Once one is finished admiring Munch’s performances and recordings of the standard orchestral repertoire—Beethoven, Mendelssohn, Schubert, Berlioz, Brahms, Franck and Ravel—it is time to branch out into the more esoteric corners of his output, and when one does he or she will be surprised to find some wonderful performances of remarkable works not on the beaten path.
Of course, to a certain extent Berlioz was off the beaten path when he began performing and recording it in abundance during the 1950s. Prior to that, only the Symphonie Fantastique and Roman Carnival Overture were fairly well known, particularly through the recordings of Felix Weingartner and Pierre Monteux. When Arturo Toscanini conducted Roméo et Juliette with the New York Philharmonic in 1942, the symphony was virtually unknown outside of France (this was its American premiere) and not much known or liked within it. But Toscanini, though giving superb performances of Roméo and Harold en Italie, pretty much specialized in those works. For whatever reason, the Italian conductor disliked the Symphonie Fantastique and had little or no interest in most of Berlioz’ other output (although he always wanted to conduct a full performance of La Damnation de Faust but could not find the tenor who satisfied his requirements in the music). But most of Munch’s Berlioz recordings with the Boston Symphony, considered landmarks in their day, have been surpassed over the years: Roméo et Juliette by Carlos Païta, Damnation de Faust by Seiji Ozawa, and the Requiem by not only Leonard Bernstein but by his own later self (the Bavarian Radio Orchestra & Chorus recording of July 1967 is far superior to his Boston Symphony version of April 1959). In my view, the best Munch recordings of Berlioz are the concert overtures, his studio recording of L’Enfance du Christ and the 1962 stereo version of the Symphonie Fantastique (although Ozawa, again, came close to this in his first recording).
Happily, there are some superb reissues of out-of-center material by Munch that exemplify his keen musical mind and his willingness to take risks. Some of these later recordings also supersede (like the 1967 Berlioz Requiem) his performances at Boston. Chief among these is his May 1962 performance with the Orchestre de l’ORTF of Debussy’s La Mer, vastly superior to his splotchy and highly-spliced December 1956 studio recording. Here, all those passages that sounded nervous and jittery or just plain wrong in the Boston recording come across as natural and flowing. This is available on Auvidis’ Valois series V-4828 in the “Charles Munch Edition” along with an excellent performance of the lesser-known Fantaisie pour Piano et Orchestre with the excellent Nicole Henriot-Schweitzer, Munch’s niece, on piano. The fly in the ointment here is this performance of Ibéria, played with surprising detachment and an almost chamber orchestra-like sound, completely wrong for this music.
The Valois series also includes some wonderful later performances of Honegger and Dutilleux, whose excellent but tonally ambiguous music is still not well known in the West. Valois V-4831, for instance, presents us with later recordings (in my view, more idiomatic than the ones he made in Boston) of Honegger’s Second and Fifth Symphonies as well as the same composer’s Le Chant de Nigamon and Pastorale d’été, each of them skillfully paced and energized, while V-4830 combines Honegger’s first symphony with Dutilleux’s second. Some of these Valois releases, alas, are in monophonic sound—apparently, someone in France forgot to set up stereo recording equipment—and thus the resultant recordings, though excellent in terms of performance, lack the proper impact due to the restricted sound. Among these is a disc of Henri Roussel’s Third and Fourth Symphonies on V-4832: good performances but mediocre sound quality, and for what? Ernest Ansermet made superb stereo recordings of these same two works for Decca-London in 1956, and they are still benchmarks in these works.
Moving away from the Valois series, we find two other discs of exceptional interest, unfortunately split with other conductors. First of these is Musidisc 461745, on which you can hear his scintillating performance of Henri Barraud’s Third Symphony, another work in the Honegger style with its biting rhythms and piquant harmony, as well as an excellent performance of Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 2. Both are with the Orchestre de l’ORTF from a December 1961 recording session in stereo. Alas, the third work on this disc, the Roussel Piano Concerto, is conducted with stultufying dullness by Munch’s nephew, Serge Baudo (the only man in Metropolitan Opera history to send a 7:00 p.m. start for Gounod’s Faust well past midnight, incurring overtime for all the singers and musicians in the orchestra). The other disc well worth seeking out is, perhaps, even more unusual, a November 1958 recording of American composer Easley Blackwood’s Symphony No. 1 (composed in 1955 when Blackwood was a mere 23 years old). This is currently available on Çedille
The Blackwood Symphony is easily as complex as the music of Honegger, who Munch had to cut back on severely during his tenure in Boston (the only ones I’ve been able to track down were one performance of La Danse de Morts in December 1952, the studio recordings of the Second and Fifth Symphonies, and a live performance of the Third Symphony when the BSO was on tour in Prague in September 1956). Blackwood describes the symphony as
one “in which material heard early on often recurs in various transformations in later movements,” using such devices as “a seven-note motive contained within a minor third” at the end of the first movement…all of which is certainly true from a technical standpoint but does not begin to describe the emotional impact of this music, particularly as Munch performs it. In essence, Blackwood has here combined the type of formal structure found in, for instance, the Franck Symphony with the harmonic language and melodic construction of two of his teachers, Olivier Messiaen and Paul Hindemith. Indeed, if I were forced to choose one of these composers as his model, I would say that the symphony more closely resembles Hindemith in that the harmonies iron themselves out and do not stay “tangled up” as was so often the case with Messiaen, although the rapid bitonal melody that arises at 2:17 in the first movement combines features of both: German sonorities with Gallic rhythm and momentum. The last movement has a bleak atmosphere about it that could easily have been lost in the hands of a less sensitive conductor.
In short, Munch’s performance is indeed classic, so much so that when Çedille Records issued Blackwood’s First and Fifth Symphonies on CD they chose the Munch performance of the First. (The Fifth, which resembles the First musically in many ways, is conducted by James DePriest, a good, solid musician but one lacking the kind of musical imagination that Munch had in abundance.) On LP, Blackwood’s symphony was paired with the Second Symphony of Alexei Haieff, a work—and a performance—that disappeared over the decades, only to resurface in recent years on Pristine Classics PASC-417. But this Munch performance of Blackwood’s music is a must-have for any of his admirers with a taste for modern scores.
And now that you have been good and swallowed your musical equivalent of fish tonic, you are entitled to a bonbon for dessert. And what better bonbon than Moritz Rosenthal’s arrangement of Offenbach’s music known popularly as Gaîte Parisienne? Yes, I know there is the Arthur Fiedler stereo recording from 1954, a classic of the phonograph from the time of its first appearance (Fiedler’s mono recording of the same score, it seems, became RCA Victor’s very first Red Seal LP release in 1950). Munch conducts the work similarly but, being Munch, not exactly the same. He introduces elements of rubato into the music, so necessary to preserving its French spirit (despite the composer’s German birth and heritage), that Fiedler performs in strict tempo. Both are good, but the Munch version, recorded with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in December 1965 for Decca-London’s “Phase 4 Stereo” series (high-definition audio quality of its time), has extra zing to it. OK, so it’s just frou-frou music. So what? The way Munch tears into it, it may as well be the Beethoven “Eroica.” So just relax, put your musical acumen on hold for a while, and enjoy. This is available as a CD from Universal Music on Decca 478 6769.
Charles Munch “died with his boots on,” so to speak, suffering a fatal heart attack in his hotel suite on November 8, 1968 while on tour in America. Unlike Toscanini, the Kleibers, Böhm or other conductors who adapted their musical style to the sound of the orchestra they were working with, Munch was one of those—like Stokowski and Karajan—who imposed his very specific sound on each orchestra he conducted. In his case, it was a very French sound: lean, bright string tone, slightly “blowsy” brass, and sweet winds. By this method he converted the Boston Symphony from the plush, rich sound that Serge Koussevitzky created to a French orchestra, and he did the same when conducting the New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, USSR State Symphony, Royal Philharmonic or the New Philharmonia. Yet in his case musical excellence, not show-offiness of sound, was always his first priority, and the recordings testify to that. Just think of him as a jolly Toscanini or a cheerful Rodzinski. He was truly one of the greats.
— © 2016 Lynn René Bayley