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
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
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
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
Masterwork Index: Bruckner
Symphony 7 ~~ Haydn