DEBUSSY: La Damoiselle Élue / Victoria de los Angeles, sop; Carol Smith, mezzo; Radcliffe Choral Society. Le Martyre de Saint Sebastien / Phyllis Curtin, Catherine Akos, sop; Florence Kopleff, mezzo; New England Conservatory Chorus. POULENC: Gloria / Adele Addison, sop; Chorus Pro Musica. VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 8. BARBER: Adagio for Strings / Boston Symphony Orch., Charles Munch, conductor. HONEGGER: Symphony No. 2, “Symphonie pour cordes” / Orch. de la Societe de Concerts Conservatoire, Charles Munch, conductor / Urania WS 121.262-2 (2 CDs)
Here’s a strange reissue from one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century—though he was not completely appreciated as such in Boston. The release is strange primarily due to its claims: “The two discs in this new release contain authentic rare recordings, including two world premiere performances. Featuring works by Debussy, Poulenc, Vaughan Williams, Honegger, and Barber, this is truly a diverse programme of live performances. All of the recordings were recorded live between the years 1942 and 1961. These recordings of the Poulenc works were made under the guidance of the composer.”
Now to apply the Truth in Advertising law to these claims. First of all, though the program is a bit diverse for Munch, containing a work by Samuel Barber and a major but little-known symphony by Ralph Vaughan Williams, most of these recordings are by no means rare. In fact, most of them are not live performances, and the Honegger Symphony is not a “world premiere performance,” just the first recording. On top of that, the only two live performances in the entire set are the Poulenc Gloria and the Vaughan Williams symphony. All the others are commercial RCA Victor recordings, and in fact the two Debussy works have been reissued ad infinitum over the past 40 years.
So why should you wish to own this set? Well, mostly for the 1942-44 recording of the Honegger Symphony and the two live Boston Symphony performances of the Poulenc Gloria and the Vaughan Williams Symphony No. 8. The latter is an extremely obscure work here in America, mostly because it calls for extra percussion which only plays in one movement and therefore costs orchestras extra money to perform it…plus, it’s not well known or popular in the U.S. Indeed, there is only one other performance or recording in existence by an American orchestra, a 1956 account by the New York Philharmonic under Sir John Barbirolli who was, of course, British. This is its only performance by a non-British orchestra AND conductor, and for many people this is the greatest performance of it. As for the Gloria, Poulenc wrote to friends that Munch was much better in the second performance than the first—in this world premiere account, the first movement is somewhat stodgy and the last somewhat glib—but he was absolutely bowled over by the singing of soprano Adele Addison. To the best of my knowledge, this seems to be the only commercial CD release of the Gloria and the 1942-44 “Disque Gramophone” recording of the Honegger Symphony No. 2 (not to be confused with his French National Orchestra performance of the 1960s).
But—and in all objectivity and fairness, I must point this out—you can obtain all three of these rare recordings elsewhere. The Honegger Symphony can be streamed (or recorded) from YouTube here, and the exact same recording can be downloaded either as high-quality mp3s or as FLAC files here or here. The Poulenc Gloria (dating from January 20, 1961) can be streamed or downloaded from YouTube here, or from an alternate source here. As for the Vaughan Williams, this has been issued on CD by Pristine Classical (PASC 368), and although it is only a single disc and not a two-fer, you can order it here…or, once again, you can stream or download it for free on YouTube.
Thus you are left with some choices and perhaps a bit of confusion. But this is the new world order of recordings, and if the record companies don’t like it they can just back off and let the collectors who like to share old stuff pass it along like this. After all, how many people in the entire world do you think are going to want these performances? Even if you add perhaps 2,000 names to the number of Charles Munch lovers in the world, you probably won’t even top 20,000 people.
Which is a shame, because all of these are outstanding performances. Considering the place and time of recording—France during the period of the Vichy Government—Munch’s account of the Honegger Second is a superbly moody and passionate performance of a very sad symphony. Except for the first movement of the Poulenc Gloria, everything on this set moves at a good pace and benefits from Munch’s unusual combination of discipline and laxity, fire and elegance. He was not a conductor who much believed in rehearsals; in fact, several times he called the rehearsals off and went out to have lunch at a fine restaurant or play golf instead. This eventually ticked off the BSO board so much that they refused to renew his contract at the end of the 1961-62 season, replacing him with the steady, workaday but utterly pedestrian Erich Leinsdorf. I can tell you from personal experience that Leinsdorf’s BSO recordings sat, vegetated and collected dust on record store shelves throughout the 1960s (they couldn’t even give away his recording of the Mendelssohn Midsummer Night’s Dream Music for $1.99 when it was cut out, in part because the performance was so lackluster and in part because it came in a huge “art book” presentation package that measured a foot across and two feet high). On the other hand, once the Munch-BSO recordings began to be reissued around 1967 or so, collectors snapped them up like hotcakes. The BSO board may have had fits over him, but the musical public always loved Munch.
Of course, the orchestra did occasionally tend toward slovenliness during his tenure. Possibly the worst Munch-BSO recording was that of Debussy’s La Mer, an extraordinarily difficult symphony that required the utmost in orchestral execution. The Munch tape was so bad that producer Richard Mohr had to have the orchestra return to the studio and record nearly a dozen passages over again, which were spliced in. If you listen to the recording through headphones, you can spot nearly all of these original analog splices. But at his best Munch was much like his idol Toscanini, and in fact I think he came closer to the legendary Italian maestro than did Fritz Reiner, despite the Hungarian’s habit of rehearsing his orchestra until their fingers were numb.
But I digress. Perhaps the most surprising success here is the Vaughan Williams symphony, and that on two counts: it’s a superbly crisp, lively account, and the score is far better than many American audiences, who don’t know much Vaughan Williams, would predict. Yet as I’ve said, as a total set this one has problems, and I’m positive that any dedicated Munch collector already has the Debussy and Barber pieces on their shelves. But if you’re the type of person who doesn’t want to bother downloading and burning the other pieces, you won’t regret buying it, because the rarities are really very good.
— © Lynn René Bayley 2016
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