Charles Munch conducts Sibelius and Strauss – BSO – Pristine Audio 

by | Jul 30, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

SIBELIUS: Violin Concerto in D minor, Op. 47; R. STRAUSS: Symphonia Domestica, Op. 53 – Ruggiero Ricci, violin/ Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Charles Munch – Pristine Audio PASC 568, 77:19 [] ****:

Portrait of Richard Strauss by Max Liebermann

Richard Strauss, by Max Liebermann

The music of Richard Strauss did not play so prominent a role in the concert and recording life of Charles Munch as director of the Boston Symphony as it had during the Koussevitzky tenure. The present performance (28 February 1960) of the Strauss Sinfonia Domestica (1902-1903) marks the conductor’s return to the score after an eleven-year hiatus.  The Boston Globe critic would report that Munch achieved “a remarkably intense but superbly controlled performance,” here in a work that, in its own time, aroused considerable controversy about the means of its subject matter.  A deliberate “program symphony” of the composer’s domestic, married life, the music not only details the doting aspects of parenthood and the sometimes petty, family jealousies and squabbles, but graphically depicts an amorous love-scene in erotic terms that might blanch Tristan and Isolde. Besides moments of polytonality and hyper-romantic chromaticism, the score calls upon a large complement of orchestral players – marked by a bloated component of brass and percussion – all committed to a five-movement work that binds itself into a one-movement tone-poem utilizing the same, basic materials.

Cellos in F Major quickly yield to flutes, oboes, and violins in B Major, and the diurnal life of the Strauss family begins to unfold in mock-heroic terms, based on the major sixth, while the child’s theme emerges on a viola d’amore. Trumpets and horns take up the main theme in B Major. Strauss uses a tune in the segued Scherzo from Mendelssohn – a Venetian gondolier’s song – to signify bedtime for the obstreperous – in two competing meters – infant, the Wiegenlied. The child’s motif rather warbles with aspects of German folk song and Austrian laendler, likely Mahler’s influence on Strauss, as is the sprawling five-movement layout, with its own debt to Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony. The child retires at precisely seven, the number of peals on the glockenspiel.

The Adagio movement bears the rubric Schaffen und Schauen – Creation and Contemplation – in which an oboe theme intimates the artistic power in the father, a motif we find no less celebrated in Ein mote Heldenleben. When the wife enters into his study, the music assumes an entirely voluptuous character, her theme “atop” his in startling, graphic depiction of their amorous activities. The rich harmonic language of the carnal event – with hints from Death and Transfiguration – embraces at once Tristan and the later “purple prose” of Salome. Their passions well “spent,” the couple finds poetic justice in the glockenspiel’s seven bells of 7 AM.  Both the father and the mother’s individual themes will supply the content of the Finale: Sehr lebhaft, a double fugue – especially ripe in the BSO brass and strings – that indicates a series of misunderstandings, reconciliations, and new tiffs. The morning seems to find time to cavort somewhat with the child in a parody of the “nuclear” family. Munch, who has worked a relatively restrained realization, now has the BSO at full throttle, justifying its nickname for RCA, “the aristocrat of orchestras.” Fortissimo, the Father’s theme predominates.  On the subject of wife Paulina, Strauss confessed to the Mahlers, “My wife tends to be a mite rough at times, but you know, it’s what I need.”

Jean Sibelius

Jean Sibelius

For the concert of 29 January 1960 violinist Ruggiero Ricci (1918-2012) makes his debut with the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the 1905 Sibelius Violin Concerto, whose brooding melancholy appeals to the low bass and woodwind instruments of the orchestra, where folk nuances loom in the Dorian mode. Ricci presents a glowing, penetrating interpretation, obviously relishing the raspy virtuosity the work offers. The Northern crags implicit in the first movement enjoy full resonance from the BSO brass and tympani, which, when Munch decides to emote with true conviction, thunder impressively. Ricci’s violin part alternatively sings and flares upward on the G string, his Guarnerius del Gesu in burnished glory. The last pages grumble and dance in dervish whirls, alternatively, to a fiery peroration, the audience already anticipating its stormy appreciation.  The potent second movement Adagio di molto – in the opinion of many, the highlight of the work – elicits a fevered response from Ricci and the rising strings and horns, gripping in its passionate effect. The finale, Allegro, an earthy dance with heavy accents, has Ricci employed in a kind of bardic incantation, often sailing skyward in flute tones. Ricci does not opt for the slow, deliberate pace Ginette Neveu prefers, though Munch keeps the pulse and low winds and tympani earth-bound.  Ricci’s natural flair and tonal opulence inject a decided authenticity of feeling into what could easily have become vacuous bravura, and the Boston Symphony patrons embrace him with unbuttoned exuberance.

—Gary Lemco



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