This famous recording has been given some cleanup treatment,
lifting the colour and presence of an already spectacular recording
to an unprecedented degree. Munch takes all sorts of liberties
with tempi, yet no-one – Bernstein included – has managed to
give this extraordinary musical unity without sacrificing excitement.
Given that it represents one of the most frenetic, febrile expressions
of hallucinogenic, drug-induced hyper-sensitivity that the Romantic
Movement affords, it would seem prosaic in the extreme to demur
from Munch’s agogic freedom, especially when he conjures such
ravishing sounds from the Boston Symphony Orchestra. He gives
this pulsating music an entirely absorbing sense of purpose,
yet nothing seems calculated; even the most extreme rubato or
accelerando serves the underlying architectural conception.
The vividness of the sound also reveals that of accelerating
vehicles in the background and every creak of the floor. While
the 1954 version made with the same forces on stereo reel-to-reel
tape is in some ways even more daring and propulsive, on balance
this 1962 stereo re-make – the liner-notes do not give the actual
date of 9th April – is marginally preferable both
in terms of sound and interpretation, although I would not go
to the stake defending either against the other.
The opening of the first movement is weighty, soulful and impassioned
before launching into the yearning, headlong passion over Berlioz’s
own “Immortal Beloved”. Here, more than anywhere else, Munch
plays fast and loose with the beat but it works. In the second
movement, “Un bal”, the waltz time is a little more measured
than in the 1954 recording but if anything even more charged
with erotic intensity. The “Scène au champs” avoids the longueurs
which lesser conductors engender, and the exquisite tuning of
the Boston strings makes magic as that glorious bucolic theme,
so reminiscent of Beethoven’s “Pastoral”, blooms expansively.
In contrast to the freedom he employs elsewhere, Munch at first
holds the “Marche au supplice”, to a very steady beat, before
gradually ratcheting up the tempo and tension and building ominously
to a superb decapitation. The “Songe d’une nuit de sabbat” again
pulses steadily and inexorably before the chimes usher in the
weird, pounding tread of the Dies Irae and the syncopated
frenzy of the demonic dance. This is one of the great Berlioz
recordings, beyond doubt.
One minor quibble: HDTT have made an odd choice of cover design
in using a painting made in 1866 by Fortuny, “Fantasía sobre
Fausto”. Apart from the fact that Teldec used the same work
far more appropriately for the cover of their 1993 box-set of
Gounod’s “Faust”, the association is surely at best tenuous
and at worst incongruous. Never mind; this re-mastering is a
revelation and gives new life to a classic account.
Masterwork Index: Symphonie