Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma mère l’Oye - Suite (1911) [19:39]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Ibéria (1908) [24:09]
La Mer (1905) [24:07]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, 4 February 1958 (Ravel), 28 October 1958 (La Mer), 31 October 1961 (Ibéria)
ICA CLASSICS DVD ICAD 5014 [68:01]
Strasbourg-born Charles Munch was Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1962. He returned permanently to France in 1963, and in 1967 became the first conductor of the newly-formed Orchestre de Paris. He died suddenly the following year.
In an interesting booklet essay, Richard Dyer, late of the Boston Globe, recounts how Munch’s “sturdy build, shock of white hair and mischievous smile” made him a favourite with Boston’s “mink-clad musical matrons”. More seriously, and as these three performances attest, his period in Boston was a highly successful one. His particular authority in and affinity with twentieth-century French music are very much in evidence here. Dyer also refers to the conductor’s “physicality, rhythmic force, and baton technique … it is exciting to watch him move from a geometrical beat pattern into wide circling arcs of controlled excitement. Even when the stick is not doing very much, Munch is emanating …” Now all this is true, but at the same time, viewers hoping to see something of that “mischievous smile” will be disappointed, as the glimpses we have reveal him to be as unsmiling as the orchestra, and that is saying something. Using a score only in the Ravel, his conducting style is curiously stiff, with two-handed, mirror-image gestures that convey little in the way of phrasing but are ultra-clear in respect of the beat, which he frequently and meticulously subdivides. The players never seem to be looking, but they follow him slavishly and ensemble is impeccable. He barely acknowledges the audience on arrival, nor at the end of the performance. After the final chord of the Ravel - which is held for a long, long time - he half turns to them and then apparently changes his mind and brings the double bassoon player forward instead. There is a moment of humour just before Ibéria, when Munch is obliged to wait, once arrived on the podium, as sirens from the fire station on the other side of the street die away. The booklet has this taking place before the Ravel, an unimportant and easy enough error. The performances were filmed for television, in black and white, and though the booklet carries copious warnings about the sonic and visual limitations of the original material, it’s all perfectly viewable, though the film of La Mer had apparently deteriorated more than the others, the picture quality poorer and the sound less stable, with particularly acid trumpets. Few cameras were used, and the viewer is amused to find the operator “hunting” the woodwind soloists, and not always finding them. At one point in the opening movement of the Ravel the picture settles on the first flute - Doriot Anthony Dwyer, one of only two women in the orchestra - and only slipping off to her oboist neighbour when he starts to play.
What of the performances? On this evidence, Munch was more excitable in concert than in the studio, and not always to the music’s advantage. The reading of Mother Goose is rather more interventionist in style than we expect from Ravel performances nowadays, with a fair bit of variety of tempo and exploration of expressive byways. There is a marked slowing down in the middle section of “Laideronette”, but for the most part her bath is rapid and lacking in charm. Indeed, in this of all works, charm is short supply. One is surprised to see the vehemence of Munch’s gestures at climactic points, even in the Fairy Garden, and the inevitably limited dynamic range contributes too, everything seeming more or less forte. This does not distract from the superbly controlled crescendo at the end of the work.
Audiences nowadays seem to contain a fair number of people who wish to show how well they know the piece by being the first to applaud, frequently with a loud and obtuse “bravo!” Such individuals would be forgiven for thinking that the Boston audience weren’t sure that the good old thwack Munch encourages from his players at the end of Ibéria was really the last note of the piece. The performance as a whole is superb, colourful, rhythmically alive and seductive by turns: it certainly would have engendered a few “bravos” in London. Richard Dyer tells us that Debussy was particularly proud of the transition between the second and third movements, and that passage is very sensitively managed here. La Mer is very atmospheric too, and the orchestral discipline is remarkable. The storm that Munch whips up in the second movement is certainly very exciting, but it’s rather too much for me, I’m afraid. Parts of the final movement too, are about as fast and hard-driven as I have ever heard them, undoubtedly effective in a concert but less so for repeated listening.
The sound quality ensures that this DVD can never be a substitute for an audio CD. Admirers of the conductor will want it, as will those interested in American orchestral playing of the period.
Highly disciplined, rather hard-driven concert performances from a master conductor in his prime.