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Daniel François Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)
La Muette de Portici – Overture [7:48]
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge, Op. 10 [26:54]
Carl NIELSEN (1865-1931)
Symphony No. 5, Op. 50 [34:08]
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. live, Symphony Hall, Boston, 26 November 1953 (Auber); 8 December 1956 (Britten); 6 November 1953 (Nielsen)

This collection of broadcast performances by Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony offers the chance to hear him conduct two important twentieth-century score by composers with whom one might not associate him.

The Auber overture sits somewhat oddly in the company of Britten and Nielsen but, on the other hand, perhaps it merits its inclusion on the grounds of unfamiliarity: I suspect the piece is not often played these days and it was certainly new to me. La Muette de Portici (The Mute Girl of Portici) is a five-act grand opera, first produced in Paris in 1828. Perhaps I’d be unkind if I described it as poor man’s Rossini but it’s an attractive creation. It suits Munch, from whom it gets a sparkling performance, full of dash and verve.

I don’t know how often Munch conducted Britten’s music but I’m not aware of any pieces by the English composer in his discography. Pristine have unearthed a review of the concert in question which appeared in the Boston Globe. The unnamed critic describes the Variations on a Theme of Frank Bridge as “remarkably innocuous, full of clever detail, soothing inner voices and ingenious blends and contrasts of string sonorities. Harmonically the score is never more than bracing.” I’d agree that there’s lots of clever detail in the music but to describe these very skilful Variations are “remarkably innocuous” seems to me to be rather wide of the mark, as is the judgement on the harmonic writing. To be fair, though, the writer goes on to say that “The Variations never have been done too much hereabouts” so he was possibly unfamiliar with the piece.

Munch leads a good performance but it should be noted that he omits two of the Variations. Variation VI, ‘Weiner Waltzer’ is absent, as is Variation IX, ‘Chant’. There’s lots of tension in the ‘Introduction and Theme’ and in Variation I while Variation II, the ‘March’, is agile and thrusting. Munch’s way with the ‘Romance’ (Variation III) is elegant. The ‘Funeral March’ (Variation VIII) starts off with considerable power and intensity – so much for “remarkably innocuous” - and after the Fugue the slow Finale is intensely characterised. There is something of an edge to the BSO’s sound, especially the violins, but this, and the rather booming bass, is undoubtedly due to the fact that we’re listening to a recording that is more than sixty years old.

I wonder how often the Boston Symphony had played Nielsen’s Fifth Symphony prior to 1953. Munch makes a good job of the work, even though some of his speeds seem a little on the slow side to me. The first movement opens steadily but I like the way Munch builds the tension incrementally. The march over a bass ostinato (from around 5:00) has the right air of menace. When the big, broad tune is heard (from 11:12) the Bostonians play it nobly. The famous side drum part is played by Harold Karherman – we know his identity from a Boston Globe review reproduced by Pristine. He’s pretty impressive, even if he doesn’t quite match the unsurpassed frenzy of Alfred Dukes on Jascha Horenstein’s recording with the New Philharmonia (Unicorn-Kanchana). The only slight snag is that the rather piercing tone of the principal trumpet is not ideally suited to the great climax of Nielsen’s movement. Munch injects excellent energy into the start of the second movement and later on the quick fugue dances along in a sprightly fashion. The performance comes to a strong conclusion, amply justifying the applause. The performance is preserved in pretty good sound, especially when you consider that the recording is 66 years old.

A note on the Pristine website states that “These excellent broadcast recordings were drawn from the extensive tape archives of a major private collector and film director. The tapes were in generally excellent condition and sound quality throughout is fine, with just the occasional hint of overload.” Andrew Rose’s XR remastering and Ambient Stereo breathes new life into the recordings. Admirers of Charles Munch will be delighted to have the chance to hear him in this repertoire. The disc is a very interesting addition to the Munch discography.

John Quinn

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