Charles Munch: The Concert Hall Recordings – Scribendum (4 CDs)

by | Nov 1, 2005 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Charles Munch: The Concert Hall Recordings = BEETHOVEN:
Symphony No. 6 in F Major,  Op. 68 “Pastoral”; ALBENIZ: Iberia
Suite; BIZET: Symphony in C Major; Jeux d’Enfants; Overture “Patrie,”
Op. 19; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Russian Easter Overture; Excerpts from Le Coq
d’or; DEBUSSY: Iberia; La Mer; BORODIN: In the Steppes of Central Asia;
MOUSSORGSKY: Khovanschina Suite; FRANCK: Symphony in D Minor –
Rotterdam Philharmonic Orchestra (Beethoven; Franck)/ Orchestre
National de l’ORTF/Charles Munch

Scribendum SC 012 (4 CDs),  73:05; 65:07; 53:36; 68:04 (Distrib. Silver Oak) ****:

Recorded 1966-1967, these sonically refurbished discs celebrate the
taste and spirited verve of Alsatian conductor Charles Munch
(1891-1968), whose tenure on discs away from the Boston Symphony
certainly warrants appreciation. The elastic, vigorous interpretation
of the Beethoven Sixth from 1967 (a work Munch likewise took on for RCA
in Boston) is the only concession to Munch’s way with German repertory;
the rest is Franco-Russian repertory and a touch of Spain via Albeniz
as orchestrated by Arbos. We might also recall that it was Debussy who
taught the Spanish to use their own rhythmic arsenal. The 1966 set of
five movements from Iberia might compete with anything Ormandy achieved
with the Philadelphia Orchestra, with the opening Evocacion’s and the
ensuing Fete-Dieu a Seville being as visceral as the storm in
Beethoven’s Pastoral. Color sounds – the clarinet, horns, flute, harp,
and battery could not be more persuasive – or more loud.

The 1967 Bizet Symphony begins our sojourns to France and Russia. The
youthful effervescence of the Bizet C Major, with its splendid, opening
(Allegro–Allegro vivo) oboe part (again, in the Andante) intertwined
with flute, horn and strings, sings and dances with light feet, a suave
grace competitive with Beecham’s especial buoyancy. I have to wonder
how the demure Felix Weingartner, who premiered the long-forgotten
score, played it. Some injudicious engineer jiggling with dynamics in
the Concert Hall recording mars an otherwise delightful inscription.
The arioso string line, the deft articulation in the string pizzicati
and fugato passages of the Andante quite beguile us and certify Munch’s
long familiarity with Bizet’s style. The Jeux d’Enfants suite is pure
innocence – a fleet, even winged-footed excursion into a world which
RCA records did not permit Munch entrance, so we had only Igor Meredith
(on Decca) to guide us. The Patrie Overture, the recorded province of
Andre Cluytens on EMI, has a sparkling, open-air performance, a real
boulevardier’s excursion through Provence.

Rimsky-Korsakov’s Russian Easter Overture (1966), delegated only to
Stokowski for RCA, finds an equally sympathetic, even tempestuous,
realization in Munch, whose ORTF flute player executes al kinds of
lovely flurries before strings and harp, then battery and pizzicati
take over for the sea surge into Russian Orthodox Valhalla. The hearty
trombone liturgy intones with grave dignity, and then Munch resumes his
whirlwind ride. Hard to believe that RCA permitted Munch Stravinsky’s
Jeu de Cartes and some Tchaikovsky his few documents in this repertory.
Where Rimsky-Korsakov is explosive, Borodin’s haunting evocation of the
Russian steppes is slinky and lithe, with a rather hurried caravan
wending its languorous way beneath an inverted pedal tone in the
strings. Great contrabassoon part! The trumpets, clarinet, harp,
triangle, and strings are no less pungent for the excerpts from
Rimsky-Korsakov’s martial Le Coq d’or; but the real tour de force for
Munch acolytes is the extended cut devoted to Moussorgsky’s
Khovanschina. The shimmering Dawn on the Moscow River in gorgeous sound
segues into the lugubrious Act IV Prelude, then the incense-bearing
Dance of the Persian Slaves, all very competitive with Stokowski’s
famed suite for RCA (LM 1816).

Finally, we have the 1966 Franck and Debussy recordings, repertory in
which Munch had well established himself in Paris and in Boston. The
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun is liquid heat, Conrad’s
civilizations living on the crust of a volcano. The colors melt into
each other in a most suggestive way, redolent with sex and Mallarme.
Debussy’s Iberia moves from visual to auditory to olfactory allusion
with adept coloration and Spanish rhythms which sway and sachet through
your speakers. The La Mer is fairly straightforward, perhaps the most
prosaic reading in terms of the exhilaration that pervades everything
else in this set. Franck’s D Minor Symphony receives a moody,
introverted reading; at times the music almost stops, only to gain
renewed, petulant vigor. The Rotterdam Philharmonic oboe is a
dark-toned instrument, and the heaviness barely thins out for the
Allegretto section. Along with a driven finale, Allegro non troppo, we
can appreciate the seamless transitions of tempo Munch elicits from his
players, the fruit of an apprenticeship the conductor served under
Wilhelm Furtwaengler.

–Gary Lemco

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