Charles Munch Conducts Romantic Mast Erworks
Import, Remastered, Box Set
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- German pressings of the immense Sony Classical Masters Catalog in smart, desirable and collectible multi-disc editions - The Sony catalog is replete with legendary artists and many of the greatest recordings of the classical repertoire - Box fronts feature large, prominently displayed photo of the featured artist - Slender, shelf-friendly boxes; CD's housed in space-saving slipsleeves
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Notwithstanding this pedigree, Munch's performance style seems to me to owe more to the example of Furtwaengler's great rival Toscanini: tempi are quick (sometimes almost breathless), articulation is brilliant, accents are strong, and rhythms are sharply projected. Certainly this is distinguished music-making and very, very exciting. (For example, if you think the Brahms First Piano Concerto is a massive, somewhat stodgy essay in musical gloom, wait till you hear Munch and the young Gary Graffman tear through it. Their incredibly thrilling performance will instantly remind you that Brahms was a very young man when he wrote that concerto!)
Sony/RCA by-and-large have produced sonically handsome CD transfers of recordings that date back, in most cases, to the late 1950s. All are stereo except for one fine-sounding mono CD that contains cherishable performances of Schumann's Genoveva Overture and Brahms's Second Piano Concerto (with the great Arthur Rubinstein, no less). In fact, the only disappointing recording in the set is a harsh-sounding 1960ish stereo recording of Schubert's Second Symphony. I recall that Lp versions of that performance also sounded rough, so I suppose the problem lies with RCA's master tape. All the other recordings in this fabulous set are quite enjoyable technically; remarkable, considering that the originals date back 50 years and more. These few technical quibbles shouldn't keep anyone who is serious about music from purchasing this set. The only real problem I have is bitter disappointment that no one .... and I mean NO ONE .... today conducts with the kind of burning conviction that Munch brings to bear in these amazing, life-enhancing performances. Too bad that Sony/RCA offer no program notes, but that's a small disappointment as the price for this set is very reasonable, ridiculously cheap really. If this kind of music stirs your soul, run, don't walk, to buy this set!
CD 1/Mendelssohn Scottish Symphony; Violin Concerto (Jascha Heifetz); Capriccio Brilliante (Gary Graffman)
CD 2/Mendelssohn Italian & Reformation Symphonies; Scherzo from Octet for Strings
CD 3/Brahms Symphony No. 1/Tragic Overture
CD 4/Brahms Symphony No. 2 and Symphony No. 4
CD 5/Schubert Symphony No, 2/Brahms First Piano Concerto (Gary Graffman)
CD 6/Schubert Symphony No. 8 ('Unfinished') and Symphony No. 9 ('Great' C Major Symphony)
CD 7/Schumann Spring Symphony and 'Manfred' Overture
CD 8/Schumann 'Genoveva' Overture/Brahms Second Piano Concerto (Arthur Rubinstein)
peerless, magnificent playing of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO). Most classical music lovers know of Munch as one of the great-
est exponents of the French orchestral repertoire and justifiably so. But many either forget or do not know that he was born in
Alsace (Strasbourg, to be exact) in the late 20th century when that region was part of Germany and did not become part of France until after WWII and began his career as a violinist, even becoming concertmaster of the Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig for several
years, where he met Furtwangler among others. Munch's sympathies political and otherwise would remain French to the core for his entire life; however, his upbringing did immerse him in the German orchestral repertoire from Bach up to the 20th century - and the selections in the present box set attest to his persuasiveness in this field. The performances are for the most part utterly con-
vincing and committed and stand up to comparisons with better known recordings by the "superstar" conductors such as Karajan, Szell,
Klemperer,etc. So even if you have other recordings of these works, you will not regret having this set in your CD library. As this is a reissue, some of this music has been originally issued with othr couplings, but duplication is kept to a bare minimum as far as I can tell. I will now review each CD seperately giving concise critiques of each work.
CD 1: The Mendelssohn Symphony No.3 is probably the weakest intepretation in the set due to the excessive tempo fluctuations in the two outer movements which are eccentric to say the least - the two middle movements are fine, however. The Mendelssohn Violin Con-
certo is a true classic of interpretation largely due to Heifetz' unbelievably accurate and at the same time searching performance-
that the first movement is a bit rushed can be forgiven in light of the sucess of the whole - the last movement must be heard to be believed. The BSO and Munch accompany Heifetz with great force and featherweight elfin delicay when needed. The Capriccio Brilliant for Piano and Orchestra is not frequently recorded, so it is good to have this wonderful account with Gary Graffman a most con- vincing soloist. Note- the Mendelssohn concerto was originally isued with the Heifetz/Reiner account of the Beethoven Violin Concerto.
CD 2: More Medelssohn here. The Fourth and Fifth Symphonies are virtually perfect througout, and should please all listeners even with the stiff competition. If Szell/Cleveland is lighter and leaner in the Fourth, then the BSO's more robust approach works as well, giving this marvelous work an equally joyful, extroverted and technically accurate account while giving the somber second
movement its due as well. The Fifth Symphony is one of,if not the best performance of this work I have heard. Most conductors take
this symphony either too slow or too fast, especially in the outer movements. Not Munch - he maintains a perfect balance between
the extroverted and the sublime; just listen to the last movement and you will see what I mean. Lastly, this CD is rounded off by an
absolutely delightful account of the Scherzo from the Octet in E-Flat Major, a Munch specialty with the BSO. A splendid encore
CD 3: The Brahms First Symphony which begins this disc is 3/4 convincing.The last movement however is compromised by the opening, where the "chorale" whcih begins it is taken much too slowly thus making the subsequent accelerando sound sudden and unnatural.
Brahms was a Classically influenced composer, therefore the less the initial tempi are tampered with the better. The performance of the Tragic Oveture though is a breath of fresh air - Munch starts out like a racehorse at full gait and does not let up, the urgency
of this work superbly maintained. You are rightly out of breath at the conclusion. A magnificent account, one of the best.
CD 4: More Brahms, this time the Second and Fourth Symphonies. Here there is none of the eccentricity of tempi that marred the per-
formance of the Brahms First. In both symphonies on the present disc, Munch lets the music speak for itself as well it should. As a
result we have one of the sunniest and most lyrical accounts of the Second ever made, with a final movement that will blow you away
with its whirlwind-like impetus, The Fourth is just as convincing, with tempi that are taut and controlled, yet with just enough
flexibility to let the music breathe - none of the emotional excess that oftem mars this symphony. The final movement Passacaglia
(set of Variations) is most convincing, leading to a shattering conclusion that will leave you speechless. Both these interpreta- tations merit comparison with Karajan,Klemperer Szell and Carlos Kleiber - they really are that good!
CD 5: Schubert's Symphony No. 2 is one of his more lyrical and easygoing symphonies and is here given a suitably relaxed and genial
account which nevertheless keeps a jaunty spring in its step throughout the proceedings. The Bramhs Piano Concerto No.1 is the perfect foil to the Schubert. Interpretively, this is probably the finest account of this work currently available, and given the
competition this is saying something. Right from the very beginning of the openoing movement all involved give a truly explosive performance, releasing all their energy with volcanic fury and not letting up. The long middle movement is given a suitably tender
account, distracting us from what is to come, namely the last movement. And when it does, it is truly a wake-up call of the first
order, with playing from both orchestra and soloist that keep the tension going right to the exultant, fiery conclusion. Kudos to Munch, the BSO and soloist Gary Graffman for this titanic performance - even better than the Szell/Cleveland account with Rudolf
Serkin due to the more full-bodied and refined playing of the BSO. Graffman's magisterial playing is easily an equal to Serkin.
CD 6: More Schubert, here in the form of the compoesr's two most popular symphonies, the immortal Eighth(Unfinished) and the Ninth,
known for its "heavenly length" at almost one hour. Both of these works are given fully persuasive performances by Munch and the
BSO. The tempi in the Eighth are absolutely perfect and let the music flow naturally to each movements' respective conclusions - the BSO's otherworldly playing seals the deal here. No comparisons are necessary or needed. The performance of the Ninth is equal-
ly persuasive - all the movements are done as convincingly as can be humanly done. You just need to listen to be convinced. Yes, we
have the legendary recordings of this work by Furtwangler, Szell and Bohm, but Munch desrved to stand right next to them and he does!
CD 7 : On to Robert Schumann now and two his most popular works, the Symphony No.1 (Spring) and the Manfred Overture. The symphony
is here given by Munch and the BSO the most extroverted and sunniest version on recordings, the first movement goes right out of the gate and simply bubbles with irrepressible joie de vivre. The slow movement is suitably relaxed, the third movemment scherzo
stern but animated, and the last movement as happily unbuttoned an account as you will ever find. The Manfred Overture is given yet
another peerless reading - a suitably urgent, whirlwind account that recalls Bernstein's 1943 debut with the New York Philharmonic. Munch's account is equally persuasive with even better playing from the BSO and is a perfect foil to the "Spring" Symphony. Ano-
ther glorious disc!
CD 8 : The last disc in the set is yet another winner. A bracing, urgent performance of Schumann's Genoveva Overture precedes what must be the definitive performance of the Brahms Second Piano Concerto. With Arthur Rubinstein a peerless, fiery soloist and the usual peerless playing of the BSO (listen to the rapid passagework in the first movement); what more can I say. A fitting conclu- sion to a set that should be grabbed up by any true aficionado of orchestral and solo playing and a perfect document to the artis- try of Charles Munch, a conductor who reputation should be enhanced with the release of this set and the companion set Late Roman- tic Masterworks (to be reviewed soon).
My only complaint with this set is the bare-bones pakaging typical of so many budget releases these days. There are no liner notes of any kind, not even a bio, however brief, of Mr. Munch who was such a driving force with the BSO. Still, most of you may be familiar enough with the music within that this will hopefully not be a deterrent to buying this set. Do not hesitate - buy this before it goes out of print (which hnopefully it won't if Sony is smart)! You will not regret the purchase, especially at the low budget price.
P.S. Oxford University press has just released a brilliant biography of Charles Munch called, you guessed it Charles Munch written and edited by D. Kern Holoman. This is a perfect and timely complement to these recordings. Buy it! It is available on Amazon.
Most recent customer reviews
warm to the Heifetz cold (to me) Mendelssohn, and prefer other Schubert...Read more