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Charles Munch: Boston Rarities Volume 1
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No.1 in B flat major, Op.38 Spring (1841) [34:10]
Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Symphony No. 4 in E minor, Op.98 [37:57]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. 25 April 1951 (Schumann); 10-11 April 1950 (Brahms), Symphony Hall, Boston. mono
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC 403 [72:07]

Some of my favourite conductors of yesteryear famously disliked rehearsing; Knappertsbusch is the first to come to mind: "Gentlemen, you know the music and I know the music. Until this evening, then."
 
Charles Munch was not necessarily quite that insouciant but his successor Leinsdorf was uncharitable about his predecessor’s dislike of rehearsing and it is true that, like all “human” conductors, Munch could have his off-days and conduct a sloppy performance. However, he understood the value of freshness and spontaneity, and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, already drilled into precision by the martinet Koussevitsky, responded accordingly. These two recordings are ample proof of that.
 
Pristine have here combined two special performances on LP which have been re-mastered by Mark Obert-Thorn to correct the pitch of the Schumann - originally a semi-tone sharp - and tame the over-reverberant harshness of those first issues. The narrow mono sound will never be a sonic treat but it allows us to hear the texture and detail of the BSO’s playing without distraction. This is alert yet relaxed, genial yet incisive music-making by an orchestra that clearly loves to play for Munch. If they were in stereo, they would even today be amongst the first choice recommendations of recordings by Munch with the BSO, alongside their Symphonie fantastique, Saint-Saëns’ Organ Symphony and his recordings of Ravel’s orchestral works.
 
The Spring is wonderfully vital and animated. It is a work which, in Schumann’s words, was “born in a fiery hour” and a performance like this vividly portrays a composer who was going through one of the happiest periods of an ultimately blighted life. There is spring and ping in every note; the timpani and triangles are especially precise and the movement builds to a magnificent peroration. Munch wisely moves the Larghetto along briskly without wallowing, yet it is suffused with tender emotion. The Scherzo is similarly well judged: there is momentum and hearty, peasant good-humour without galumphing. The two trio sections contrast elegantly with the main subject. The finale is suffused with youthful ardour; only once does the music pause for breath, just over halfway through when the horns and flutes summon the spirit of…what? Nature? Youth itself? - only for the music to resume its Dionysian rush towards an explosive climax.
 
A point of information: Munch observes the repeats in the first and fourth movements which are cut in the 1959 stereo remake.
 
The Brahms Fourth Symphony strikes me as one of the most assured, coherent and cohesive in the catalogue. It is closer in spirit and tempi to Toscanini than to Furtwängler but even in comparison with the latter it is only in their judgement of what constitutes Andante moderato where they differ markedly. Munch avoids the stasis and solemnity which can make this movement limp rather than flow; he lets the music breathe; it is always moving forward without his bullying it. The Scherzo is truly giocoso when it can sometimes sound martial – surely not what Brahms intended. The Finale is grand and glorious.
 
These are recordings to remind Munch’s admirers of his special ability to inspire an orchestra to play with joy and abandon.

Ralph Moore
 
Previous review (Brahms on Sound Dynamics): Paul Shoemaker

Masterwork Index: Brahms symphony 4 ~~ Schumann symphony 1