Felix Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 3 and 4
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Masonic Funeral Music K477/479a
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, 1958-59
Menus; English, Picture format 4:3, Region Code 0, DVD format NTSC, Sound Ambient Mastering. Black and White.

There should be really a collective noun for the plethora of WGBH telecasts featuring Charles Munch now emerging on ICA Classics. The series, covering the years 1958-60 and largely taped at Harvard, has proved highly impressive, albeit sometimes interpretatively inconsistent – and occasionally unreliable in filmic terms.
This one focuses on two Mendelssohn Symphonies. The Scottish was taped in December 1959 and is of good quality. As is often the case in this series the camera panning shots are sometimes jerky – I wonder what kind of mount was used, as there is occasionally slippage during shots. Clearly editorial work went into the chosen shots but again things didn’t always go right on the night; it’s fine to concentrate on the hard working percussionist, but only if he’s actually playing – and then playing something of significance. As often in this series sectional shots are favoured, though sometimes they are apt to be cumbersome. But when one sees Munch one observes the rapt concentration that so often produced an extra quotient of excitement during these performances. The proximity of the audience must have helped spark something of that added level of adrenalin. It’s only late in the symphony that I noticed that, presumably because of space shortages at the hall, the piano is visible actually in the body of the orchestra. What was the concerto, one wonders, and who was the soloist? I commend retrospectively the director, David M Davis, for managing (almost) to obscure this detail.
The Italian Symphony suffers from a much grainier picture, though it was recorded only a couple of years or so earlier in February 1958. This is another feature of the series – varying quality of footage within discs. It results in some lines running across the screen. The sound is decent enough mono, but the visual element lacks the clarity of the Scottish. Shame though this is, it doesn’t obscure Munch’s vigorous take, almost Toscaninian in places. The director for this was Whitney Thompson and he preferred more static shots, bedding the image solidly, reluctant to keep things moving too much - he was less of a visual contrapuntalist than Davis. When there are panning shots, the image degrades somewhat. There are also a couple of poor edits. Personally, I find this doesn’t matter to me. These are artefacts of their time. I did wonder, though, if the ‘hair on the lens’ problem could have been mitigated in post-production and remastering. Maybe not. It doesn’t last too long, nor do the smudge marks on the print. I mention these things not to suggest that you are in for a disastrous viewing, but to make you aware of the imperfections inherent, or seemingly inherent, in the production.
We also have a ‘bonus’ of Mozart’s Masonic Funeral Music, from April 1959. It too is rather grainy. And yet again I wonder rhetorically how a DVD that lasts 73 minutes can include a ‘bonus’. Is anyone fooled?
That apart, and with the spirit of caveat emptor in the air for those unfamiliar with these telecasts, I ought to end by saying that these Mendelssohn performances are terrific.
Jonathan Woolf

These Mendelssohn performances are terrific.