About twenty years ago I produced and presented a series of short features on BBC radio that examined English domestic architecture and furnishings through the ages.
One of the highlights for me was walking around an upper middle class Victorian house, full from floor to ceiling with all the period characteristics that we associate with that era’s interiors – heavy furniture in deep-toned woods, overstuffed and over-patterned soft furnishings, an upright piano, doilies, antimacassars and aspidistras - though, sadly, there were no covered-up piano legs. Thus, when it came to selecting some occasional background music to underpin the interviews, there seemed only one possible musical choice, that most appropriately “mahogany” of symphonies, the D minor of Cesar Franck.
Franck’s masterpiece responds well to that dark, heavy, “organ like” - to use a well-worn cliché - approach. But there is far more to it than that, though its comparative rarity on concert programmes and in the recording studios these days means that we need to go back to some classic older performances on CD to find the most interesting and enlightening accounts.
On my own shelves, the versions I return to most were all recorded within a period of just over twenty years though each remains entirely individual and true to itself. They are from Beecham (with the Orchestre National de l’ORTF in 1959), Monteux (Chicago Symphony Orchestra, 1961), Barbirolli (Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, 1962), Van Otterloo (Concertgebouw Orchestra, c.1963?), Stokowski (Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra, 1970) and Bernstein (Orchestre National de France, 1981). My own recording of Mengelberg in white hot form with the Concertgebouw in 1940 is ruled out on sonic grounds, but Andrew Rose’s restoration on his Pristine Classical label has apparently worked wonders.
Anyone who owns the Warner Music Vision DVD The art of conducting: legendary conductors of a golden era will have seen a brief, tantalising clip of Charles Munch conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in this work at 1957’s Prague Spring Festival. And now this newly released DVD account of the conductor with his own Boston Symphony Orchestra in concert at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre in 1961 – film hitherto secreted away in the vaults and unseen for legal reasons - elbows its way firmly into the select band of must-hear (and the very much smaller band of must-see) performances from that golden age of Franck D minor recordings.
From the very opening of the first movement, Munch builds up the tension inexorably, emphasising dynamic contrasts and then, once the dam has burst, driving the score along as if his life itself depended on it. After a flowing account of the central Allegretto where the musicians are clearly listening as intently to each other as if they were playing chamber music, the finale starts with a bang and then never lets up. This is a tremendously exciting account that knocks most of its rivals into a cocked hat.
The adrenalin may not be flowing quite so vigorously in the Wagner and Fauré items, but these are both carefully constructed and beautifully played accounts that show off the Bostonians’ talents much more effectively than some of the vinyl discs they were making at the time. Once again, the level of concentration among the players is quite apparent, to the extent that there were a few stretches where everyone was keeping so still that I thought the TV picture must have frozen.
But the charismatic, leonine figure of Munch – not for nothing referred to by the grande dames of Boston as le beau Charles - is anything but immobile. His craggy face communicates the widest range of moods to his players and he wields his long and heavy-looking baton with both grand, sweeping gestures and a rapier-like rapidity worthy of Errol Flynn at his finest.
Fortunately, the sound quality on these TV broadcasts from Boston’s WGBH public station is remarkably good, allowing us to hear the superbly rich, deep tones that Munch draws from the cellos at the opening of the Act 3 prelude to Die Meistersinger as well as the notably beautiful sounds he coaxes from both the brass and woodwinds shortly afterwards. The standard of sound reproduction never thereafter falls from that standard in either the Wagner or the Franck, although there is a slight but noticeable background crackling sound in the earliest recorded item, the Fauré, dating from 1959. The latter is inexplicably described as a “bonus” item on the disc, even though the other performances, lasting just 52 minutes or so in total, can hardly be said to amount to a full DVD ration.
Picture quality is, however, another issue. Once again, it is the Fauré that comes off worst. This recording is far darker than either of the later ones and the image is, quite frankly, sometimes rather difficult to make out amid all the gloom. Matters are not helped, either, by the fact that the TV director Whitney Thompson - and surely not, pace Richard Dyer’s generally excellent booklet notes, the broadcast’s producer Jordan Whitelaw - appears to have recently discovered the joys of superimposing images over each other, resulting in even more visual confusion. A degree of horizontal striation and, towards the end of the broadcast, one complete top-to-bottom roll of the screen of the sort familiar to anyone old enough to recall the days when television sets boasted horizontal hold and vertical hold dials, are left in place.
The WGBH technicians were clearly learning from their experiences, however, the 1960 Wagner recording is visually far better. They had increased the lighting levels, to the extent that several members of the orchestra can be spotted wearing dark glasses. In spite of the extra clarity, however, there are in fact hardly any bright whites or dark blacks to be seen. This is an instance where the term “black and white television” was a real misnomer as everything is actually merely some sort of degree of grey. An additional characteristic quite typical of the time is that the visual image sometimes disappears completely towards the edges of the screen.
Once again, though, just a year later in the 1961 Franck there has been some improvement and the black/white contrast is definitely more marked. Those horizontal lines do, it’s true, make a brief appearance in the last movement and there is also an odd moment, just before the musical focus switches to the harp in the last couple of minutes, where the picture seems to freeze for just a tiny fraction of a second. But those are not defects significant enough to affect the overall impact of this incandescent performance.
The directors of these transmissions, not only the aforesaid Mr Thompson but also David Davis and Greg Harney, do generally fine jobs. They are clearly well aware of the course of the music and plot the sequence of images accordingly. Apart from the Fauré’s annoying superimpositions and a too often repeated back-to-front pan across the violin desks in the Franck, the television direction never draws attention to itself which is the finest compliment one can make.
As I hope is apparent by now, this DVD amounts to a very significant musical record and, given that we are told that more than a hundred such broadcast performances from Boston, dating from 1955 to 1979 and led by Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg and Seiji Ozawa, as well as Munch, have been preserved, let us hope for even more to come.