to the glorious ending.

Roméo and Juliette (1961) features a fine mezzo, Rosalind Elias, and a tenor – Cesare Valletti – whose vocal flexibility is matched by rhythmic nuance. Munch takes a fluid tempo for Part II’s Romeo alone but as we have seen often enough is a master of flexible lines and so allows quite enough for the lyric curve to sound natural and unstressed. Observers will note he’s rather faster here than in the earlier 1953 recording included in this boxed set. The bronzed cantilever of the Love scene in part II is especially heady with its youthful highlights and somewhat, again, to be preferred to the earlier recording’s more leisurely appraisal. That earlier recording does pale in comparison and should best be viewed almost entirely in the light of the later, more successful recording. The 1953 chorus is not especially convincing and the acoustic is dull, featureless and flat, if not stale and unprofitable. There’s no real glow to the sound, no burnish, and that’s especially unfortunate at, say, the start of Part II. Yi-Kwei-Sze as Friar Lawrence does make a mark and should be noted as one of the successes of the earlier set, very much more so than Margaret Roggero, who is disappointing. So whilst I might prefer the outline of Part II’s Festivity scene one can hardly prefer the acoustic accorded to it.

Harold in Italy features the famous Primoroso (Toscanini’s Italianate appellation for William Primrose). The Koussevitzky-Primrose recording, which Toscanini jeered, featured the violist in his “pre-Heifetz” days – warmer, mellower. With Munch that defiantly alto-ish tone, with its quicker, more intense vibrato is always evident. Munch is brisk here, with punchy brass in Harold in the Mountains. I find the March of the Pilgrims especially bracing; doubtless Primrose did as well, since he wasn’t renowned for turning down a sporting challenge when it came to speed and clarity of articulation. Koussevitzky is the warmest of the three Primrose performances here and the Beecham the most jerky, rhythmically speaking. Munch is actually slower than Beecham in the concluding Orgy of the Brigands. As to preferences a Primrose fan will want all three for the light each successive recording sheds on his own playing; warm and expressively toned for Koussevitzky, in transition somewhat for Beecham and alto-ish and more tightly coiled for Munch. I’m a Koussevitzky man, if push comes to shove.

There’s a degree of consistency in the two recordings of the Symphonie fantastique though the differences in detail are fascinating. Broadly speaking he evinces a rather greater degree of structural rectitude in the later, 1962 recording than he had eight years before. Then again in that 1954 traversal there are moments of unrepeatable heat and tension that just aren’t quite summoned up later on, though one will notice, as a corollary, that sectional discipline isn’t quite as tight as in ’62. Both recordings sound splendid for their time – and the 1954 disc was a very early, I believe, experimental stereo set up, so there should really be no concerns on that score. If you get the chance try to compare and contrast the opening Rêveries movement where Munch’s earlier self is full of linear drive, his older self just that fraction slower and less intensely inflected. It’s true that there are passages and indeed pages where the 1962 recording scores more heavily. Let’s not choose – we have the luxury of both.

Les Nuits d’été appears in the classic de los Angeles recording. Taped in 1955 we can appreciate the infectious brio and charm she brings and her technical surety in conquering the demands of the tessitura in Au cimetière. Being super critical one might find her on occasion too undemonstrative, maybe too under-inflected (in Le spectre de la rose for instance) but that’s a matter very much of apposite colour and a taste for the more extrovert features of the cycle. It’s undeniable that her command is powerful, the singing and the accompaniment in perfect synchronicity. 

Of the smaller items Le carnaval romain gets a warm and leanly moving performance whilst Le corsair (1958) is in the accustomed brisk style cultivated by him (Colin Davis’ RCA recording is a full minute and a quarter slower). In these and the other overtures – we get both the 1949 and the 1958 Overture to Béatrice and Bénédict – we find a compelling drama and urgency, qualities masterfully harnessed to an operatic sense of breadth and paragraphal control. The Royal Hunt and Storm Music is an adrenalin surging rush of blazing excitement and colour. None of this, though, can be equated with superficial excitement, which is sometimes a phrase one hears used with Munch. He may be fast – but there’s almost always a good reason for his tempi.

The box set comes with a rather slim booklet. There are no texts so any Berlioz neophytes will be definitely struggling. I’m sure that BMG gauges that the box will appeal to the conductor’s admirers who will want to cement and consolidate their collection. All of these performances are special and this box is the most comprehensive evidence yet of Munch’s status as a Berlioz conductor.

Jonathan Woolf

see also Review by Christopher Howell




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