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César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Symphony in D minor (1886-8) [36.34]
Le chasseur maudit* (1883) [14.02]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra+ (1885) [15.06]
Leonard Pennario (piano)
Boston Pops Orchestra/Arthur Fiedler
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, March 1957, *February 1962, +May 1963
BMG/RCA RED SEAL CLASSIC LIBRARY 82876-65833-2 [65.54]

These performances, dredged up from various sources in the RCA vaults, comprise a logical CD-length program, if not, in this instance, a consistently successful one.
The Symphony offers Munch at his most mercurial. The first movement goes with the tensile line favored by French interpreters (compare Martinon and Paray), emphasizing forward momentum, eschewing traditional unmarked ritards. Thus, the horn solo introducing the development stays strictly in tempo; so does the oboe, though the instrument's uneven "speaking" suggests relaxation; finally, the flute is allowed the customary expansion. Even when Munch's impulsive accelerations get carried away - in the development's headlong climax and the overlapping entries in the coda - the Boston Symphony takes the rather manic pacing in stride. After this, the central Andante movement, with its yearning, expressive cantabile, is trim and gentle. The Finale is once again taut and driven, though tempered in spots - the back-and-forth phrases after the second theme (track 3, 1.46 - where an indicated pause is elided, by the way), for example, and that theme's triumphant tutti recap (3.44) - by a surprising rubato. A coherent pulse underpins the tempo adjustments, however, and the performance hurtles to a blazing finish.
The best thing about the Symphonic Variations is Arthur Fiedler's conducting: his authoritative, nicely honed accompaniment demonstrates the breadth of his well-schooled musicianship beyond his usual "Pops" repertoire. His orchestra - basically the BSO minus some principals - sounds good, if not particularly French. The wind chords don't have the sheen that comes with more careful tuning - though they aren't out of tune, exactly - and the brass choir sounds competent but unrefined. Leonard Pennario projects the quieter bits of the solo part sensitively, with a nice variety of tonal colors and dynamic shadings, but he's taxed by the grander rhetorical passages, which sound monochromatic.
Munch's febrile account of Le chasseur maudit got lost in the proverbial shuffle on its original issue, coupled with the Chausson symphony - on an LP I recall fondly. The tone-poem still isn't played or recorded all that frequently, so one wants to like the performance. Unfortunately, the conductor's impulsive, driving energy merely exposes the score as threadbare, episodic fustian, for all its gorgeous orchestral colors. Intonation goes seriously awry at 0.46 of track 9, where the unison winds aren't.
The sonics are bright-toned, in the classic RCA manner: tuttis in the symphony are a bit congested, as they always were, while Le chasseur maudit sounds less rich than I had remembered. Both shorter works get multiple tracks - good for study purposes, but a drawback if you like to listen in the mp3 format.
At midprice, recommended for the symphony.


Stephen Francis Vasta


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