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Charles Munch in Boston - The Early Years
see end of review for details
various soloists, Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. 1952-55
WEST HILL RADIO ARCHIVES WHRA6015 [7 CDs: 544:06]
Experience Classicsonline


In 1949 Charles Munch succeeded Serge Koussevitzky as Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Koussevitzky had been in post for a quarter of a century and had established a formidable reputation. Munch was almost the polar opposite, not least in being much more relaxed as a person and as a musician, but his thirteen year tenure of the BSO podium, until 1962, was to be another distinguished period in the orchestra’s illustrious history.

This invaluable set from WHRA contains some extremely valuable material. It includes a number of pieces that Munch did not record commercially - chiefly the Second Symphonies of Beethoven and Schumann and also Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin, the latter a surprising omission from the discography of such a celebrated interpreter of French music. However, there’s also significant value to be had from hearing live concert performances of works that Munch did take into the studios - one thinks of the Saint-Saëns Third Symphony or Debussy’s Iberia, for example. This is not the place to compare in detail any of Munch’s commercial recordings with those here included. However, Munch was famed as a conductor of the moment, who was never content simply to repeat a performance again and again. Each time he approached a score he was ready and able to bring something fresh to it, often very spontaneously. Therefore, even collectors who may have a significant number of Munch CDs on their shelves may well find that this WHRA set complements rather than duplicates the discs they already own.

Pride of place, perhaps, should go to the major works that Munch did not record commercially. Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin is right up his street and he leads a fine performance. The first three movements are all light on their feet and idiomatic. My sole reservation concerns the last movement, ‘Rigadoun’, which is taken at rather a hectic pace. The music feels rather rushed but, happily, the BSO players are up to all Munch’s demands. The reading of the Schumann symphony is generally a vital one but the account of the poetic third movement, Adagio espressivo, is sensitive and romantic. Munch also takes a romantic view of the slow movement of Beethoven’s Second symphony, moulding the music carefully. In his excellent notes John Canarina uses the word “forceful” to describe the overall interpretation of the symphony and I wouldn’t dissent from that view. The introduction to the first movement is strongly projected while the main allegro is impelled forward with conviction. The finale is fast and furious.

The other Beethoven symphony is the ‘Eroica’ and collectors should note that this is not the same performance as the one contained in the box of Beethoven performances by Munch, which was recently appraised by Bob Briggs. This present performance was given four years earlier. I haven’t yet heard the 1957 account that was welcomed by Bob but this 1953 traversal is a fine achievement. The opening movement is strongly projected in a resolute and dramatic reading. The slow movement is a dark elegy in Munch’s hands while the finale is exciting.

Another third symphony is that of Saint-Saëns and this is one performance that did cause me to make a comparison with Munch’s commercial reading. His 1959 RCA recording has long been among the top recommendations for this work, and rightly so. This earlier reading features the celebrated organist E. Power Biggs. Possibly for contractual reasons, Briggs didn’t take part in the RCA recording - he was a CBS artist - but I found that the organist who took part on that recording, Berj Zamkochian, makes a stronger impression, even if his name is not so illustrious as that of Biggs. I readily acknowledge that the superior technology of the RCA Living Stereo recording will be a factor but, for me, Zamkochian gets more out of Symphony Hall’s 1949 Aeolian-Skinner organ than does Biggs. The huge organ entry at the start of the finale sounds underpowered here and I think that Zamkochian may well have employed a more positive, reed-based registration. He conveys drama and sheer power that isn’t quite there in Biggs’ performance. The same is true throughout the finale and, indeed, in the slow movement, the quiet organ part is more telling in the RCA recording than in this performance, though that is more likely to be a product of the commercial recording technology. Having said all that, there’s a great deal about this live performance to enjoy. The gorgeous slow movement is meat and drink to the BSO strings, who play with wonderful warmth - and later in the movement their woodwind colleagues are equally lustrous. The first and third movements have copious energy and vigour and the finale is just great fun.

The same CD contains two other French works that feature a soloist. Ruth Posselt, wife of the BSO’s long serving concertmaster, Richard Burgin, is the effective soloist in Lalo’s Symphonie Espagnole. She plays well but I’m afraid neither her advocacy nor that of Munch interests me very much in this empty work. The third movement was omitted in this performance. The Lalo gives way to Ibert’s concerto, which is played by Doriot Anthony - later in life Doriot Anthony Dwyer. Appointed by Munch, at the age of thirty, as the BSO’s principal flute, John Canarina tells us that she was the first woman to become a principal wind player in a major American orchestra. She occupied the chair from 1952 until her retirement in 1990. Her fine performance here shows why Munch was right to appoint her. She is splendidly agile in the often-ebullient outer movements and I greatly enjoyed her cool lyricism in the slow movement.

Two pianists claim our attention. I’d never heard of the French pianist, Lelia Gousseau, who plays the ‘Emperor. Frankly, hers is not the most inspired account I’ve ever heard but it’s perfectly serviceable, with Munch providing excellent support, and she distils some genuine poetry in the second movement. Claudio Arrau’s name is a much more illustrious one, of course, and his reading of the Brahms Second concerto rounds off the entire set. He and Munch form a highly effective partnership and there’s a high degree of spontaneity in their performance. It has to be said that there are a surprisingly large number of finger slips by Arrau in their urgent reading of the first movement and I found these rather distracting after a while. To be honest, I was surprised that Arrau’s technique seemed so tested by Brahms’ writing. Happily, the pianist settles after that and the second movement is well played all round. The slow movement is the highlight, ushered in by a lovely cello solo, which I assume is played by Samuel Mayes, the BSO principal from 1948 to 1965. Arrau plays with great sensitivity and feeling and all concerned turn in a wonderfully mellow account of this movement. To cap the performance the finale is gay and good humoured. 
For the rest, Munch is an interesting guide to Schubert. He gives a dapper account of the delightful Fifth symphony, eschewing most, if not all, repeats - in John Canarina’s entertaining phrase Munch “rarely met a repeat he liked”. The ‘Unfinished’ is devoid of autumnal sentiment. Instead Munch is purposeful and mobile in I, which I like, though he leads a stylish, affectionate and much more traditional account of II

For the most part the sound quality in these performances is very good. The Mendelssohn symphony, however, is captured in more boxy sound - though my ears quickly adjusted and enjoyment was not spoiled. Even the large forces required for Honegger’s La Danse des Morts are well reported. It’s excellent to have this relative novelty included here, though one regrets the lack of texts or a slightly more detailed note about this unfamiliar music. Munch had given the first performance of the piece back in 1940 and I wonder if this was its first outing in the USA? It’s a powerful, dramatic and often dark work. One notes that this performance was given in the week before Christmas; rather strong meat for the time of year, perhaps, and the applause sounds respectful by comparison with some of the ovations elsewhere in the set. But it seems to be a fine, well-projected reading. The speaker is suitably, but not excessively, histrionic, the New England Conservatory choir acquits itself well and the soloists, led by the great Gérard Souzay, are on good form. 

This set is like a treasure chest. One dips into it and finds a valuable item almost every time. It’s a fine reminder of the exciting, inspirational art of Charles Munch and it’s an equally fine reminder of the excellence of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under his leadership. I’ve already been very impressed by another WHRA box of Munch recordings that I reviewed recently and I’m looking forward to getting to grips shortly with their aforementioned Beethoven box. The partnership between Charles Munch and the Boston orchestra was an important one. Though it’s been well documented through commercial recordings these live performances add an invaluable extra dimension to our appreciation of the partnership. I hope that WHRA will put collectors even further in their debt by issuing more of this fascinating archive material but for now this box will give hours of pleasurable and stimulating listening.

John Quinn

see also review by Jonathan Woolf  

Track details
CD 1
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Iberia (1905) [21:23]
(30 October 1953)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Le Tombeau de Couperin (1914-17) [15:32]
(17 October 1953)
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)
La Danse des Morts (1941) [32:37]
Arnold Moss (speaker); Mariquita Moll (soprano); Betty Allen (mezzo); Gerard Souzay (baritone); New England Conservatory Chorus
(19 December 1952)
CD 2
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Tristan and Isolde -Prelude and Liebestod (1865) [18:09]
(11 October 1952)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No.5 in B flat D485 (1816) [24:56]
(11 October 1952)
Symphony No.8 in B minor D759 Unfinished (1822) [29:44]
(13 December 1952)
CD 3
Daniel-François Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
La Muette de Portici - Overture (1828) [7:43]
(26 December 1953)
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No. 4 in A Major Op. 90 (1833) [25:29]
(1 November 1952)
Richard SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61 (1845-46) [36:14]
(12 November 1955)
CD 4
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg -Act III Excerpts (1868) [11:58]
(24 January 1953)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 41 in C Major, K 551 Jupiter (1788) [24:09]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Concerto No. 5 in E flat Op.73 Emperor (1809) [37:45]
Lelia Gousseau (piano)
(18 October 1952)
CD 5
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 2 in D Major Op. 36 (1801) [32:06]
(17 October 1953)
Symphony No. 3 in E Flat, Op. 55, Eroica (1803) [46:38]
(30 October 1953)
CD 6
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C Minor, Op. 78 (1886) [32:56]
E. Power Biggs (organ)
(1 January 1954)
Edouard LALO (1823-1892)
Symphonie Espagnole, Op. 21 (1874) [27:50]
Ruth Posselt (violin)
(11 December 1953)
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Concerto pour flûte et orchestre (1934) [18:15]
Doriot Anthony (flute)
(9 January 1954)
CD 7
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Eine Faust Ouverture (1840) [12:36]
(26 February 1954)
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Variations on a theme by Haydn (St. Anthony Variations) Op. 56a (1873) [17:23]
(21 November 1953)
Piano Concerto No. 2 in B flat Major Op 83 (1878-81) [47:37]
Claudio Arrau (piano)
(9 January 1953)

 


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