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The Legacy of Charles Munch
rec. 1938-68
No texts
ELOQUENCE 484 0219 [14 CDs: 858 mins]

This box charts three decades of the career of a pragmatic recording artist, Charles Munch. The Decca stable recordings cover discs on L’Oiseau Lyre, DG, Philips, Polydor and the much rarer Véga label. The two principal recording centres were Paris and London but Munch journeyed further afield in the course of the many years covered by this survey. You will know that other vital areas of his discography have been collated of late – see the Warner discs on 9029561198, which itself weighs in at 13 CDs. You may well also know of West Hill’s devotion to live Boston material which should on no account be overlooked, and nor should RCA’s retrospectives. Given these and others, and the many single and double discs devoted to elements of his repertory – the obvious French ones, the discrete Berlioz boxes, the Romantic - where do things stand with Eloquence’s new box?

Things helpfully start in 1938 with his Polydor recordings of Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the left hand with Jacqueline Blancard. Lys once released a disc with all three of Munch’s recordings of this – Blancard (1938), Cortot (1939 – his own ‘edition’) and Février (1942) – which was quite a leap of faith in listeners’ mania for comparative listening, or in the omnivorous Munch collector, or both. Blancard saves us the trouble, playing crisply and outclassing the competition. Widor’s Fantasie with Marcelle Herrenschmidt might seem conventional but it’s not that well-known and a delightful, overlooked piece charmingly and gracefully played by a little-remembered pianist. It didn’t sell well, alas. Later that year Munch recorded Haydn’s Sinfonia Concertante for L’Oiseau Lyre with marvelously communicative soloists; Roland Charmy (violin), Myrtil Morel (oboe), André Navarra (cello), and Fernand Oubradous (bassoon). Navarra’s may be the biggest name now but he was somewhat under-recorded and the wind players are both hugely characterful. However I’ve always liked Roland Charmy’s playing on disc and he doesn’t disappoint. He has an elfin, focused tone and a fine way with the music’s concertante elements.

The second disc takes us to the post-war Deccas and to the long and successful sequence of 78s made with the L’Orchestre de la Société Philharmonique de Paris. The orchestra acquits itself excellently in Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony where its sinewy, personal corporate virtuosity is strongly to be distinguished from German Beethoven symphonic recording or even the rich toned Concertgebouw standard. This was a work, as can be heard in his later Boston LP, that he always conducted well. His later Boston remake of Mendelssohn’s Fifth clearly offers a more emollient recorded sound but the adrenalin levels engendered in this 1947 Kingsway Hall recording offer compensation aplenty. The Berlioz excerpts in CD 3 occupied him from 1946-49. He and the orchestra play the three 78s of Roméo et Juliette excerpts – the highlights - with authentic Gallic sophistication and character. Some of these 78s were accused at the time of release of a sound that was ‘coarse’ – a common Anglophone word of abuse then – but this transfer doesn’t sound coarse, so what listeners of the time heard isn’t necessarily what we can hear today in fine transfers such as these (Mark Obert-Thorn did the honours with CDs 1-9 and Chris Bernauer with Nos 10-14). If you want to dip in this CD try Le Corsair – flighty and exciting – and I can guarantee you’ll stay for the rest.

CD 4 couples Schumann’s Fourth Symphony with the Brahms’s Violin Concerto with Ossy Renardy, this last a much-reissued recording (see review). Live performances of the Schumann exist in addition to this studio version which is with the London Philharmonic and manages to marry virility with lyricism. Eileen Joyce is on commanding form in Franck’s Variations symphoniques and Munch’s 1946 recording of the Symphony holds up well even when set against Cluytens and Monteux. He has the advantage of his Parisian forces. The two little Saint-Saëns pieces are striking. They are Le Rouet d'Omphale and the Amsterdam Danse macabre, of which the last-named was made at the same sessions that produced the Renardy recording.

If there is a real charmer of a disc it’s surely No.6. The Bizet is full of the loveliest aerated textures courtesy of Munch and the LPO. The Fauré Pelléas et Mélisande suite is refined and shows the orchestra in very decent form soon after its wartime privations. It’s a pleasure to hear Munch conduct d’Indy’s Prelude to Fervaal. With his Paris forces Munch journey to London to record Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony in October 1947. Munch abjured the fast and furious school, preferring Gallic wit and elegance. The Pathétique Symphony was recorded on home soil the following year and the location is no real match for Kingsway Hall sonically. As with Mendelssohn the Parisian orchestra’s corporate sound avoided density and saturation; it was not the kind of bass-up sound expected of the great romantic orchestras. It produces a lower wattage Tchaikovsky sound but Munch reserves power for the finale.

Debussy and Roussel occupy the eighth disc. Munch and his Parisian forces play Ibéria with the kind of flair one would expect but there’s a happy slew of Roussel to enjoy too. The delicious felicities of the Petite Suite emerge with vivid brilliance and, back in London with the LPO, we can hear the same composer’s wittily romantic Suite in F major and the athletic, evocative delights of Le Festin de l'araignée. CD 9 is all-Ravel. Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer was his frequent first-call for Ravel’s Piano Concerto. This 1949 78 set is faster than the version on Warner where they were joined by the Orchestre de Paris two decades later. This is particularly noticeable in the slow movement which is taken at a less lingering tempo. Both are beautiful in their own way but the winds in 1946 have their own very personal way about them, which is more tonally acrid than their later colleagues. The two Daphnis et Chloé suites follows and if the recorded sound of the time doesn’t allow the music’s full colour to emerge there’s plenty of power. Boléro is relatively slow but is hypnotically directed.
With a leap CD 10 takes us to the world of Phase 4 stereo spectacular. If you want to put your feet up and have fun – sheer unadulterated mortgage-defying, Covid-denying fun - slide the famous Offenbach disc into your CD tray. Manuel Rosenthal’s arrangements of Gaîté Parisienne provide the required brio. The jump from the rather murky sounding Daphnis suites to this are vast but you won’t be playing these discs sequentially. Everything is separately tracked, and the result is a blistering and dramatic storm of vitality – Munch and the New Philharmonia on outsize, outstanding form. Bizet’s Carmen suite follows and is hardly less good with trenchancy in places and brilliantly projected. They also recorded Respighi’s Pines of Rome and Fountains of Rome and the aural spotlighting reflects the performances which are big, bold and not always as subtle as some others. Bizet’s L'Arlésienne Suite matches the Carmen suite for stylistic aplomb.

Munch and the Orchestre National de la RTF recorded Henry Barraud’s Symphony No.3 and Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane ballet suite No.2 for the Véga label in Paris in 1961. This is a must-have for Munch specialists. The Barraud is an impressive piece of work and if you like Honegger’s symphonies – and Munch did Honegger as well as anyone, especially No.2 - then this is for you. Prepare for gaunt power, kinetic vitality and some frantic drama. The Roussel has orgiastic panache in a brilliantly projected Bacchanale finale and no less excellence in the preceding three sections. CD 13 is given over to his Philips recording of the Symphonie fantastique and the first part of the Grande messe des morts, which concludes on the final disc and was made for DG. Jean-Charles Hoffelé’s excellent notes, themselves finely translated by Bruce Raggatt and Adam Freeman, say that this was Munch’s last recording of the Symphonie but didn’t Munch record this piece for the last time the following year? This one was made with the Hungarian Radio and Television Orchestra in Budapest in April 1966. In any case the recording wasn’t successful sonically – interpretatively it’s little different to his other recordings - because of its impossibly swimmy acoustic. Stick with other Munch recordings. The Requiem is also somewhat problematic. It’s not just that Peter Schreier famously over-dubbed his part later – that’s hardly an unknown phenomenon – rather that this Bavarian Radio production doesn’t have the audio vista required. If you turn to Léopold Simoneau in the stereo Boston recording you’ll find what’s missing in this Bavarian reading.

But let’s not quibble about a couple of discs amongst so much that is so idiomatic, so life-affirming and full of specificities of colour and rhythmic finesse. Each disc is housed in a miniaturized reproduction LP and the notes, as mentioned earlier, are full and helpful. There are many other Munch recordings of the earlier period that are not part of this Decca legacy and so, being made for other labels, are not present. In the early part of his career Munch, like Barbirolli and others, was used as a concerto accompanist – but you won’t find Thibaud, Merckel, Long, Bernac, Doyen, Février, and no Honegger 2, Schmitt or Jolivet. These belong elsewhere. The Deccas enshrined in this captivating set show Munch coming of age as a major conductor in his own right and the results truly constitute a legacy of greatness.

Jonathan Woolf

Barraud, Henry
Symphony no.3
Beethoven, Ludwig van
Symphony no.8 in F major, op.93
Berlioz, Hector
Benvenuto Cellini, op.23 H76a; Overture
Grande Messe des Morts (Requiem), op.5
Le Corsaire: Overture, op.21 H101
Les Troyens; Chasse royale et Orage
Romeo et Juliette, op.17 (excerpts)
Symphonie fantastique, op.14 H48
Bizet, Georges
Carmen Suite
L'Arlésienne Suite
La Jolie Fille de Perth; Danse bohemienne
Symphony in C major
Brahms, Johannes
Violin Concerto in D major, op.77
d'Indy, Vincent
Fervaal, op.40; Prelude
Debussy, Claude
Berceuse heroique (orchestral version)
Images pour orchestre; II Iberia
Fauré, Gabriel
Pavane, op.50
Pelleas et Mélisande Suite, op.80
Franck, César
Symphonic Variations for piano and orchestra
Symphony in D minor, op.48
Haydn, Franz Joseph
Sinfonia Concertante in B flat major, Hob.I:105
Mendelssohn, Felix
Symphony no.5 in D major, op.107 'Reformation'
Mozart, Wolfgang Amadeus
Adagio and Fugue in C minor, K546
Offenbach, Jacques
Gaîté Parisienne
Prokofiev, Sergei
Symphony no.1 in D major, op.25 'Classical'
Ravel, Maurice
Daphnis et Chloe: Suite no.1 'Fragments symphoniques'
Daphnis et Chloe: Suite no.2
Piano Concerto in D major for the left hand
Piano Concerto in G major
Respighi, Ottorino
Fontane di Roma (Fountains of Rome), P106
Pini di Roma (Pines of Rome), P141
Roussel, Albert
Bacchus et Ariane, op.43: Suite no.2
Le Festin de l’araignée, op.17: Symphonic Fragments
Petite Suite, op.39
Suite in F major, op.33
Saint-Saens, Camille
Danse macabre, op.40
Le Rouet d'Omphale, op.31
Schumann, Robert
Symphony no.4 in D minor, op.120
Tchaikovsky, Pyotr Ilyich
Symphony no.6 in B minor, op.74 'Pathetique'
Widor, Charles-Marie
Fantasie in A flat major, op.62

Jacqueline Blancard (piano), Roland Charmy (violin), Marcelle Herrenschmidt (piano), Eileen Joyce (piano), Myrtil Morel (oboe), André Navarra (cello), Fernand Oubradous (bassoon), Ossy Renardy (violin), Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer (piano), Peter Schreier (tenor), Chor des Bayerischen Rundfunks, Concertgebouworkest, Grand Symphony Orchestra, Hungarian Radio and Television Orchestra, London Philharmonic Orchestra, New Philharmonia Orchestra, Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire de Paris, Orchestre de la Société Philharmonique de Paris, Orchestre National de la RTF, Symphonieorchester des Bayerischen Rundfunks

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