Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Karl Münchinger – The Schubert Recordings
Symphony No. 2 in B flat, D 125 [22:56]
Symphony No. 3 in D, D 200 [24:45]
Symphony No. 4 in C minor, D 417 (‘Tragic’) [27:27]
Symphony No. 5 in B flat, D 485 [26:48]
Symphony No. 6 in C, D 589 [31:20]
Five Minuets and Trios for String Quartet, D 89 (arranged for string orchestra) [10:38]
Five German Dances, D 90 [10:46]
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, D 759 (‘Unfinished’) [26:45]
Symphony No. 9 in C, D 944 (‘Great’) [53:24]
Overture in D, D 556 [7:12]
Rosamunde, D 797 (complete incidental music to Helmina von Chézy’s play) [58:42]
Rohangiz Yachmi (contralto) and Vienna State Opera Chorus (Rosamunde)
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (2-6 & 8, Overture and Rosamunde), Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart (9), Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (Minuets and German Dances)/Karl Münchinger
ELOQUENCE 482 5379 [4 CDs: 301:42]
The first Schubert recording I ever bought was a Decca Eclipse re-issue of Karl Münchinger’s 1959 coupling of Schubert’s Second and Eighth Symphonies. I was immensely taken with it, especially by the energy, drive and virtuosic violin playing I encountered in the earlier work, and by the eloquence and sheer drama of the Unfinished. So it didn’t take me long to double my Schubert collection by buying a second Münchinger Eclipse LP, of the Third and Sixth Symphonies, originally recorded in 1965. This time, though, for reasons I couldn’t quite fathom, I felt disappointed. These works just didn’t do it for me, they seemed somehow earthbound in a way the Second and Eighth certainly hadn’t; and so it wasn’t long before I decided to transfer my and my pocket money’s allegiance to Beethoven, in the shape of that excellent old Classics For Pleasure cycle under André Cluytens.
At the time, my inexperienced self just assumed that the Third and Sixth probably weren’t such good works as the other two. Listening with great but not entirely unalloyed pleasure to the welcome re-re-issue of these Münchinger performances, however, I now feel inclined to hold him responsible for my youthful divergence of view. His accounts of the Second and the Unfinished still strike me as very fine. Sure, his ‘big-band’ approach to No. 2 is rightly unfashionable nowadays, he dons clodhoppers rather than dancing shoes for the work’s minuet, and the outer movements of that work are driven rather hard. But, particularly in those outer movements, Münchinger conveys a real strength, vigour and fixity of purpose that, to me at least, still carry all before them. And of course, the Vienna Philharmonic are terrific. As they are in Münchinger’s 1959 Unfinished, which still in 2017 comes across as a performance of real stature. The conductor’s approach is perhaps surprisingly lyrical and, above all, he succeeds in conveying, for much of the work, an underlying sense of restrained melancholy which is surely genuinely Schubertian, but which eludes many rivals. You also, again, have the sense that Münchinger really knows where he is going: the two movements are, in his hands, meticulously laid-out structures, encompassing for example an extremely exciting emotional climax in the development section of the first movement, and an inexorable if measured progress towards the second movement’s perfectly judged final chords.
But not everything on these four discs is that good. Two words perhaps conspicuous by their absence in this review so far are ‘wit’ and ‘charm’. And, for all his many sterling attributes, these two qualities seem to elude Münchinger pretty much throughout this set (with the arguable exception of the 1974 Rosamunde). This is a significant problem, I think, given that in some of the Schubert symphonies at least, wit and charm are essential ingredients of an entirely successful performance. You don’t miss them that much in the Unfinished, or indeed in large parts of the Second, but you certainly do in the Third and Sixth. And – at the risk perhaps of over-simplification – I think it’s precisely this absence of wit, of charm, or of anything you might be able to construe as ‘magic’ that still, forty-odd years on from my first listen, condition my responses to Münchinger’s versions of these two symphonies. They’re well planned, well phrased, superbly played, never insensitive or tasteless – but, well, they’re just so sober, in a way that conductors like Beecham, Abbado, Colin Davis, even the comparably ‘Germanic’ Wand, manage not to be.
In essence what I’m saying is that, the more serious and ‘meatier’ Schubert is, the better Münchinger interprets him. And this generalization, however sweeping it might seem, does for the most part hold good for the remaining performances in the collection. The abundantly charming Fifth, for instance, is dealt with a bit plainly and unsmilingly – though the first movement has an attractively bracing quality, and there is some beautiful playing especially in the slow movement and the trio. By contrast the Fourth Symphony, the so-called ‘Tragic’, plays to Münchinger’s strengths. From the foreboding slow introduction through the (quite swift) allegro, the first movement conveys just the right mix of melancholy and nervous tension; the slow movement contains some ineffably sad sighing, especially from the VPO cellos; and both the minuet (actually more unsettled scherzo than courtly dance) and the darkly energetic finale respond well to the hard-driving side of Münchinger’s musical personality.
By far the longest and most complex of the symphonies, the so-called ‘Great C major’ of 1825–6, also goes well under Münchinger’s direction – even though on this occasion he does not have the benefit of the Vienna Philharmonic, but rather conducts the so called ‘Klassische Philharmonie Stuttgart’ – an augmented version of the Stuttgart Chamber Orchestra (‘Stuttgarter Kammerorchester’) of which he was founder-conductor from 1945 to 1988. They are very far from being a liability, however: their violins inevitably lack the sweetness and lustre of the Vienna Philharmonic’s, but their ensemble is excellent and their woodwind soloists outstanding. As to Münchinger’s interpretation, it grows on one, as he presumably intended that it should: the opening horn call and slow introduction are a tad prosaic and the following first-movement allegro – in spite of some admirably subtle rubato – seems to leave something in reserve; but the second and third movements feature some distinguished lyrical phrasing, as well as that underlying hint of melancholy (as well as, at times, mystery); and the finale packs a real punch. In other words, Münchinger convinces the listener that he is working to a strong and clear overall plan, and his inexorable unveiling of that plan has considerable cumulative power.
Overall, then, the symphonies recorded here are something of a mixed bag. The performances of the Fourth, Eighth, Ninth and – with one or two reservations – Second remain eminently recommendable, the others perhaps less so. As to the non-symphonic works included in the package: the Overture in D is an agreeable makeweight, but no more; the Five Minuets and Trios and Five German Dances suffer from dated mid-50s sound and a heavier approach from the conductor than seems ideal nowadays; but the Rosamunde is excellent. Once past a rather ponderous beginning and end of the opening Zauberharfe overture, Münchinger here evinces a somewhat lighter touch than he achieves elsewhere in the set. Maybe the date (1974) is significant here – as he approached sixty, Münchinger (1915–90) was perhaps mellowing. Whatever the reason, his conducting of the Rosamunde pieces retains all its old strength, but in numbers such as the romance ‘Der Vollmond strahlt auf Bergeshöh’n’ and, especially, the great Third Entr’acte, there is real affection, maybe even the hint of a smile. His singer in the romance is the Iranian-born Czech contralto Rohangiz Yachmi (b. 1940), a heavier voice than one really wants (singers featured on other recordings include Elly Ameling, Ileana Cortrubas and the – to me ideal – Anne-Sofie von Otter); but Yachmi does a good job, singing both eloquently and steadily. In their three numbers, the Vienna State Opera Chorus sound at times as though they have been singing a bit too much Wagner lately, but they too are very good, a crack outfit whom it would be churlish to criticize.
So, what place do these performances occupy in today’s market place? I ought to say first of all that, with the sole exception of the Minuets and German Dances, the sound quality throughout the four discs will be perfectly acceptable to most listeners – the dynamic range is a bit limited by today’s standards, and, at least on headphones, one is occasionally aware of some tape hiss; but producers such as Ray Minshull and Erik Smith knew what they were doing, and for the most part give us top-of-the-range 60s and early 70s sound. As a complete set of the Schubert symphonies, however, Münchinger’s discs are sadly ruled out of court by the fact that he never recorded the First Symphony (in D, D 82). Schubert was only sixteen when he wrote this work, but it is as far from a piece of unimportant juvenilia as one could imagine. Rather, it is a symphony of almost miraculous genius for one so young, and as such needs to be in every Schubert collection. Even if it were complete, however, I am not sure one could claim that Münchinger is consistently the equal of such imaginative Schubert conductors as Abbado (review) , Davis (review) or Wand (RCA 88985403042) – none of whose complete sets costs much more than these four discs, albeit without Rosamunde – or indeed of Thomas Dausgaard, in his bracing, very twenty-first century survey on BIS. In the case of Rosamunde, the competition is slightly less stiff, but still far from negligible: there are good, and more recent, full-price versions from Abbado (DG E4316552), Masur (Philips 4124322) and Douglas Boyd (Dabringhaus & Grimm, MDG90116333), and an appealing bargain-price one featuring Willi Boskovsky conducting – counter-intuitively enough – the Staatskapelle Dresden (Brilliant Classics 95122). I like Boskovsky not least because he begins his Rosamunde disc with the overture to Schubert’s opera Alfonso und Estrella, which was actually played at the only two performances of Helmina von Chézy’s by all accounts utterly dreadful play. He also includes we now misguidedly know, and are usually given, as the ‘Overture’ to Rosamunde (actually that to the melodrama Die Zauberharfe), but only as an appendix.
In the end, then, one wonders whether this set as it stands will appeal far beyond the circle of those who simply want to hear Münchinger again, whether out of historical interest or indeed nostalgia – he was, after all, a major recording artist of the third quarter of the last century, and will have helped many other listeners, as well as me, to cut their musical teeth. I am anything but a marketing man, but my instinct is that separately issued bargain versions of Rosamunde and of the Eighth and Ninth Symphonies might still find a wider audience. As to the other pieces on these generously filled discs, though, one feels less optimistic.
Sofiensaal, Vienna, 13–17 March 1959 (Nos 2 and 8), 21–24 October 1963 (Nos 4 and 5), 22–25 February 1965 (Nos 3 and 6), 5–8 April 1967 (Overture), 19–21 November 1974 (Rosamunde); Schloss Ludwigsburg, Stuttgart, 12–16 May 1969 (No. 9); Victoria Hall, Geneva, 27–31 October 1955 (Minuets and German Dances)