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Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2011

Charles Munch gained a well-deserved reputation as a conductor of French music, but to my way of thinking he was as great, if not greater, in Beethoven. Here, he imparted some but not all of the characteristically French orchestral attributes one heard in other music, a certain beau élégance in certain phrases, but also a much cleaner, less blowsy sound than one heard in French music. It’s rather sad, and more than a little surprising, to discover that he never left a recording of Beethoven’s second symphony, a work one would think would appeal to him greatly but which he only played once with the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Thus, we cannot amass a complete Beethoven cycle conducted by him.

This DVD, however, provides us with an excellent and fascinating interpretation of the Fourth Symphony, one that he did not record for RCA, and an equally fine, razor-sharp reading of incidental music from The Creatures of Prometheus (the same selections conducted by Toscanini with the BBC Symphony in a 1939 broadcast concert). As noted in the DVD of music by Ravel and Debussy, Munch varies his podium manner from controlled and measured (even, at one point, stopping conducting completely during the cello solo in the Adagio) to animated and excited, his baton flying above his head while his body moves in time to the music.

The liner notes describe this performance of the Fourth Symphony as being “trim, fiery,” and “a lot of fun,” which adjectives describe many of Munch’s Beethoven performances. Like Furtwängler and Toscanini, he fully captures the mysterious quality of the opening Adagio, but when he moves into the Allegro vivace he is far more bucolic and whimsical than either. Oddly, this symphony was also one of the few really outstanding performances that his successor, Erich Leinsdorf, recorded with the same orchestra. I’m not sure why, but the contrasts of feeling, mood, and tempo in this symphony tend to daunt even some of the greatest conductors. The second movement is one of Beethoven’s trickiest, using a syncopated rhythm reminiscent of Spanish music. Toscanini got it right once, in his 1939 Beethoven cycle with the NBC Symphony, and Munch gets it right here, but few other conductors do. In the Scherzo, the equally difficult but stylistically different syncopations are caught pretty well if a little slurred over. The middle section is played at a more relaxed tempo, very gradually increasing as Munch moves back into the quicker pace of the opening. The last movement, typically of his Beethoven, combines power and wittiness in a performance that simply soars.

Not too surprisingly, considering his oft-repeated debt to the older conductor, Munch’s performance of the Fifth Symphony is virtually a clone of Toscanini’s 1952 telecast version. (Munch’s studio recording of the “Eroica” is nearly identical in tempo and phrasing to Toscanini’s 1949 recording, minus the repeat in the third movement.) It may be my DVD player, but in the slow movement I hear several sketchy, stop-start noises that interfere with the music. There is a bit more rubato in the second half of the third movement, and the opening three notes of the finale are played more broadly than Toscanini, but the excitement and jubilation are all there, though he keeps whipping up the music in its closing minutes until the finale is virtually a blur of sound. This, alas, is not one of his finer moments.

For whatever reason—knowing that these performances would be televised, or simply because the DVD editors chose wisely from various telecasts—there is only a little of the technical imprecision of some of Munch’s studio recordings in these live performances. He was on his best behavior, it seems, though eventually he was dismissed in favor of the more technically meticulous (but rarely inspired) Leinsdorf after the 1961–62 season. Time, however, has been kind to the Munch years in Boston, and these marvelous performances are good reflections of what he could accomplish when inspired.



Tim Perry
MusicWeb International, April 2011

The new independent label, ICA Classics, has brought to market three DVDs of Munch in concert with his Boston Symphony Orchestra. This Beethoven DVD and its companions (a DVD of Debussy and Ravel, and a DVD of Franck, Fauré and Wagner) capture live broadcasts that have not been seen since they first went to air in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

I have always been in two minds about Munch’s Beethoven. His Boston Beethoven 9 for RCA…is one of my favourite recordings of the work. It is unsubtle, oddly up close and spotlit and never plumbs the depths of piano let alone pianissimo, but it is absolutely thrilling from first note to last and very moving. His Beethoven 5, however, is one of the most enduring disappointments of my CD collection. I pull it out every year or so to see if this time I will find something magical in the performance, and each year I hear scrappy and dynamically flat orchestral playing and an interpretation lacking in nuance.

What a delight it was, then, to listen to and watch the performance of the 5th that closes this DVD. Here is the Munch reading I had been listening for in vain: a dramatic and rhetorical performance; a performance that builds inexorably towards the final peroration; a performance of contrast held together by flexible but fundamentally solid tempi; a performance abounding in spontaneous touches, like the extra space and freedom he affords his oboist, Ralph Gomberg, for his solo in the first movement. It is wonderful to hear, and also great fun to watch Munch’s facial expressions and the way his baton drops when the dynamics do so that he seems to be conducting with shoulder movements rather than the invisible stick that is beating time around his knees.

As good as the 5th is, it is the 4th that for me is the highlight here. Munch cuts an unexpectedly dour figure in the adagio introduction to the first movement of the Fourth Symphony. If it weren’t for the expansive baton strokes and the white hair, you could almost believe you were watching Fritz Reiner. The allegro ignites, and Munch seems himself once more. Is it a trick of the lens, or is his baton bent a little towards its tip? My goodness, he does shake it about a bit in the allegros! Beethoven’s games with rhythm in this symphony are right up Munch’s street. His knack of pushing a performance forward and building momentum suits this symphony beautifully. There is a bounce and swagger to the third movement that you just won’t hear elsewhere and the finale fizzes.

The music from Beethoven’s Prometheus ballet is an interesting inclusion. The liner-notes make much of the fact that Munch hardly ever played this music, so the conductor’s most ardent admirers will no doubt need to acquire this DVD to round out their collected discographies. The Overture receives a scintillating performance, right from the whip-crack of the opening staccato chords. I was less impressed by the other two selections from the ballet, though the adagio shows off the orchestra’s flute, bassoon, cello and harp. The mono sound does their magnificent playing full justice.

The picture quality of the monochrome source tapes is variable. The Prometheus footage has a tendency to fog and fish bowl curvature. The opening of the Fourth Symphony is disfigured by static lines. The camera work itself is conventional, but the editing strikes a fair balance between footage of the orchestra and the man on the podium. Fortunately the mono sound is clear and carries fair detail. Only at the close of the 5th does the music sound a little cramped in its single channel.

Anyone with an interest in Munch and his magnificent Boston band will find this DVD fascinating.






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7:29:06 PM, 30 July 2014
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