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Charles Munch in Moscow
Arthur HONEGGER (1892-1955)

Symphony No.2, for string and trumpet (1941) [22:13]
Jean-Philippe RAMEAU (1683-1764)
Dardanus: fragments of the suite (1739) [12:05]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer - symphonic Poem (1905) [24:50]
Albert ROUSSEL (1869-1937)
Bacchus et Ariane; Suite No.2 (1933) [17:30]
USSR State Academic Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Moscow, 1965
MELODIYA MELCD1002279 [76:42]

When Charles Munch took the Boston Symphony to Moscow in 1956 it became the first American orchestra to visit the Soviet Union. The tour deeply impressed listeners and Munch was asked to repeat the visit. He returned in the 1960s in a couple of capacities and this disc is evidence of his freelance work with the USSR State Academic Symphony, that unwieldy name for a body of crack instrumentalists. In addition to the works enshrined here he also brought with him The Damnation of Faust and the Symphonie fantastique, staples of his repertoire, but ones that Russian listeners would have been clamouring to hear directed by him live, as opposed to on disc, or by repute.

The concert was given in 1965 – but given the paucity of detail it’s equally possible that this is a composite, culled from more than one concert. Honegger’s Second Symphony receives a seismic, fiercely executed reading. A few passing infelicities – here and elsewhere – reveal only that this is a live reading with all the strengths and imperfections to be expected. If anything, however, it is even stronger in impact than his Boston reading, and on a par with the sonically-limited 1944 78rpm set he made in Paris, from which it differs only in that the Paris slow movement is just a tiny bit tauter. I’ve always thought that Munch makes the beautifully played Karajan version sound positively flabby and so it proves again. Munch encourages real tensile drive from his forces resulting in a rhythmically vital, sinewy attack, with a chorale finale marked by a distinctive Russian trumpet tone.

The Rameau is unusual, inasmuch as I’m not aware it’s part of his Boston discography. Analogous to Harty’s Handel confection, or to Barbirolli’s Purcell it’s full of rich tone and tenderness. He asks for - and receives – a touching pianissimo in the Sommeil, an appropriately ‘tendre’ Rondeau. La Mer is detailed but powerful. There is colour and vitality here, which whilst not as kinetic, perhaps, as Koussevitzky live – but then no one is – brings huge reserves of adrenalin to the seascape. By contrast his commercial recording is more sedate. The percussion sound is raw and dry, and the recording could be warmer - and there are some ensemble and intonation lapses occasionally - but the sum total is pretty elemental nevertheless. The last piece is a truly atmospheric reading of Roussel’s Second suite from Bacchus and Ariane in which Munch’s control of crescendos alone would warrant the keenest scrutiny.

Munch admirers will want to know if there is enough here to warrant purchase, given the nature of the repertoire. On balance I’d say yes, given the nature of the meeting between conductor and orchestra at the height of the Cold War, the powerful results obtained, and the gain in excitement to be obtained from these live performances.

Jonathan Woolf



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