All of a sudden, Charles Munch's star seems to be once again
in the ascendant. Sony has recently reissued a swathe of his
RCA back catalogue on its new Sony Originals label, including
his Debussy orchestral works and his recordings of the Dvorák
and Walton cello concertos with Piatigorsky. Coming soon in
April is an eight disc box set on RCA Classical Masters that
brings together recordings of Brahms, Schubert, Schumann and
Mendelssohn symphonies and other orchestral works … and
at a ridiculously low price. Meanwhile, the new independent
label, ICA Classics, has brought to market three DVDs of Munch
in concert with his Boston Symphony Orchestra. This Beethoven
DVD and its companions (a DVD of Debussy and Ravel, and a DVD
of Franck, Faure and Wagner) capture live broadcasts that have
not been seen since they first went to air in the late 1950s
and early 1960s.
I have always been in two minds about Munch's Beethoven. His
Boston Beethoven 9 for RCA - one of those new Sony Originals
reissues - 88697702992 - is one of my favourite recordings of
the work. It is unsubtle, oddly up close and spotlit and never
plumbs the depths of piano let alone pianissimo,
but it is absolutely thrilling from first note to last and very
moving. His Beethoven 5, however, is one of the most enduring
disappointments of my CD collection. I pull it out every year
or so to see if this time I will find something magical in the
performance, and each year I hear scrappy and dynamically flat
orchestral playing and an interpretation lacking in nuance.
What a delight it was, then, to listen to and watch the performance
of the 5th that closes this DVD. Here is the Munch
reading I had been listening for in vain: a dramatic and rhetorical
performance; a performance that builds inexorably towards the
final peroration; a performance of contrast held together by
flexible but fundamentally solid tempi; a performance abounding
in spontaneous touches, like the extra space and freedom he
affords his oboist, Ralph Gomberg, for his solo in the first
movement. It is wonderful to hear, and also great fun to watch
Munch's facial expressions and the way his baton drops when
the dynamics do so that he seems to be conducting with shoulder
movements rather than the invisible stick that is beating time
around his knees.
As good as the 5th is, it is the 4th that
for me is the highlight here. Munch cuts an unexpectedly dour
figure in the adagio introduction to the first movement of the
Fourth Symphony. If it weren't for the expansive baton strokes
and the white hair, you could almost believe you were watching
Fritz Reiner. The allegro ignites, and Munch seems himself once
more. Is it a trick of the lens, or is his baton bent a little
towards its tip? My goodness, he does shake it about a bit in
the allegros! Beethoven's games with rhythm in this symphony
are right up Munch's street. His knack of pushing a performance
forward and building momentum suits this symphony beautifully.
There is a bounce and swagger to the third movement that you
just won't hear elsewhere and the finale fizzes.
The music from Beethoven's Prometheus ballet
is an interesting inclusion. The liner-notes make much of the
fact that Munch hardly ever played this music, so the conductor's
most ardent admirers will no doubt need to acquire this DVD
to round out their collected discographies. The Overture receives
a scintillating performance, right from the whip-crack of the
opening staccato chords. I was less impressed by the other two
selections from the ballet, though the adagio shows off the
orchestra's flute, bassoon, cello and harp. The mono sound does
their magnificent playing full justice.
The picture quality of the monochrome source tapes is variable.
The Prometheus footage has a tendency to fog and fish
bowl curvature. The opening of the Fourth Symphony is disfigured
by static lines. The camera work itself is conventional, but
the editing strikes a fair balance between footage of the orchestra
and the man on the podium. Fortunately the mono sound is clear
and carries fair detail. Only at the close of the 5th
does the music sound a little cramped in its single channel.
Anyone with an interest in Munch and his magnificent Boston
band will find this DVD fascinating.