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Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony no.98 in B flat major Hob.I:98 [25:12]
Anton BRUCKNER (1824-1896)
Symphony no.7 in E major [52:03]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, 18 October 1960 (Haydn), 18 February 1958 (Bruckner)
Bonus: Spoken introductions by William Pierce [5:14]

Experience Classicsonline

This looks like the beginning of a fascinating and important series. As the notes tell us, the television station WGBH of Boston televised more than one hundred and fifty live concerts by the Boston Symphony Orchestra between 1955 and 1979. More than a hundred of these performances still survive but, until recently, legal problems had relegated them to a close-kept secret. Now the lid is off, and the prospects are mouth-watering. 1955 was approximately the midway-point of Munch’s reign. Also covered were Leinsdorf’s substantial tenure, Steinberg’s briefer period and the early Ozawa years. Plus a number of guest conductors.
As to quality, the picture in the Haydn is about what you would expect from the period. The Bruckner has evidently deteriorated - ICA apologise for the defects - with wonky horizontal lines that tire the eyes. Still, there are some good views of Munch in full spate. The sound is cruder than one would expect from contemporary LPs, a bit hard and glassy. However, the typical RCA LPs of the day rarely gave the Boston SO the credit for playing quietly. Here some real soft playing is captured, notably in the second movement of the Haydn, which is most delicately shaped. All things considered, on this showing the films have emerged from the storeroom in better shape than one might have feared. It was a splendid idea, too, to have the booklet introductions - at least in the present case - written by Richard Dyer, long-serving critic of the Boston Globe. The original spoken introductions by William Pierce are included, but as a bonus at the end.
When I have heard all hundred-odd of these surviving films - if this should ever happen - I shall be able to state definitely whether the present Bruckner 7th was the worst possible place to start. As of now, I can only say that this seems awfully likely. But let’s take things in order.
On the face of it, it was a splendid catch to find Munch conducting two pieces he never set down in the studio. His sole Haydn recordings in the studio with the BSO, Dyer reminds us, were of symphonies 103 and 104. A live 102 from a Russian tour was issued on a Melodiya LP. Back in pre-war France, one of Munch’s earliest records (1938) was of Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante with an anonymous orchestra and a group of soloists notable for the presence of André Navarra as cellist.
I seem to have seen fragments of Munch conducting favourite French repertoire in a rather flamboyant style. Here, in less than everyday repertoire, he beats time in a very clear-cut, vigorous, businesslike manner. As the allegros get going his long baton is inclined to set up a sort of vibrato which no doubt stimulated orchestral excitement and doesn’t seem to have affected precision. He cuts a commanding figure, exuding firm authority. There’s a purposeful, Beethovenian drive to the first movement, but with a typical Munch zest that prevents it from getting thick or heavy. The second movement has much tenderness and grace, the Minuet has a fine lilt and the finale makes much of the sudden incursions of a solo violin in a slower tempo. However, the one drawback is here.
For the last of the solo violin interventions, Haydn provided an elaborate, rather cranky harpsichord part. Some have wondered if this is a hint that similarly elaborate harpsichord continuos should be improvised all through the late symphonies. But, so far as I know, no one has actually tried it. A performance I heard in Edinburgh under Alexander Gibson in the 70s took the score at face value and treated it as one of the best Haydn jokes of all. Quite frankly, the shock effect of the harpsichord suddenly twanging away like nobody’s business after it had been silent up till then was hilarious. The 1960 television audience were primed, too, by the presenter who mentioned the eleven bars for harpsichord, adding that Haydn wrote them to play himself. Munch’s joke is that he hasn’t got a harpsichord … Rather like doing the “Drum-roll” symphony without a drum… Poor man, could he not find in all Boston, nay in all New England, a harpsichord in sufficient working order to manage those eleven bars? Still, there’s much more to cherish than to regret.
The idea of Munch and Bruckner sounds like a contradiction in terms. The warm-hearted phrasing of the opening themes of the first two movements spell reassurance. The tempi are fastish but the idea that Bruckner should go as slowly as possibly does not derive from the scores in any case. The tempi for these two movements are in themselves perfectly plausible.
Disconcertion arrives when Munch starts whipping them up. Very exciting, no doubt, but, working on the principle that what goes up must come down, if you crank up the tempo, then sooner or later you have to grind to a halt. And stop-go Bruckner is fatal. Alas, the poor composer is made to sound a fumbling amateur with an occasional gift for melody.
To tell the truth, there were plenty of people back in 1958, maybe including Munch himself, who did think just that. I remember reading in a book by a respected author, it may have been Hadow, a blow-by-blow comparison between the first movements of Brahms 4 and Bruckner 7. The idea being that the Brahms was a shining example of how to write a symphonic movement. Bruckner, on the other hand, was held up as a laughing-stock, a blundering ignoramus, the perfect example of how not to write a symphony. Hadow, if it was he, would have been writing in the 1930s or earlier. But plenty would have still agreed with him in 1958. Even in the early 70s, after a performance of Bruckner 7 in Edinburgh - briskly but cogently interpreted by Gibson - one of our University lecturers, a notable harpsichordist and a fine Bach scholar, was heard ruminating to the ceiling and to anybody else within earshot: “beautiful chord, E major …. I could listen to it all evening …. You bloody well have to when it’s Bruckner 7 …”. However, it was a little unusual even in 1958 for someone who apparently felt that way about Bruckner to conduct one of his works and one rather wishes Munch hadn’t.
There is, though, one bit in the slow movement that you can see he really likes. Yes, you’ve guessed it. Poor harpsichord-starved Boston had no difficulty at all in rustling up a pair of cymbals for the clash Bruckner probably didn’t want anyway. And the cameramen adroitly catch Munch’s beaming smile as his favourite bit approaches before cutting to the player himself, who gives a cymbal clash to end all cymbal clashes.
The scherzo goes excitingly though in the trio Munch seems to want to hustle things on a bit.
And then the finale … outrageously fast at the outset and with a couple of cuts, it’s timed at 7:55 including applause, scarcely longer than the finale of the Haydn. A sad travesty.
In Munch’s defence, I suppose it may be said that the Boston public in 1958 was still not ready for real Brucknerian Bruckner. The conductor who offered them a metaphysical meditation in the manner of late Celibidache in those years would have had an empty hall by the end. Still, only a few years later Leinsdorf was presenting swift but firmly structured Bruckner. Anything of that on film, I wonder?
The list of works I’d like to see Munch conduct live is pretty long, not just the obvious Berlioz, Franck, Debussy and Ravel but Beethoven, Schubert, Mendelssohn, Schumann, Brahms. Also Tchaikovsky. And the many American works he premièred. But, did whoever chose this Bruckner do so with the idea of enhancing Munch’s reputation or of damaging it? Whether or not the latter was intended, it’s likely to be the result.
Christopher Howell
Masterwork Index: Bruckner Symphony 7 ~~ Haydn London Symphonies




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