The treasure-trove of Boston telecasts, gradually coming to light at last, continues to extend our knowledge of the art of Charles Munch.
I tend to look on musical videos as supplementary to studio recordings and prefer sound only for home listening. However, the present video does clear up one matter – as well as raising a question mark. Many have felt, on the strength of the RCA recordings, that Munch, while undeniably energetic and zestful, was not much interested in the subtler shadings. This is not, though, how older Bostonian concertgoers recall him. The recordings here – judged purely as sound recordings – are clearly much “worse” than typical RCA recordings of even several years earlier. They are shrill, shallow and lacking in detail – especially the oldest, the 1959 Schumann 2. But dynamic compression doesn’t seem to have been on their agenda. We can hear that a considerable range of dynamics was on offer. The inevitable conclusion is that the RCA recordings, though fuller and warmer, flattened out the dynamic range.
Sometimes the evidence goes the other way. The affectionate, beautifully shaded, andante con moto
of the Schubert Fifth Symphony is the principal reason – and a very good one – for hearing this performance, though there are moments of delicacy as well as spinning relish in the later movements too. So when the first movement is barged through at a steady forte it’s difficult not to conclude that the performance really was like that. Even Munch’s gestures give the game away. He can be seen indicating the finer shadings of the other movements, while in the first he beats time in an unvaried, clear-cut, rather military manner. So perhaps not all the RCA discs falsify the picture. It would seem that, when unengaged, Munch just applied a sort of generalized, all-purpose energy.
Full engagement, with Munch, often meant that mere time-beating gave way to frenetic, whiplash baton movements with which the camera, or even the human eye, can hardly keep up. The idea seems to be to inspire the orchestra rather than guide it. Yet there’s method in the madness, for at key moments the cues do come. And inspire the orchestra he certainly does in the Schumann, particularly the Symphony, which he never got to set down commercially. This is an edge-of-the-seat performance to be spoken of in the same breath as Furtwängler’s Schumann 4, white hot, yet with time for tenderness too. Most of this latter is obviously in the Adagio espressivo
, but how exquisitely he ushers in the “distant beloved” theme in the finale.
The images are wispy in this 1959 filming, a bit better in the others. As so often with television productions, there are stretches where the cameras train on instrumentalists who are doing nothing of especial importance, when one would wish to see the conductor’s gestures that actually produced the particular effect.
My first Munch package in this series had a Bruckner 7 that left me wondering whether Munch’s reputation was served by the issue. Here it is only the Schubert first movement that advances the case for the prosecution. The Schumann is treasurable and if Munch had set down a Second Symphony like this in the studio it would surely have been a top recommendation ever since. We should be grateful it has survived.
Helpful notes as ever from “Boston Globe” stalwart Richard Dyer.