Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 1 in B flat, Op. 38 Spring (1841) [29:05]
Manfred, Op. 115: Overture (1848-9) [11:23]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
HIGH DEFINITION TAPE TRANSFERS HDCD125 [40:28]
HDTT's rather involved re-mastering process — taking in digital-to-analog conversion, sample rate conversion, vibration control, and what have you, with the results individually burned to CD — has considerably spruced up the symphony, an early-stereo RCA production. The orchestral image, enlivened by the buzz of vigorous string attacks, is colourful and immediate, with a deeper soundstage than on the old Victrola LP. In the first movement's final perorations and elsewhere, you can now hear a modicum of ambient warmth. I assume this is from Symphony Hall, though HDTT doesn't specify the venue. Mind you, not everything could be "fixed": the trumpets still have the disconnected, shallow-bright quality as before.
We reflexively associate Charles Munch with the French repertoire; but, as an Alsatian, he had a foot in German culture as well, and he played mainstream Austro-German classics with considerable vitality. In the symphony, although the first movement's slow introduction briefly goes adrift, the bustling first theme of the Allegro molto vivace is joyous, and Munch finds a contrasting delicacy and grace in the second theme. There's both mystery and anticipation in the development, which, unfortunately, becomes less firmly grounded as the conductor rushes ahead impulsively. He controls the tempo relationships of the coda well, however.
The Larghetto, despite an uneasy transition or two, sings expansively, with the a large-framed sonority. The Scherzo has a good energy, though the bows sit "long" on the strings. The first Trio is light-fingered, crisp, and clear, while the second offers both tonal weight and forward impulse; and Munch is one of the few conductors to make sense of the movement's rhythmically equivocal final cadence. After a bracing introductory flourish, a restless drive marks the finale. The orchestra responds with alert rhythmic address, allowing the development's play of dynamics and textures to come through.
The Manfred Overture, recorded about five years later, sounds even fuller and more vivid than the symphony, with strongly but not exaggeratedly directional stereo. The trumpet fanfares at 1:46 still sound shallow-bright, but at least they're integrated into the ensemble, rather than aurally pasted onto it. From the first no-nonsense attack, Munch is at his best, in a tautly controlled, turbulent reading which gives the lighter textures space without losing momentum. The meditative coda registers more strongly than most.
By conventional standards, this is "short measure," but those with audiophile predilections will enjoy it. We could have used a second or two longer pause between movements of the symphony, though.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.
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