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Charles Munch: Boston Rarities - Volume Two
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Gratulations-Menuet in E-flat, WoO 3 (1822) [3:31]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 2 in B-flat, D. 125 (1814-15) [26:18]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude à l'après-midi d'un faune (1892-4) [9:05]
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Schelomo (1915-16) [22:02]*
Alexei HAIEFF (1914-1994)
Symphony No. 2 (1958) [18:49]
*Gregor Piatigorsky (cello)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, 20 December 1949 (Beethoven, Schubert), 23 January and 27 February 1956 (Debussy), 30 January 1957 (Bloch), 30 November 1958 (Haieff)
stereo (Debussy, Bloch, Haieff)

By way of explanation, these recordings are "rarities", not because the pieces themselves are rare - although Alexei Haieff's symphony probably isn't coming to a concert hall near you any time soon - but because, for various reasons, they've ended up in the equivalent of digital limbo.

Then again, the two monaural recordings had already ended up in analog limbo. Munch's 1949 Schubert Second Symphony, for example, was left on the shelf in the wake of his 1960 stereo remake - the conductor must have loved this particular symphony, which still doesn't get much play. It's a lively, affectionate reading, though its impulsive manner causes some muddled transitions and unruly tuttis. The trim analogue accounts of Böhm (DG) and Mehta (Decca) are not challenged here; indeed, I remember Munch's stereo account as neater than this. Still, it's hard not to respond to the cheerful good spirits of the performance, and the woodwind-dominated variations in the second movement are charming.

It's good to hear the Beethoven menuet - originally a last-side filler for the composer's Seventh Symphony - on its own: too frequently this sort of piece comes in recorded batches, where each well-honed, handsomely orchestrated dance blends more or less indistinguishably into the others. It's also good to hear it played by a full orchestra; the large sonority lends it a power and profile missing from chamber-sized readings.

Munch recorded the Faune in Boston twice, in 1956 and again in 1962. In his notes, producer and restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn suggests that RCA neglected this earlier account because of its "ping-pong" stereo effects, particularly noticeable on the two harps. More likely, it's that this performance simply catches the conductor on an off day. The opening flute solo is hustled along unceremoniously; so is the one a few pages later. Despite the impetuous surge of the fuller passages, the performance simply feels hasty: even the final cadence sounds rushed.

Gregor Piatigorsky's account of Schelomo may seem odd among the "rarities", but it qualifies: RCA plucked its original discmate, Walton's Cello Concerto, as a makeweight for the Dvořák concerto, leaving the Bloch unmoored. Piatigorsky's basic sound is warm and dusky; he also has a way of emptying the tone of vibrancy without losing its firm core, allowing him a wider range of expressive options. His phrasing here is appropriately rhapsodic and Munch seconds him, letting the wind colours shine through the textures. Despite everyone's best efforts, however, the piece does ramble: I expected the ending a good seven minutes before it actually arrived.

The Haieff recording reminds us of a time when the major record companies took their documentary obligations as seriously as their commercial objectives, committing a fair amount of new American orchestral music to disc. This three-movement, sixteen-minute symphony would have been hot off the press at the 1958 sessions. The opening, with its almost pro forma dissonances, is unpromising, but then the music settles into a searching, dramatic exploration of harmony and orchestral colour. The chorale-like central Andante suggests the broad lyrical strain of much American post-war music. The Boston Symphony serves up a polished performance, though, beginning at 3:02 of the finale, the trumpet's short motifs push ahead of the strings' long line.

Obert-Thorn's re-masterings are, as usual, top of the line. The monaural recordings emerge with vivid presence, although the tuttis are harsh in the Beethoven. In stereo, Obert-Thorn serves up a buffed-up version of RCA's familiar early-stereo "house sound": clear and colourful, though somewhat lacking in depth.

Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.

Previous review: Rob Barnett