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George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1789)
Water Music
Suite (arr. Harty)
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No.36 in C major K425 Linz
Symphony No. 38 in D major K504 Prague
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, 1958-60
Menus: English, Picture format 4:3, Region Code 0, DVD format NTSC, Sound Enhanced mono. Black and White

Experience Classicsonline

It sometimes seems as if WGBH-TV Boston had its camera crew surgically attached to the Sanders Theatre at Harvard. Maybe the crew emerged blinking from a surfeit of lectures, keen to get reacquainted with Charles Munch. The torrent of TV material now emerging on ICA Classics is both very welcome and very difficult to sift. What, usefully, should the critic do to suggest why you may or may not wish to buy this DVD, especially if the critic is me, one who suffers from a dual impulse; firstly to buy DVDs like this and then to despair of ever finding or making the time to watch them.
So, what’s in it for you when you consider this latest Munch DVD? I’m not saying ICA is being naughty but there’s no indication that this is black and white footage; most people will know this, but not everyone will, even if there’s a still of Munch (in black and white) on the box cover. So it’s black and white and in mono. The dates of the concerts are 1958, 1959 and 1960.
The first thing that’s in it for you is that Munch never recorded the two Mozart symphonies in the studio. This makes this AV representation especially valuable. Another thing in it for you, should you be interested in such things (I am), is to see the Boston Symphony in action - the players, the faces, their responses, maybe to try to put names to the faces. To this extent I wish ICA and other companies (almost no one does this, so I’m not singling out ICA) would provide a personnel listing of the orchestra at the time. I appreciate it may not be wholly accurate but I think it would be a nice touch.
Things start with the Handel-Harty Water Music suite, a performance of Beechamesque brio and bravado. If you miss the days of such arrangements then Munch and the Boston won’t let you down. The basses are positioned behind the French horns, and the top to bottom sonority, despite the mono sound, is highly enjoyable. Even though Adolf Busch, Boyd Neel and countless others had trail-blazed in this repertoire, Munch makes no concessions, and nor should he have done. Munch is at his most animated in the Allegro finale, smiling very slightly, his baton swishing about fly-fisherman style in his exuberance. One notices that the director decided that a good idea would be a camera shot ‘stepping down’ the orchestral sections, reasonable in theory, but dodgy in practice, not least when the camera slips, as it does once. One also notices that the Boston was an almost all-male orchestra at the time, and that the average age of the strings, at least, must have been quite high. There are some especially patrician looking gentlemen in the first violin section.
The Linz Symphony is from 1958 and has by far the most degraded film of the three. Grainy and rather unclear, a critic should counsel gently on this point. It’s hardly unwatchable, but you will most certainly notice the difference. The performance is in Munch’s best, taut and linear style; I would suggest George Szell as a reasonable point of comparison in terms of expression. Though sometimes tense, it’s never driven and the wind phrasing throughout is a delight. The Prague was taped in November 1959, with footage comparable in quality to the April 1960 Handel. I sense, unless it’s the increased clarity of the film that alerts me to the upturned eyes directed toward Munch’s beat, that the orchestra follows him that bit more circumspectly in this symphony. He makes the briefest of pauses between the first and second movements, ensuring a kind of symphonic continuity to occur. The band is ready for him, and the unindulged Andante is all the better for his unsentimental approach. The only demerit is not musical but filmic; some mildly chaotic camera panning shots that disrupt things briefly.
Despite such imperfections, I enjoyed the DVD. It enshrines those precious, unrecorded symphonies, grants visual immortality to the Boston denizens, and serves up vital, energising readings. How often you will play it, however, is a question that only you can answer.
Jonathan Woolf 


























































































































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