Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
The Creatures Of Prometheus - excerpts from the Ballet Music (1801) [20:00] *
Symphony No. 4 in B flat major, Op. 60 (1806-1807) [30:44] ^
Symphony No. 5 in C minor, Op. 67 (1808) [32:11] `
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, 8 March 1960*, 18 April 1961^ and 3 November 1959`.
Directed by David M Davis. Produced by Jonathan M Whitelaw.
Sound format: LCPM mono; Picture format: 4:3; Subtitles: n/a; Menu languages: English; Booklet languages: E/F/G; Region code: 0; Territory Restrictions: None.

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.
Tim Perry
Anyone with an interest in Munch and his magnificent Boston band will find this DVD fascinating.