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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no.5 in C minor, op.67 (1805) [31:40]
Symphony no.6 in F, op.68 Pastoral (1809) [36:51]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. 2 May 1955 (no.5), 16 August 1955 (no.6), Boston Symphony Hall
RCA RED SEAL LIVING STEREO (SACD) 8287667898 2 [68:45]

The idea persists - in England, at least - that Munch was a great conductor of French music but a fairly mediocre one of anything else. I gave a partial answer to this criticism in my review of the issue, in this same Living Stereo series, of his splendid readings of Mendelssohn’s Fourth and Fifth symphonies (see review). But, you may say, Mendelssohn is a lightweight among German-Austrian symphonists. How does Munch stand up when it comes to the real nitty-gritty, the Mozart, the Beethoven, the Brahms?
One or two points need to be made at once if you’re a general collector looking for a good coupling of these particular symphonies. Nowadays, particularly on records, it is considered desirable to give all Beethoven’s repeats. Munch would appear to have been allergic to repeats. It is true that even now not every concert performance may include the repeat in the finale of the Fifth, but very few of the discs in my collection, including many of the golden-oldies, omit that in the first movement. This is because it otherwise seems too short in view of all that has to follow. Conversely, the repeat in the first movement of the Pastoral, which is a lengthier movement anyway, used to be considered more of a luxury but the only other version I know which even omits the repeat of the Scherzo is Weingartner’s. I’ve always assumed this was because he had to get it onto a single 78 side. So, if this matters to you, you’ve been warned.
Another question is that of the odd touching-up of Beethoven’s orchestration. A handbook by Weingartner made much of the fact that the instruments of Beethoven’s day, particularly the brass, were not able to play all the notes he manifestly wanted them to play. Now that our modern instruments can give him all he wanted, ran the argument, we have to help him out. Weingartner and others also pointed out that Beethoven was almost completely deaf by the time he wrote his mature works. He therefore didn’t have the opportunity to make the adjustments he would doubtless have made if he had heard them properly. Weingartner later disowned this handbook, but it remained influential for many years.
The more recent counter-argument is that while Beethoven, with our modern instruments at his disposal, might have unthinkingly written something akin to Weingartner’s retouchings, the necessity for an alternative solution often inspired a further stroke of genius from him. One example which the most inexperienced listener can immediately notice occurs in the first movement of the Fifth. The motto theme which introduces the second subject is boldly sounded on the horns the first time round. When it comes back later, the new tonality means that Beethoven’s horns couldn’t play it, so he gave it to the bassoons. Munch follows Weingartner in reinstating the horns and only a very few conductors before today’s authenticists were prepared to accept that the ghoulish/comic effect of having this motto unexpectedly blurted out on the bassoons was actually a masterstroke by the composer. Also in this same symphony, there have been some fairly substantial adjustments to the brass parts in the finale, while I noticed no deviations from the score in the Pastoral. So again, if you have strong feelings, you’ve been warned.
A last question regards a criticism which has been made of the Munch/Boston recordings down the years and I still can’t quite decide if it’s Munch or the engineers that are at fault. Undoubtedly, these recordings have lost the abrasive qualities which disturbed European ears in the old RCA LP pressings, but the close miking needed to counteract the long Boston Symphony Hall reverberation period has resulted in a narrowing of the dynamic range. So when, after the stern opening motto of no.5, the answering “piano” from the strings is not really much softer than the “forte”, are we to blame Munch or the engineers? Did Munch really have the strings play the beginning of the second movement with such a full tone? I don’t know! What I do know is that there is the most lovely soft string playing in the Pastoral, not exactly “pianissimo” but golden-toned and mellow. Munch in a more benign mood? Or were the engineers seeking to improve on their previous efforts? I think the latter, for in this case it is the fortes, in the storm particularly, that lack the impact of a modern recording. I suppose that SACD listening – I heard the disc as a normal CD – might clarify all this but let’s face the reality that these recordings are over fifty years old. The sheer fact that they sound so much better than the mono recordings of Toscanini and Furtwängler made only a few years earlier should not tempt us into listening to them as modern recordings. They are historical recordings and allowances do have to be made.
All that having been said, what does Munch’s Beethoven have to offer?
First of all, he was a notable orchestral stylist. When you hear his recordings of the French repertoire, and the typically French vibrato he encouraged from the wind and brass of this orchestra, you may think that this combination of orchestra and conductor could never make a proper Beethovenian sound. In fact, the wind and brass play completely straight and the close miking allows us to appreciate some lovely, mellow and very Austrian playing from the woodwind, while the strings produce a broad, gutsy sonority. In other words, in this repertoire Munch succeeds in obtaining a wholly Germanic sound from his orchestra. While I don’t pretend to have better ears than anybody else’s, I must say I’ve never seen Munch given credit for this in anything I’ve ever read. It also raises the question that the conductor’s almost exclusive concentration on the French repertoire after his retirement from Boston may not have been simply a case of mental retrenchment. He mainly conducted French orchestras in his last years and he surely knew that in those days neither he nor anyone else could make them sound German.
Secondly, on disc at least, Munch had a very fine feeling for the pace which would accommodate all the events in a particular movement. I say “on disc” because I have distinct memories of a re-broadcast of a live performance of the Pastoral given some time in the 1950s with one of the RAI orchestras. The tempi were almost rabidly fast – and it was equally repeatless. I don’t have a tape of this so am unable to check my memory but the point is that Munch was wont to treat public performances as experiments, on which he would draw for his recordings. Common wisdom has it that Munch came under the shadow of Toscanini in this repertoire, but the first movement of the fifth is trenchantly expounded at a tempo which does not exclude lyricism in second subject territory.
The second movement is a set of double variations whose alternating note values – 16th-notes, triplets, 32nd-notes – mean that not many conductors manage to hold a steady tempo right through. In reality Beethoven indicated just one short passage in a faster tempo towards the end. Munch sets out at a fairly mobile tempo which he holds steadily, but with a warmth of phrasing which avoids any suggestion of rigidity. In spite of my comments above about the rather fulsome tone at the beginning, I have seldom enjoyed so much this movement, which can seem prosaic. If Klemperer had been conducting, this interpretation would have been called magisterial, but of course it can’t be really, for any fool knows that Klemperer’s Beethoven was magisterial and Munch’s wasn’t.
The scherzo is also fairly steady, but buoyant in its march rhythms and with an energetic yet unhurried trio. Though other recordings may have a more hushed transition to the finale, I must say I have rarely heard more clearly the changing drumbeats and the descending bass lines, and this counts for much. Munch belongs to the school of conductors who seek a common tempo throughout the last two movements; another was Klemperer. Many conductors who start the finale off broadly find they have to slip into a faster tempo later on but Munch keeps it steady, yet with a feel of real elation in the playing. Though I regret the missing repeats, I think that the next time I want to hear a really grand-sounding performance of this symphony I’ll be taking this down from the shelf rather than Klemperer’s. There are days, of course, when I prefer to hear it with Toscanini-like drive. At this point I have to declare that, regardless of what “any fool knows”, Munch’s Beethoven is magisterial, no less than Klemperer’s. It has a quite different ethos, though, much more warm and humane than the austere, wintry Klemperer.
The Pastoral, as I have suggested above, is bathed in a warm romantic glow, but I don’t mean by that that Munch wallows in it. For one thing, textures are beautifully clear and transparent. A great many things are all happening at the same time in the later stages of the Scene by a Brook, and I don’t know if I’ve ever heard them all quite so clear, so perfectly in relation to one another. Furthermore, Munch, without a trace of the furious driving I remember from that Italian broadcast, keeps things mobile, with a most delightful lilt to the first two movements. I’m afraid I’ll never get used to a repeatless scherzo and Munch - or the engineers - gets another black mark for separating the scherzo slightly from the storm. Nor is the pattering of rain at the beginning quite as menacing as in some other performances. Thereafter it goes with plenty of energy and the finale is splendid, with a tempo which allows for exaltation and glow in equal measure. Altogether, one of the most warm-hearted Pastorals I’ve heard for some time.
I hope it is by now evident that Munch’s Beethoven is not to be sneeringly dismissed. I trust further reissues will follow. There is not a complete cycle but there are a few more symphonies and a disc of overtures. In the meantime I would draw a comparison with another European conductor working at that period with a great American orchestra, whose Beethoven was not universally admired at the time but has been somewhat reassessed since, namely Fritz Reiner. I suggest that Munch’s Beethoven is not less worthy of our attention.
Christopher Howell


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