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Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No.4 in A op.90 Italian [26:25]; Symphony No.5 in D op.107 Reformation [27:10]; Octet in E flat op.20: Scherzo: Allegro leggierissimo [04:09]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, 18 February 1958 (Symphony 4), 28 October 1957 (Symphony 5), 7 March 1960 (Octet Scherzo)
(heard as a normal CD)
BMG-RCA RED SEAL SACD 82876716162 [57:59]


The figure of Charles Munch remains controversial, especially when he stepped outside his native French repertoire. For one of my reviewing colleagues, Alex Russell (UK-based), he was great in French music but only third rate in the German/Austrian classics, while another colleague, Paul Shoemaker (US-based) has listed his preferred versions of the Brahms symphonies as Munch for 1 and 4, Steinberg for no.2 and Reiner for no.3. I daresay neither view would be seen as individualistic on their respective sides of the Atlantic.

It has become evident, at least, that the coarse sound of the original RCA LPs did a lot to foster the idea of a conductor whose immense enthusiasm was not matched by any great sensitivity towards the finer nuances. The Boston recordings have been steadily improving with subsequent remasterings and, though I have heard the present disc only as a normal CD, I can report that the sound is pretty impressive. The Boston reverberation could be felt a drawback, but less so than would have been the case if Munch had gone in for the lightweight, sparkling approach some favour in Mendelssohn.

The first movement of the Italian has a virile, exultant feel to it, with a Beethovenian drive at times, yet an avoidance of jabbing accents means that the softer passages relax smilingly without actually conceding much in actual tempo. The lead back to the recapitulation is particularly felicitous.

In Munch’s hands Mendelssohn’s pilgrims, like those of Berlioz in Harold in Italy – another controversial Munch tempo – have gravity but also a certain spring in their step; they are weary yet joyful too, for their goal is in sight at last. The Minuet is warm and gracious, but it is the finale which sets the seal on a performance I rate very highly. I have always felt that this Saltarello is often taken too fast for its real dance character to emerge – the second and fourth beats get lost in a welter of merely brilliant playing. Here we are reminded that also in Berlioz Munch sometimes took surprisingly slow tempi for the finales (as in both the Fantastic Symphony and Harold in Italy), yet with such vital articulation that they quickly cease to seem slow. So it is with this Italian; there is a real feeling of joyous dancing, so infectious that you quickly forget the slower-than-usual pace and just get caught up in the wonderful vitality of it all.

Munch evidently had a particular affection for the Reformation Symphony, which he recorded for the first time in Paris in 1948 - I’ve never heard that version. It is often said of Munch that his final years after leaving Boston were little more than a postscript to his career during which he merely repeated his favourite French party-pieces. Well, in 1966, two years before his death, he turned up in Rome to conduct a quite staggering Reformation – and ten days earlier, in Turin, he had conducted Petrassi’s fifth Concerto for Orchestra, which he had presumably learnt for the occasion. The differences between the Boston and Rome performances are striking:

Boston 1957 (studio) 10:43 04:12 03:24 08:55 27:10
Rome 1966 (live) 12:54  04:55  03:49  09:55 31:44

Encroaching old age? I think not. Rather, Munch was rediscovering his roots. In his early days he had played under Furtwängler but he later came under the spell of Toscanini. He was also aware that his impulsive, improvisational style of interpretation might not be ideal for repeated listening and deliberately “behaved himself” in the studio. Make no mistake about it, his Boston Reformation is a fierily magnificent piece of work, one of the best available, and again, there is no lack of the finer nuances. But in Rome he recreates the symphony before our ears, rather as Furtwängler did in that astonishing Schumann 4 (yes, it’s on that exalted level). Some details may be theoretically questionable, such as the slowing down for the last hushed entry of the main theme in the first movement, but he carries you with him, just as Furtwängler did. If in the last resort not even his Boston version quite rids one of a suspicion that this symphony is by Mendelssohn the Kapellmeister rather than Mendelssohn the inspired artist, Munch in 1966 was also intensely human, in his loving handling of the Andante, for instance, and makes the symphony sound genuinely inspired. This is really great conducting. The Roman audience evidently realized they had witnessed something exceptional, for they give a terrific ovation at the end.

But of course, it isn’t available. Well, I feel it should be, it would truly be a great disc to set alongside the Furtwängler Schumann 4. In the meantime, the Boston version is not to be sneezed at, indeed it’s very fine. The Octet movement, arranged by Mendelssohn as a replacement for the minuet of his First Symphony, is wonderfully delicate and appears on CD for the first time. Highly recommended, especially to those not convinced that Mendelssohn was a BIG composer.

Christopher Howell


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