Tribute to Charles Munch – A Strasburger in Boston = Works of BERLIOZ, FRANCK, ST.-SAENS, ROUSSEL, DEBUSSY, FAURE, RAVEL – Praga Digitals

by | Mar 31, 2017 | Classical Reissue Reviews

A generous sampling of the ‘Munch touch’ in Boston in the French music he championed. 

Tribute to Charles Munch – A Strasburger in Boston = BERLIOZ: Romeo et Juliette Symphonie – Queen Mab Scherzo; FRANCK: Le Chasseur Maudit; SAINT-SAENS: La Princesse Jaune Overture, Op 30; Le Rouet d’Omphale. Op. 31; DEBUSSY: Fetes fr. Trois Nocturnes; FAURE: Penelope Prelude; RAVEL: La Valse; ROUSSEL: Suite in F Major – Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch – Praga Digitals PRD 250 340, 80:17 (12/9/16) [Distr. by Harmonia mundi/PIAS] ****:

The wizardry of Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony in French repertory finds eloquent representation on this extensive program, from various discs originally recorded 1951-1961 for RCA Victor. Particularly endearing, we have the 15 January 1951 recording of the Saint-Saens 1872 Overture La Princesse Jaune (on LM 1701), a one-act opera that utilizes pentatonic scales to suggest the courtly life of Japan in a dream-vision, although Netherlands provides the setting of the drama. The BSO achieves a lithe, entirely flexible vocal line and resplendently transparent hues, including an amazing bottom and top line in the full complement of strings.  No less brisk, the symphonic poem Le Rouet d’Omphale, (1871) invokes the mythological enslavement of Hercules to a Lydian queen’s spinning wheel. A favorite of Sir Thomas Beecham and Dimitri Mitropoulos, the music receives a pungent reading from Munch (rec. 4 November 1957 and offered on LM 2292 “The French Touch”), whose brass, winds, and harp aid the strings in celebrating Saint-Saens’ facility in vibrant instrumental color.

The disc opens with a Munch specialty, the Scherzo de la Reine Mab from the 1839 Op.17 Romeo et Juliette Symphonie (rec. 23 April 1961). Through an extended use of divided strings and remarkable wind coloration, Berlioz strikes a magical, even eerie account of a passing remark by Mercutio about the fairy-goddess and her enchantments for lovers. The hunting horns that appear late in the score preface effects that Berlioz would again invoke in his Les Troyens.  As much indebted to Mendelssohn as it looks forward to Wagner, this music testifies to the light, dazzling luminosity of the BSO when Munch inspires the players. Martin Bookspan and I, however, still award the berries in recorded performance to Mitropoulos, who adds just a touch more bravura demonism.

It was Sir Thomas Beecham whose CBS record first alerted me to the Cesar Franck 1882 symphonic poem Le Chasseur Maudit, after a ballad by Gottfried August Burger. Munch and BSO (rec. 19 February 1958) deliver what RCA Victor used to flaunt as a “stereo spectacular,” especially vibrant in the brass and woodwinds, as well as in the deep, rich sonority of the strings. In four distinct sections, the piece works up a terrific momentum, once the malediction and demons’ pursuit of the blasphemous huntsman, the Count of the Rhine, begins. The combination of absolutely brilliant scoring and whirlwind, macabre interjections more than suggests that this piece should provide a subject of “classic animation,” on the order of Fantasia and its various sequels.

Those of us owning a representative collection of Charles Munch LPs recall our savoring his Ravel, especially his Mother Goose Suite and the 1920 La Valse, the latter (rec. 23 Aril 1961) here restored in alternately veiled and solid colors. The BSO strings and bassoons wend their way into our awareness of the fin-de-siecle Viennese sensibility of entropy and spiritual exhaustion, as the waltz form congeals, blooms, wavers, and then explodes. No less volatile, Debussy’s middle Nocturne, Fetes (1899), depicts an approaching festival whose procession culminates and then passes away, realized in layers of gray, almost the equivalent of Leonardo’s sfumato.  The 1927 Suite in F of Albert Roussel (8 March 1958 in live performance) has about it a feeling “in olden style” but set in a modern harmonic syntax.  More’s the pity that Serge Koussevitzky, who premiered the work, did not set it down to shellac with this same orchestra, which had been very much his.

The icing on this Gallic cake comes in the form of the other live performance, that of Gabriel Faure’s Prelude to his 1912 opera Penelope (rec. 12 December 1959), led in somber, stately colors that reflect the influence of Richard Wagner. Moody and beset by Faure’s notion of leitmotif, the music casts a melancholy, mesmeric glow on the Homeric theme. The entire disc, remastered by Alexandra Evrard, rings with rapturous authority.

—Gary Lemco


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