Charles Munch conducts ROUSSEL & Other French Composers = BIZET: Symphony in C Major; ROUSSEL: Le Festin de l’araignee, Op. 17; Suite in F, Op. 33; Petite Suite, Op. 39; SAINT-SAENS: Danse macabre, Op. 40 – London Philharmonic Orchestra/ Paris Conservatory Orchestra (Roussel Op. 39)/ Concertgebouw Orchestra (Saint-Saens)/ Charles Munch – Dutton CDBP 9809, 74:51 [Distr. by Harmonia mundi] **** :
Charles Munch (1891-1968) visited London in the summer of 1946, touring with his Paris Conservatory Orchestra, when Decca asked him to record one piece with his own players. In 1947, Munch returned to London specifically to record with the London Philharmonic Orchestra. Dutton restores these relatively early sessions by Munch who had already gained an international repute for his authority in French repertory.
The music of Albert Roussel remains an independent voice in French music, embracing stage and concert hall works of personality and significance. The Spider’s Feast, Op. 17 (1913) received revision as a seven-movement orchestral suite in 1929. Moody and demure, the music literally depicts the actions of a spider who preys on ants, a butterfly, and a moth, only to be himself consumed by a praying mantis. Recorded in Kingsway Hall, 6 June 1947, Munch manages to evoke dreamy colors and French rhythm from his British musicians. Evocative and loosely “impressionistic,” the score floats in a gauzy harmony not quite Debussy, not quite Faure or Wagner.
The energetic Suite in F (rec. 2 June 1947) had its premier by Koussevitzky in Boston, 1927. Modeled after an antique, Baroque style, its three movements convey colorful energy and modal harmony perhaps influenced by Faure or Koechlin, but weaving its own, often breezy logic. The Prelude rather chugs and sings, the triangle and cymbals adding doses of color over chirruping, high winds and groaning bass instruments. The middle section sounds like a drunken hurdy-gurdy or carousel music box. Expressive and touched by a sense of loss, the Sarabande proceeds through dirge-like figures, harp and clarinet moving through dark strings and horn ostinati. The flute solo barely lightens the mood. The space becomes other-worldly and aggressive, another Chirico landscape haunted by aesthetic objects not quite familiar. The concluding Gigue starts darkly but soon becomes playful and farcical, the colors and brisk, tarantella-like energy reminiscent of carnival.
The Petite Suite (1929), another three-movement work, opens with a vigorous Aubade in synthetic Spanish colors and bird calls in the flute. The cosmopolitan spirit of Poulenc, Ibert, and Les Six seems nigh. The heart of the piece, the Pastorale, casts an exotic, perhaps Moorish, hue on the proceedings. Munch (rec. 9 October 1946) elicits motley colors from this score, the melodic curve sonorously potent. The middle section, in horn and string tones, becomes a shade dreamier and harmonically ambivalent, Roussel’s answer to Debussy’s Nuages. Roussel entitles his last movement Masquerade, a driven twittering affair with an occasional castanet in the rafters. The rhythm picks up halfway through, and the tenor of the piece brightens. The colors mix and dissolve in a gauzy haze.
Munch traveled to Amsterdam (15 September 1948) to record the 1874 Danse macabre with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, at that time recently transitioned to Eduard van Beinum’s leadership whilst Willem Mengelberg languished in political and artistic exile. The Munch reading feels prosaic and straightforward, lacking the wickedness or malevolence Mitropoulos, Kempen, or Toscanini could project.
On the other hand, Georges Bizet’s recently discovered C Major Symphony, premiered in 1935 by Felix Weingartner after an 80-year hiatus, finds in Munch (3 June 1947) a sympathetic and genial interpreter. Neither as buoyant as the Beecham reading nor as literalist as the Rodzinski, the Munch recording, the second made at the time of this inscription, reveals a sprightly piece by a seventeen-year-old, which gains a freshness and charm through the sec French accent imposed on the British ensemble. The oboe solo of the Adagio stands out, as do the exuberant energies of the Scherzo and Allegro vivace finale. For collectors of the Charles Munch legacy, this disc provides some key repertory with the imprimatur of enthusiastic youth.
An extraordinary retrospective of an extraordinary artist