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Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, December 2011

Three cheers for ICA Classics’s unearthing of this historic telecast, as well as many others from the same source. Charles Munch—le beau Charles to Boston audiences—knew Franck’s highly charged scores inside out and offers countless revelations in these superb and very valuable accounts. © MusicWeb International

Lawrence Hansen
American Record Guide, September 2011

…the BSO plays brilliantly…the performance Munch leads here makes the piece sound like something Beethoven might have produced if he’d had a “French Period”. From the ominous introduction to the first movement, to the blistering allegro, to the movement’s wild final pages, Munch leaves no doubt that this work, for him at least, is one of the great masterpieces.

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

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 never conducted a complete performance of any Wagner opera (indeed, he only conducted one opera in his life, after he left Boston, Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande), yet he did program Wagner overtures and orchestral excerpts. The act II Meistersinger Prelude has an appropriate dignity and quietude that bespeaks a great artist; and both the Dance of the Apprentices and Procession of the Meistersingers are played with precision and rhythmic élan. Just as it was unusual for German and Austrian audiences to get used to the Italian clarity of Toscanini’s Wagner, it takes a little adjustment to get used to Munch’s very French orchestral blend, with its sometimes cloudy strings and slightly blowsy winds and brass, yet in the end it is the interpretation that matters, and these excerpts are first-rate, sculpted with both care and passion. Munch smiles broadly and whirls his baton around his head and body as the orchestra launches into the dance. Perhaps not surprisingly, there is a kinship in his use of bright colors in this music to Toscanini’s famous 1937 Salzburg performance.

I was very curious to hear how this performance of the Franck symphony compares to his famous mono recording with the BSO. They are similar but not identical, having many little details changed between them, yet his overall conception remains—to my way of thinking—the ideal conception of this work. No matter how fine the performances of Toscanini, Monteux, Rattle, or any other conductor, none of them simulate (to my ears) the organ-like harmonics and shaping of the music. Indeed, one might say with some justification that Munch used the organ-like sonorities of the Franck symphony in his approach to all French music, from Berlioz down through the ages. One may or may not agree with this concept, but it was his aesthetic and he stuck by it. (As a note, it’s nice to see that by 1961 flutist Doriot Anthony Dwyer had improved both her dress and hairstyle from the 1958–59 performances.) One of the violinists, in the rear, is seen wearing sunglasses to cut down on the glare of the klieg lights. Perhaps not surprisingly, the 1961 sonics are considerably better than on the 1956 recording, brightening the colors of the winds and adding a far greater ambience to the overall performance.

Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande suite is new to me. The music is extremely interesting…

Rob Maynard
MusicWeb International, May 2011

Anyone who owns the Warner Music Vision DVD The art of conducting: legendary conductors of a golden era will have seen a brief, tantalising clip of Charles Munch conducting the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra in this work at 1957’s Prague Spring Festival. And now this newly released DVD account of the conductor with his own Boston Symphony Orchestra in concert at Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre in 1961—film hitherto secreted away in the vaults and unseen for legal reasons—elbows its way firmly into the select band of must-hear (and the very much smaller band of must-see) performances from that golden age of Franck D minor recordings.

From the very opening of the first movement, Munch builds up the tension inexorably, emphasising dynamic contrasts and then, once the dam has burst, driving the score along as if his life itself depended on it. After a flowing account of the central Allegretto where the musicians are clearly listening as intently to each other as if they were playing chamber music, the finale starts with a bang and then never lets up. This is a tremendously exciting account that knocks most of its rivals into a cocked hat.

The adrenalin may not be flowing quite so vigorously in the Wagner and Fauré items, but these are both carefully constructed and beautifully played accounts that show off the Bostonians’ talents much more effectively than some of the vinyl discs they were making at the time. Once again, the level of concentration among the players is quite apparent, to the extent that there were a few stretches where everyone was keeping so still that I thought the TV picture must have frozen.

But the charismatic, leonine figure of Munch—not for nothing referred to by the grande dames of Boston as le beau Charles—is anything but immobile. His craggy face communicates the widest range of moods to his players and he wields his long and heavy-looking baton with both grand, sweeping gestures and a rapier-like rapidity worthy of Errol Flynn at his finest.

Fortunately, the sound quality on these TV broadcasts from Boston’s WGBH public station is remarkably good, allowing us to hear the superbly rich, deep tones that Munch draws from the cellos at the opening of the Act 3 prelude to Die Meistersinger as well as the notably beautiful sounds he coaxes from both the brass and woodwinds shortly afterwards. The standard of sound reproduction never thereafter falls from that standard in either the Wagner or the Franck, although there is a slight but noticeable background crackling sound in the earliest recorded item, the Fauré, dating from 1959. The latter is inexplicably described as a “bonus” item on the disc, even though the other performances, lasting just 52 minutes or so in total, can hardly be said to amount to a full DVD ration.

Picture quality is, however, another issue. Once again, it is the Fauré that comes off worst. This recording is far darker than either of the later ones and the image is, quite frankly, sometimes rather difficult to make out amid all the gloom. Matters are not helped, either, by the fact that the TV director Whitney Thompson—and surely not, pace Richard Dyer’sgenerally excellent booklet notes, the broadcast’s producer Jordan Whitelaw—appears to have recently discovered the joys of superimposing images over each other, resulting in even more visual confusion. A degree of horizontal striation and, towards the end of the broadcast, one complete top-to-bottom roll of the screen of the sort familiar to anyone old enough to recall the days when television sets boasted horizontal hold and vertical hold dials, are left in place.

The WGBH technicians were clearly learning from their experiences, however, the 1960 Wagner recording is visually far better. They had increased the lighting levels, to the extent that several members of the orchestra can be spotted wearing dark glasses. In spite of the extra clarity, however, there are in fact hardly any bright whites or dark blacks to be seen. This is an instance where the term “black and white television” was a real misnomer as everything is actually merely some sort of degree of grey. An additional characteristic quite typical of the time is that the visual image sometimes disappears completely towards the edges of the screen.

Once again, though, just a year later in the 1961 Franck there has been some improvement and the black/white contrast is definitely more marked. Those horizontal lines do, it’s true, make a brief appearance in the last movement and there is also an odd moment, just before the musical focus switches to the harp in the last couple of minutes, where the picture seems to freeze for just a tiny fraction of a second. But those are not defects significant enough to affect the overall impact of this incandescent performance.

The directors of these transmissions, not only the aforesaid Mr Thompson but also David Davis and Greg Harney, do generally fine jobs. They are clearly well aware of the course of the music and plot the sequence of images accordingly. Apart from the Fauré’s annoying superimpositions and a too often repeated back-to-front pan across the violin desks in the Franck, the television direction never draws attention to itself which is the finest compliment one can make.

As I hope is apparent by now, this DVD amounts to a very significant musical record and, given that we are told that more than a hundred such broadcast performances from Boston, dating from 1955 to 1979 and led by Erich Leinsdorf, William Steinberg and Seiji Ozawa, as well as Munch, have been preserved, let us hope for even more to come.

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