VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 8; RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G; D’INDY: Symphony on a French Mt. Air – Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer, p./ Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch – Pristine Audio

by | Dec 26, 2012 | Classical Reissue Reviews

VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 8 in D Minor; RAVEL: Piano Concerto in G; D’INDY: Symphony on a French Mountain Air – Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer, piano/ Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch – Pristine Audio PASC 368, 76:25 [avail. in various formats from] ****:
Besides the reissue of two marvelous performances (28 March 1958) that feature Charles Munch (1891-1968) in French repertory from commercial RCA Records, Pristine adds a real find, the live Berkshire Festival performance of the Vaughan Williams 1953 Symphony No. 8 in D Minor from 2 August 1958, its debut in that city, having come to America – after its world premiere by dedicatee Sir John Barbirolli in Manchester 2 May 1956 – by way of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (5 October 1956). Vaughan Williams allowed this symphony to be numbered; and despite its relative brevity among his symphonic oeuvre, he demonstrates an experimental attitude in regard to scoring and textures. Rather like Sibelius, Vaughan Williams in his old age found a kind of exotic sense of color, here adding glockenspiel, tubular bells, vibraphone, xylophone, and three tuned gongs to enhance the sound of the outer movements.  If the orchestration is lush or extravagant, the use of formal procedures finds a chaste, conservative character behind the colors: the sonata-form, chorale, and variations all old friends of the composer.
Munch finds the opening, a Fantasia subtitled Variazioni senza tema or “seven variations in search of a theme,” less a musical parallel to Pirandello than a forceful etude based on two rising fourths. One theme, a variation in A Minor for strings, harp, oboe, and cello, derives from the initial motif but has its own affect. The trumpet work—I assume Roger Voisin—conveys decided force throughout the symphony. The second movement Scherzo alla Marcia, scored only for woodwinds and brass, combines three themes in a Hindemith style, aggressive and stylishly and contrapuntally idiomatic. The third movement is all strings, a Cavatina in E Minor with strong ties to a passion motif we find in Bach: “O Sacred head.” Both principal violin and cello share elegiacally in the evolution of the main melodic line. The last movement asks the BSO to engage in its favorite activity: an energetic toccata for orchestra. Joyful, though marked by some minor-mode asides, the music embraces another chorale tune, “O valiant heart” as a source of emotional optimism. Munch and his galvanized forces impart the heroic temper on the bustling intricacies of this movement, a strong analogue for Walton’s Partita for Orchestra. The music concludes with a loud, potent coda, rare in Vaughan Williams except for his equally daring Fourth Symphony in F Minor. Broadcast sound is quite good.
Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer (1925-2001) serves up two fine readings of the Gallic side of this restoration: RCA at the time had no contract pianist whose repertory embraced Ravel, whereas CBS had Robert Casadesus, who also played the D’Indy and recorded it twice. Oddly, Casadesus recorded Ravel’s Left-Hand Concerto and eschewed the G Major. Schweitzer, by the way, was related to Munch by marriage. She plays exquisitely in the Ravel, a performance that well represents the French School we know from Monique Haas and Vlado Perlemuter. Her jazz riffs prove as commanding as the cantabile phrases she elicits for the suave Adagio assai for piano and English horn.  The last movement Presto hustles with the requisite verve and coordinated vitality we want in terms of pure Ravel dazzle. The interjections from the BSO winds and brass, the irreverent dissonances, along with Schweitzer’s febrile keyboard work, make a handsomely debonair mix.
The BSO English horn raises his voice again to lead off D’Indy’s popular 1886 Symphony on a French Mountain Air, a hybrid concertante work that takes its cues from the Ardeche region of southern France. Strongly influenced by Franck and Liszt, it utilizes the idea of “transformation of theme” on a richly vocal level, possibly treating the opening material as Wagnerian leitmotif.  At the time of Schweitzer’s collaboration with Munch, her rivals on American records were Casadesus and Ciccolini. Her approach is studied, lean, and polished without undue bravura. Once trumpet Voisin makes his appearance felt in the first movement, the Roman pageant implicit in the piece explodes, and the sensuous wash of the BSO flows effortlessly over the keyboard. The latter two movements by way of Schweitzer remind us of the debt D’Indy owes Cesar Franck, who once told him, “You are very gifted, but you don’t do anything.” Perhaps this symphony with piano obbligato pays homage to Franck’s own Variations symphoniques which had appeared only a year prior, in 1885. [These are all early genuine stereo, and the two Ravel works are taken from remastered 45 rpm Classic Records vinyl, so the fidelity should be exceptional, along with any ticks, pops and possible off-center pressings totally corrected…Ed.]
—Gary Lemco

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