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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony no. 6 in F major op.68 “Pastoral” [34:27]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer [20:55]
Orchestra Sinfonica di Torino della RAI/Charles Munch
rec. 8 June 1951, Turin, live
TAHRA TAH 590 [55:24]


I’ve already reviewed on this site Munch’s stereo recordings of both the Beethoven (see review) and the Debussy (see review) with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. So the real question is whether there is any point in acquiring these earlier live performances in mono with an inferior orchestra.

For the general collector the answer is certainly no. Munch’s Boston Debussy is a classic and the Beethoven has a lot to be said for it. For Munch completists the news could have been a lot worse. Although there is no RAITRADE symbol to suggest access has been had to the original tapes, a good source has been found, far better than the very poor Markevich recordings I was listening to recently, also with the RAI’s Turin orchestra. The sound is firm, fairly clear if a little strident. It is more like acetate than tape, which is possible in 1951 though listening on headphones seems to suggest a background of tape rumble rather than acetate hiss. There is a degree of dynamic compression at climaxes.

The Beethoven, which does not “depend” on orchestral sonorities in the same way as Debussy, is less compromised, though even this becomes a little tiring on the ears. There is at least a suspicion that Munch himself does not extract anything less than a mezzo piano from the orchestra, but people used to say this about his Boston recordings and recent remasterings have shown it not to be true. In the first movement he is perhaps principally concerned with getting a very clean response from an orchestra that does not provide this easily and there is not the temperament one might expect. Its jaunty and likeable, with a few spurts into a faster tempo to show he is getting involved. This movement is a mere two seconds swifter than the Boston performance.

The brook flows with a strong current and passionately full timbres. Here Munch gains about a minute compared with Boston, at 11:21 compared with 12:26 (my computer timings, those in the booklet are hopelessly wrong).

As in Boston, Munch omits the repeat in the Scherzo and it really does sound odd. His peasants must have sensed the storm coming from the beginning for they go at a real whirl. The storm is predictably dramatic. Tahra have a single track for these movements, which collectively clock in at 06:05 compared with 06:18 in Boston. The final Shepherd’s Song is bracing and jubilant, considerably swifter than the Boston performance – 08:00 as against 09:04, and the Turin timing includes a bit of applause.

This performance is not without its positive qualities, but these same qualities are  all to be found in the Boston version together with greater light and shade, warmer recording and better orchestral playing.

Under these circumstances Debussy is made to sound more like a garish piece of Respighi. You only have to compare the opening of the “Jeux de vagues” with the Boston recording to hear what is missing. Though, since a spot of quieter playing is heard towards the end of this movement, there is again the suspicion that Munch is concentrating on holding things together – he obtains playing that verges on the brilliant at times – and then depending on hedonistic drive to compensate for the lack of nuance. Again, tempi are notably faster than in Boston – 08:09, 05:36, 07:10 compared with 08:37, 06:18, 07:59. Probably it was thrilling to be there, but the Boston version is thrilling and a whole lot of other things too.

There are certainly some Munch recordings in the RAI archives that are worth issuing. His Mendelssohn “Reformation” (Rome 29/4/66) enlarges considerably on the Boston version (see review for full discussion) and the Petrassi Fifth Concerto for Orchestra (Turin 19/4/1966) would presumably be new to his discography. Tahra themselves dedicate much of their note to advocating an issue of the Florence Pelléas et Mélisande (1966), the only opera he ever conducted and of which the Maggio Musicale archives apparently have a recording. These of course are still under copyright and would require a licensing agreement. I fear that an issue like this does not add anything to our knowledge of a very fine conductor and I would suggest that archive exhumations should concentrate on material not recorded commercially by the artists concerned or which enlarges appreciably on the studio versions. I doubt if even Munch enthusiasts will hear this through more than once.

Christopher Howell 



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