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Jeremy Nicholas
Gramophone, September 2011

DEBUSSY, C.: La mer / Iberia / RAVEL, M.: Ma mere l’oye (Munch) (NTSC) ICAD5014
WAGNER, R.: Meistersinger von Nurnberg (Die) (excerpts) / FRANCK, C.: Symphony in D minor (Munch) (NTSC) ICAD5015

Rescued from a TV archive, Munch and his Bostonians live at Harvard

These are excerpts from the more than 150 live concerts broadcast by Boston’s public television station WGBH between 1955 and 1979. Legal issues have meant that most of the more than 100 transmissions that survive have never been seen since the day they went out on air. The mild-mannered Munch, who took over the reins of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in 1948 from the autocratic Koussevitzky, inherited what was arguably the finest orchestra in the world at that time. A more collegial figure, always mindful of his experience as an orchestral violinist, he is an unshowy but very watchable figure on the podium, his face often wreathed in a beatific smile, his arms, as Richard Dyer observes in his amiable booklet, flung wide “as if to embrace the music…souplesse for him is a greater virtue than precision”.

Of the three items on ICAD5015, orchestral excerpts from Act 3 of Die Meistersinger come first (Munch preferred this sequence of the Prelude, Dance of the Apprentices and Procession of the Mastersingers to the more popular Overture). Munch was noted for his performances of French music and the next item, from a year later (1961), is treasure indeed: Franck’s D minor Symphony, searing, warm-blooded and slightly brisker than Monteux’s benchmark recording made the same year with the Chicago Symphony. But while the visual element of the transmission is no more or less lacklustre than other broadcasts of the period (overhead shots are much favoured), the recorded sound as captured in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre and a strident brass section that rides roughshod over the strings make for less than ideal listening.

More French music completes the DVD—Fauré’s concert suite from the incidental music to Pelléas et Mélisande—but it is Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite (this Munch conducts with the score) and particularly Debussy’s Ibéria and La mer on ICAD5014 that are especially valuable. La mer was very much the Boston ensemble’s property (they gave the American premiere in 1907), while sitting among Munch’s players are Louis Speyer (cor anglais) and Rene Voisin (trumpet), both of whom had played in the world premiere of The Rite of Spring. In addition there are frequent shots of Doriot Dwyer (flute), then the only female section principal in any major American orchestra, appointed by Munch in 1952 (she retired in 1990). The picture quality deteriorates slightly as the vivid performance progresses, one which is a compliment to, but not a replacement for, Munch’s famous 1956 RCA recording.

Lynn René Bayley
Fanfare, July 2011

Charles Munch, originally a violinist, did not begin his conducting career until he was 41—then, as now, an extraordinarily late start to a career that would bring him international fame. He often cited Toscanini as his principal inspiration to conduct, but there were several differences in their approach to and style of conducting. Both preferred quick tempos, both knew how to build excitement from the softest pianissimo to the most thunderous forte, but whereas Toscanini was fastidious to a fault regarding orchestral clarity and exactitude of note values, Munch believed in under-rehearsing so as not to lose a feeling of spontaneity at a concert. He also preserved a very French sound in his orchestra: blended, somewhat fuzzy string tone and what one critic who lived through his era at Boston described to me as “blowsy” winds. Both conductors could create a surging feeling at fast tempos that was exhilarating, but with Toscanini the clarity was never lost; with Munch, the blowsy French sound rose up like a mushroom cloud. He conducted but one concert, at Toscanini’s invitation, with the NBC Symphony, a performance of Berlioz’s Symphonie Fantastique, whipped up to the point of frenzy like his early (mono) recording with the BSO. Toscanini was not pleased. “Is easy to make exciting at double tempo,” he said later—strange words from a conductor who, though he did not conduct at double tempo, often pushed the tempo up several metronome marks.

Due to contract wrangling between the BSO, the Munch estate, and anyone who had ever wanted to issue these concerts previously, this is their first release in a commercial video format—yet one more black mark against the unmitigated greed and stupidity of those who control classical music and do their level best to keep it out of the hands of ordinary people. Small wonder the music’s appeal has been strangled and diminished from a river in the 1940s to a mere trickle in the 2010s.

These DVDs are taken from kinescopes and not from film copies so that, even though six to 10 years later than the Toscanini TV concerts, they have much the same grainy, blurry quality. Yet Munch, like Toscanini, Strauss, Busch, and a very few others, is one of the more fascinating conductors to watch on the podium. He used a larger baton than Toscanini and a much larger one than Strauss or Reiner, who tended to prefer small sticks that looked like knitting needles, and his podium manner constantly alternates between controlled, measured movements like the former and emotional arm-waving reminiscent of Bernstein or Simon Rattle, though he did not dance on the podium. Generally speaking, Munch in his more animated moments raised the baton over his head and moved his entire body, including his conducting arm, in rhythm to the music. I suppose the BSO got used to this; in any event, they certainly responded well.

By the time of these concerts, 1958–61, he had at least slowed down from conducting things at “double tempo,” but still preferred swifter readings. Both the middle movement of Ibéria and portions of Ma Mère l’Oye reveal the opaque, slightly clouded sound that he could elicit from an orchestra, wholly apropos to French music. His idol never quite attempted the same sound, though he could achieve it on occasion, as in portions of some of his readings of La Mer and the “Dance of the Fairies” from Damnation de Faust. On the other hand, the opening movement of Ibéria, though crisp and well balanced, lacks some of the solid punch and visceral excitement that Toscanini could bring to bear on it.

The liner notes point out that the English horn is played by Louis Speyer, who was in the riot-racked world premiere of Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps in 1913, that René Voisin, whose son Roger is principal trumpet here, was in the same performance, and that violist Eugene Lehner had been a former member of the Kolisch String Quartet. Doriot Anthony Dwyer, the principal flutist, was the first woman musician in the BSO and, at the time Munch hired her in 1952, the only woman principal player in any major American orchestra.

Unlike the Toscanini broadcasts, where the camera only rarely leaves the conductor (except in Aida, where it focuses quite a bit on the singers), the Munch TV concerts travel more frequently around the orchestra, which is fine by me because it imparts greater visual interest. The booklet apologizes in advance for the condition of La Mer, filmed during live broadcast, because the original film had apparently deteriorated considerably by the time it reached ICA for digital restoration. To my eyes, it is darker but only a little less well focused than the other two pieces visually, and the aural content is just fine—good, clear mono sound. I was particularly interested to hear this performance because Munch’s RCA recording of this supremely difficult piece is an absolute mess—so heavily spliced that, even today in digital reissues, you can hear the breaks quite clearly, and even with such heavy splicing, the playing is imprecise to the point of annoyance. Yet here, in an obviously one-take-or-nothing performance, the BSO plays very cleanly and with great feeling. Munch’s tempos are very similar to those of Toscanini’s last (studio) recording of the work, which was more relaxed than his earlier incarnations with the New York Philharmonic, NBC Symphony, and Philadelphia orchestras. Indeed, I find it interesting to hear, in this live performance at least, that Munch’s orchestral balance is actually cleaner, more discrete between sections, and less opaque than both his commercial recording of this work and the other two concerts on this DVD—though he does not create quite the same magic in the concluding pages of the first movement that Toscanini and Dutoit do, rising from a hushed piano to an almost overwhelming forte (though I admit that this may be due to the limitations of TV film sound of his time). The second movement, “Play of the Waves,” has tremendous animation and an almost feverish sound—slightly slower (nine seconds) than the Toscanini recording, yet with a greater undercurrent of restlessness. “Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea” is virtually identical in both phrasing and feeling to the Toscanini recording.

I have no hesitation in recommending this DVD as an outstanding document of Munch’s work with the BSO in French music.

Roger Hecht
American Record Guide, July 2011

The performances are typical Munch-Boston—dramatic, with fast fasts and slow slows…There is nothing spoken and no screen information except for work titles. The notes by former Boston Globe music critic, Richard Dyer, provide some interesting history of the Munch-BSO partnership.

To read the complete review, please visit American Record Guide online.

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