Charles Münch was Serge Koussevitzky’s successor at the helm of
the Boston Symphony Orchestra holding the position from 1949,
three years after his debut with it, until 1962 after which he
returned to Paris to become president of the École Normale de Musique. In 1967 he formed the Orchestre
de Paris, at the instigation of André
Malraux, French Minister of Culture. Münch died in 1968 in Richmond,
Virginia, whilst on an American tour with his new orchestra.
Münch was renowned
for his interpretations of the modern French repertoire, especially
Debussy, Honegger and Ravel, was supreme in Berlioz and made
a lot of records. However, one composer he is seldom, if ever,
associated with, is Beethoven. This is strange for several reasons,
not least because during his tenure in Boston he regularly programmed
the music of J S Bach, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann,
Brahms and Wagner – as a working conductor he would naturally
conduct the classical and romantic German repertoire and recordings
of Beethoven by him have been issued. However, Beethoven just
simply isn’t the first, or perhaps even the eleventh composer
one would associate with this conductor.
boxed set will help to change many minds on this subject.
These five CDs cover,
basically, the second half of the 1950s and they are well worth
investigating. John Canarina, in his fine note in the booklet,
goes into detail about Münch’s inspiration and interpretations.
Fascinating though this is, this isn’t the place to look at
these things, what we are interested in is how these performances
work for the listener.
flows beautifully, with tempi faster than many give today –
I am convinced that performances have become slower over the
years, David Robertson must agree with me for in the last couple
of years he’s been giving Beethoven 5 at breakneck speeds
but with complete control and all the drama and poetry you could
want, anyone who heard his Proms performance this year will
agree with me – and surely this is how this music should be
played, with a spirit and charm. The first movement dances along
(no exposition repeat, but that was common in the 1950s, indeed
repeats are often ignored in these performances and I won’t
mention it again) with a cheerful gait, the Scene by the
Brook is all gentleness and relaxation. The Peasants are
bucolic and the Storm is quite frightening in its intensity.
Maybe the Shepherd’s Thanksgiving is just a tad hard
driven by comparison with the rest of the work, but no matter,
this is as fine a performance as I’ve heard in some time.
which follows is another passionate performance, full of
all the elements which go to make up this masterwork. The first
movement fairly trips the light fantastic, a trifle measured
at times, but most exhilarating. The slow movement is a lesson
in how to pace the music exactly as it should be, Münch finding
exactly the right Allegretto tempo, neither too fast
nor too slow, it’s spot–on. The scherzo is full bloodied and
the finale, which contains a couple of odd tempo changes, where
the music is held back for a moment or two, is fiery and forthright.
(on disk 3) is equally good. The first movement gets off to
a sparkling start and the tempo (quick, of course) is rigidly
held almost throughout (rubato aside) and what an interpretation
this is! The funeral march is even more impressive. A flowing,
but slow, tempo is chosen, the music moves but is also suitably
funereal. Quite an achievement! It’s dramatic and affecting,
the coda being tenderness itself. Scherzo and finale seem to
be one sweep of music, with solid tempi and a wide range of
The two Piano Concertos
(on disk 2) are given by a great Beethovenian and a genius of
the instrument - Arrau and Haskil. I first discovered Haskil’s
Beethoven when I bought an old Decca Ace of Clubs LP of the
4th Concerto, with the London Philharmonic
under Carlo Zecchi (now available on ANDROMEDA ANDRCD 5003 (3 CDs) – coupled with Beethoven
3rd Concerto and 5 Concertos by Mozart) re–issued
from 78s and recorded on 7 June 1947 in the Kingsway Hall. I
was instantly hooked to this woman’s playing. Rudolf
Serkin called her “the perfect Clara”, and many others, ranging
from Dinu Lipatti to Nikita Magaloff, equalled that assessment.
Haskil, like Solomon (another pianist whose work I could not
live without), was an aristocrat of the keyboard; her Mozart
is “to die for” (as they say) and the poetry and deep insight
she brought to her playing make her every performance a special
occasion. This performance of the 3rd Concerto
is magnificent. Perfect tempi, excellent orchestral contribution,
playing of the very highest standard from Haskil, who doesn’t
put a finger wrong, never pushing the music, just letting it
happen before our ears. The explosion from the audience at the
end is testimony enough to the greatness of this interpretation.
It is worth buying this set for this performance alone.
Arrau starts the
5th Concerto at a cracking pace and the ensuing
tutti is bold and dynamic, flying along without a care in the
world. It’s an exciting and exhilarating opening. When Arrau
makes his next entry things have settled down a bit but the
momentum continues. This is a very fine performance but it lacks
the exquisite poetry of Haskil. It’s more an outright virtuoso
performance, but that’s not enough. No matter what I write I
am left feeling that this is yet another fine performance and
Münch is, as before, a sympathetic accompanist.
The two performances
of the Violin Concerto, given 18 months apart, show very
different temperaments at work, but both are equally valid,
if sometimes questionable. With Heifetz, as I’ve written elsewhere,
whilst the performance is always top notch, one has the feeling
that we are listening to Heifetz’s Beethoven, not necessarily
Beethoven’s Beethoven. But having said that he is always a marvel
and a joy to listen to. Despite this performance having the
feeling of being rushed (Heifetz takes six and an half minutes
less than Francescatti) there is much to be enjoyed here: Heifetz’s
passagework, his glowing tone in the highest registers and perhaps
he uses just a little more light and shade than Francescatti
who doesn’t have the dynamism of Heifetz (but then, who did?)
but he excels in the lyrical moments, bringing a warmth to his
performance, which is lacking in the other. At one point in
the first movement Münch allows some rather vulgar tutti violin
sounds, where the attack is too brutal, and it does spoil an
otherwise smooth and enjoyable performance. I am not going to
choose between them – they’re both equally valid interpretations
and as such should be heard fairly and they are both worth having.
might seem odd to include four Concerto performances in a set
dedicated to a conductor but Münch lets the orchestra play,
not merely accompany, and each work is a fair joint effort with
the three fillers, the Overtures receive cracking performances
while the orchestral version of the Lento assai from
the last String Quartet, receives a performance given
in memory of the Orchestra’s Librarian who had recently died,
receives an heart–felt performance.
sound is excellent, if slightly boxy at times in Die Weihe
des Hauses, and Pristine Audio is to be praised for the
work undertaken on the original tapes. This set is wholly successful
and is a definite must for just about anyone interested in music!
This is above a mere historical re–issue, it’s a living document
of great interpretations and performances.