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Ernest CHAUSSON (1855-1899)
Symphony in B flat, Op. 20 [31:52]
Poème de l’amour et de la mer, Op. 19 [27:14]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Printemps, symphonic suite (orch. H. Büsser [15:47]
Kathleen Ferrier (alto)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
Hallé Orchestra/Sir John Barbirolli (poeme)
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, 26 February, 1962 (Symphony); 1962 (Printemps); private acetate recording of a BBC broadcast, 9 March 1951, venue unknown (poeme)
French texts included
PRAGA DIGITALS PRD250345 [74:58]

Praga Digitals here offer a valuable collection of archive performances of French music composed around the turn of the twentieth century. I strongly suspect the two performances conducted by Charles Munch have been issued before, though I’ve not previously heard them. The recording that features Kathleen Ferrier was issued on CD in 2014 by the Barbirolli Society (review) though I don’t know if the same source material has been used for both of these releases.

Chausson’s only symphony owes a conspicuous debt to Franck and, in particular, his D minor symphony, as Praga’s notes remind us. Munch, a noted exponent of the Franck symphony (review), leads a strongly projected, big-boned reading of the Chausson, though those attributes are probably enhanced by the recording, of which more later. The introduction to the first movement, marked Lent, is expansive and rich in tone. The Allegro vivo which follows is very spirited. Munch injects vitality and surging energy into the music, which is just what’s needed. His view of the central slow movement is pretty serious. Here I admire the evident care for the musical line; Munch gets the Boston players to make the music sing and he builds the movement to a powerful climax at the close. The start of the finale is marked by almost aggressively bright trumpet playing. I recall from other BSO recordings of this era that the orchestra’s principal trumpeter had a very bright tone and it may well be that he was on duty for this performance. Perhaps my ears deceived me but I had the impression that in this movement the woodwind sounded closer than previously and, indeed, the sound of the orchestra as a whole seems more up-front. Given that so much of the finale’s music is loud the sound becomes a little wearing but it’s still a fine performance. Munch’s account is urgent and full of drive though it’s important to say that in the passages where Chausson relaxes so too does Munch. He makes the coda expressive and ardent.

Printemps had a slightly unusual gestation. Debussy wrote it in 1887 while he was staying in the Villa Medici in Rome as a Prix de Rome prize-winner. He scored the work for orchestra and wordless chorus but the score was destroyed in a fire at the bookbinders to whom it was sent. The work survived in four-hand piano score and the present orchestration, omitting the voices, was made by Henri Büsser in 1912 under the composer’s supervision. It doesn’t seem to me to be very characteristic of the composer. The music itself is very early and I’m not sure how close an eye Debussy kept on Büsser’s work. The first of the two movements is full-blooded and expressive in this performance. There’s no gap to speak of between the two movements and there’s a quirk in the recorded balance quite early on in the second movement when a couple of harp glissandi are heard very much in close-up. Indeed, the first time I played the disc I was quite literally startled by the first of these harp interjections. Later on, rather surprisingly, the harp seems better integrated into the texture. Despite these oddities of balance Munch’s performance is full of life.

As I said in my previous review of the Ferrier/Barbirolli performance of Poème de l’amour et de la mer Ferrier’s singing is very fine. The first of the two poems, ‘La Fleur des eaux’ is impassioned at times and her account of the second poem, ‘La Mort de l’amour’ is very moving. There’s a small gap in the recording; five bars in ‘La Fleur des eaux’ are missing, as they are in the Barbirolli Society issue.

It’s time to discuss the transfers. Praga have opted, it seems for a big, up-front sound. I suspect that they’ve sought to impart extra fullness of tone to these recordings. It’s worked up to a point with the two Munch performances though, as I’ve suggested in my earlier comments, the results are somewhat full-on. I’ve listened to quite a lot of BSO transfers in the past on the WHRA and Music & Arts labels, of performances by Munch or Pierre Monteux from the 1950s and early 1960s. My recollection of those transfers is that they were less interventionist. However, with that caveat the Praga transfers are serviceable; one must remember the source material is almost 55 years old and these recordings still give a good impression of Munch’s vivid performances.

The transfer of Poème de l’amour et de la mer is less successful. I made a direct comparison of this transfer and the re-mastering by Paul Baily for the Barbirolli Society and at every turn I preferred the Baily effort. Listening to the two the description that came to mind for the Praga transfer was “full-fat”. To be sure, there’s rather more hiss on the Baily transfer of ‘La Fleur des eaux’ but I found that the sound, though less full, seems more natural. The orchestral interlude between the two poems has far more hiss on Praga and I found listening to it something of a trial. The recording of ‘La Mort de l’amour’ is too loud compared to the Barbirolli Society issue. Indeed, Ferrier’s voice is distorted occasionally in a way that doesn’t happen on the rival version.

So, if you want to hear Kathleen Ferrier in Chausson – and you should, despite the sonic limitations of the source material – the Barbirolli Society disc is definitely your best bet. That’s an all-Ferrier programme of great value. I imagine that most collectors will buy this disc for the Munch items, however, and if I may repeat what I said above, even if the transfers aren’t perfect these recordings still give a good impression of Munch’s vivid performances.

John Quinn



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