Charles Munch Conducts (1966)

by | Jul 18, 2008 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

Charles Munch Conducts (1966) 

Program: BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68: Movements II-IV; RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloe, Suite No. 2 – Bonus: CHABRIER: Bourree Fantasque; FAURE: Pelleas et Melisande, Op. 80 – Orchestre National de l’ORTF /Charles Munch (Brahms, Ravel)/Orchestre Philharmonique de l’ORTF/Paul Paray (Chabrier, Faure)
Studio: EMI Classics DVD DVB 50677290
Video: 4:3; Black & White
Audio: PCM Mono
Length: 69:45
Rating: ****

Charles Munch (1891-1968) maintains a powerful reputation even forty years after his death, having led the Paris Conservatory Orchestra and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, among others; and having built a strong repertory that extended well beyond the Gallic standards into music by Tchaikovsky, Barber, Piston, Martinu, Walton, Blackwood, Haieff, Menotti, and Stravinsky. Just watching these performances of music by Brahms and Ravel, taken from Tokyo broadcasts from 1966, we see the suave, long line Munch commanded from a superbly articulated baton technique, which is shot so that the various motions of the right arm are maintained at once, as if we were watching a time-lapse sequence on conducting method. Unfortunately for posterity, no surviving tape of the Brahms C Minor first movement exists; so, like the famous truncated version of the Bruckner Sixth with Furtwaengler, we must rest content with the vivid realization that endures, and an often thrilling ride it is.

The Brahms (20 October 1966) Andante and the Allegretto are both played for their grand lyricism, Munch taking the elastic melodic lines in huge swaths, yet still managing to caress the phrase en passant. While Munch’s right arm with baton is ever-active, he sparingly cues the emotional life of the line with his left hand, preferring to use facial expressions and singing along. The last movement of the Brahms assumes various characters in the course of its 17-minute duration, often proceeding very quickly–for some tastes–then slowing down to bask in the famous horn calls and hymnody; only to rocket forward sporadically until the headlong coda that raises the Tokyo audience from its civilized  demeanor into ecstatic shouts.

The Ravel derives from a tape shot earlier (8 October 1966) in the French National Orchestra tour. The 75-year-old Munch is all smiles as the melodic line in the strings incorporates bird calls and wind pipings indicative of the legendary Arcadia of the Ravel ballet. The motion swells and palpitates sensually, even as a distinct serenity of spirit settles on the acoustic patina. The visual image may be bleached out, but the shimmering sound is not. A trio of oboes, accompanied by the harp, leave us in a blissful bower, where only an intrusive episode of delight–say from the suggestive flute in the Pantomime–breaks the static image of dreamy stillness. The music becomes agitated, a virtuoso flute etude with string glissandos, until the languor envelops the entire tableau in sylvan ecstasies. A rousing Danse General, a perpetual motion, maintains a fierce underlying pulsation that quite unnerves the polite listener. Violins, brass, and cymbal have our blood beating increasingly faster as Munch winds the material into a fantastic brew, the Japanese audience quite overwhelmed by the French maestro.

No less energetically mesmerizing are the two concert performances from the Salle Pleyel in Paris from 85-year-old Paul Paray (1886-1979) – for many years (1952-1963) the conductor of the Detroit Symphony, which he singularly revitalized. Paray opens with Chabrier’s hectic and contrapuntal Bourree Fantasque (28 March 1971) with the French National Orchestra, which seems to be eating out of Paray’s veteran hand. He faces each orchestral section squarely in turn as its part evolves, his left hand active and his face a motion-picture of the music’s singing line. For the tragic muse of Faure, Paray leads the French Radio Philharmonic (8 September 1971), and modal, gloomy hues of the Prelude move with a soft, Wagnerian grandeur. The camerawork, too, roves sensitive to Faure’s special coloration in woodwinds and lower strings. Oboe and humming strings provide the enchanted loom of the Andantino, a dark spinning wheel of mystical power. Harp and flute conspire to enchant us with the lyrical Sicilienne, which Paray takes at its fairly moderate speed, no sentimental bathos here. Paray slows down the harmonic motion for the Death of Melisande – flutes, pizzicato strings, and tympani in exquisite balance for the dirge-march processional. Use of double-exposed shots to give us Paray’s frontal demeanor over and against the orchestra inflates the symphonic image. Ceremonial and intimate at once, the Faure leaves a remarkable impression of a perfect realization of this fine music.

–Gary Lemco


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