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Charles Munch in New York
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Iberia [21:11]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Le Tombeau de Couperin [14:35]
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Bacchus et Ariane. Suite No. 2 [16:24]
Maurice RAVEL
Daphnis et Chloé. Suite No. 2* [16:01]
NBC Symphony Orchestra, *New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. 28 March 1954; *2 January 1949. Venues unspecified. AAD
MUSIC & ARTS CD-1208 [68:13]
Experience Classicsonline

This CD preserves Charles Munch's only appearance with the NBC Symphony Orchestra. The concert is also available from Guild Historical (GHCD 2327) in a transfer which I have not heard. However, there is an important difference between the two issues in that Music & Arts adds a substantial bonus in the shape of a further Ravel item, recorded five years earlier with the NYPSO.

Munch's sole concert with the NBC Symphony Orchestra came about just weeks before the orchestra's final live appearance in April 1954, shortly after which it was disbanded by NBC. Toscanini had been scheduled to conduct but about a week beforehand it was announced that he had withdrawn for unspecified reasons and that Munch would take his place. The results that Munch achieved on, presumably, fairly limited rehearsals are remarkable.

He chose a programme of 'signature' works. Iberia was a favourite of his and he recorded it commercially twice. A live Boston performance from 1953 is included in a set of concert recordings with the Boston Symphony that I reviewed recently. In this NBC performance Munch gives a characteristically vibrant and colourful reading of the first section, 'Par les rues et par les chemins', ensuring that the rhythms are well sprung. A compelling atmosphere is generated in 'Les parfums de la nuit', which follows. Here the NBC players produce some lovely sounds for Munch and realise very well his languorous and sultry conception. The final section, 'Le matin d'un jour de fête', is exciting. Munch moves the music forward at pace - there's no hanging around on this morning! As the piece whirls to its conclusion Munch unleashes what Michel Tibbaut, in the French language booklet note, aptly describes as 'une véritable orgie sonore'. It's tremendous stuff. So far as I can tell the first two movements sound pretty similar in the Boston account but in the final section Munch is even more unbuttoned and vital in Boston - perhaps the fruits of working with an orchestra who knew him well?

Le Tombeau de Couperin is one of the few major works by Ravel that Munch never recorded commercially. Now, rather like waiting for a bus, two performances come along in pretty quick succession for Le Tombeau is also included in the afore-mentioned Boston box, also in a performance from 1953. In many ways the two readings are quite similar - in both instances Munch takes the concluding 'Rigaudon' at a hasty pace, which strikes me as excessive, though both orchestras cope well. The major difference comes in the second movement, 'Forlane' When I first listened to this NBC performance I wrote in my notes 'Perhaps one would like more give in rhythms of II and a slightly easier tempo?' Turn to the Boston reading and the tempo is more relaxed - the performance lasts 4:39 compared with 3:46 in New York. I prefer the Boston performance.

The final item in the NBC concert is the second suite from Roussel's ballet score, Bacchus et Ariane. It some ways this is the finest achievement in the concert for this must have been a score unfamiliar to the NBC players yet they deliver it superbly. The playing is incisive, dynamic and, in several instances, voluptuous. For sheer sensuality sample the viola and oboe solos just after 9:00 or the passage between 11:18 and 12:59, which Munch builds to a huge climax. This suite was something of a Munch speciality but it is quite an accomplishment to have taught it so well even to a virtuoso orchestra such as this in a relatively short space of time. The concluding Bacchanale (from 13:00) is frenetic but always controlled and this tremendously powerful and exciting performance brings the house down.

The performance of the second suite from Daphnis et Chloé, sadly sans choir, comes from five years earlier. For three consecutive seasons, starting in 1947, Munch did a stint with the New York Philharmonic, until he was appointed to the Boston Symphony podium in 1949. This performance was part of his penultimate broadcast concert with the NYPSO. Even without a chorus the famous daybreak is still magnificent. Listen to the way that Munch builds the great climax (4:09 - 4:40) from the very bottom of the orchestra. At the start of the second section - the performance is presented in one continuous track - there's some lovely delicate string and wind playing, especially around 6:00, and the great flute solo (from 7:26) is superb and is supported by a magical accompaniment. The concluding Danse générale (from 11:54) is not, at first, quite as fast as I'd expected but as the dance proceeds Munch builds up a real head of steam and the music becomes more and more abandoned, though never out of control. This is a tremendous hedonistic performance of the suite.

So the performances are very fine but what about the sound? The recording venues are not specified but I suspect the venue for the NBC concert was Studio 8-H and that the NYPSO performance was given in Carnegie Hall. The sound for the NBC performances is somewhat dry and close but never unacceptable and certainly not strident. Oddly, though the NYPSO performance took place five years earlier the sound has more bloom on it and there's more space around it, suggesting a proper concert hall acoustic. The remastering has been done by Andrew Rose of Pristine Audio and I'd say he's dome an excellent job.

There are two different booklet notes, though they cover much the same ground. One, in English, is by John Canarina, the conductor and biographer of Pierre Monteux. The other, in French, is by Michel Tibbaut. Both are excellent.

This valuable disc will be self-recommending to admirers of Charles Munch. However, I'd suggest it deserves a wider audience and that it should be of interest to all collectors who prize great conducting, executed with flair, imagination and a love of the scores concerned.

John Quinn



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