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Charles Munch In New York - Debussy, Ravel, Roussel

Release Date: 11/27/2007 
Label:  Music & Arts Programs Of America Catalog #: 1208   Spars Code: AAD 
Composer:  Claude DebussyMaurice RavelAlbert Roussel
Conductor:  Charles Munch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony OrchestraPhilharmonic Symphony Orchestra
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Mono 
Length: 1 Hours 8 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

DEBUSSY Iberia. RAVEL Le tombeau de Couperin. Daphnis and Chloe: Suite No. 2. ROUSSEL Bacchus and Ariadne: Suite No. 2 1 Charles Munch, cond; NBC SO; New York PO 1 MUSIC & ARTS 1208, mono (68: 13) Live: New York 3/28/54; 1/2/49 1

Read more /> “He was a natural Boston conductor, flat-stomached and grey-haired, and he created hysteria, particularly in the female over fifty.” That was Virgil Thomson’s (presumably semi-facetious) assessment of Charles Munch, but it might be fairer to say that the “hysteria” he created was spread over a wider swath of the population. There’s a DVD of Munch conducting music of Debussy and Ravel back in 1962. Part way into the second movement of La mer you can catch the hint of a wicked gleam in his eyes as he smiles and starts to whip up the tempo. As his baton slashes the air, the Boston Symphony Orchestra, apparently used to such whims on the part of its retiring music director, takes the tempo change in stride and dispatches the music quite brilliantly. It was not always so. Munch’s distaste for intensive rehearsing and his inclination to wing it in the presence of an audience may have given some of his performances a spontaneity and charge that they might not have had, otherwise. This tendency also sometimes resulted in dirty intonation and untidy ensemble. I hope Bostonians appreciated what a unique maestro they had on their hands. After him came no deluge but several decades of sober objectivity, which has its virtues but few charms.

Three of the performances on this CD come from an NBC Symphony Orchestra concert of March 28, 1954, in which Munch served as an emergency replacement for Arturo Toscanini, who had canceled. The following week, Toscanini gave what turned out to be his last concert, although he had not intended this to be so. Munch chose pieces that were specialties of his, French standards that he had conducted many times. With the possible exception of the Roussel, the orchestra probably knew them well. I know: French conductors aren’t supposed to be much good in German music, so Munch reissues tend to emphasize French music. The problem with such reissues is that they make him seem like a conductor of narrower culture than was the case. He could be a sympathetic interpreter of the German classics as well as assorted music of other nationalities. Inevitably, some will credit his Alsatian upbringing for this. He was born in Strasbourg (then Strassburg) Germany in 1891. His father was an organist and choral conductor. His brother, Fritz (who made a few 78s), was also a conductor and teacher at the Strassburg Conservatory. Charles took up the violin and, typically, studied with both Lucien Capet in Paris and Carl Flesch in Berlin. During World War I, he was a sergeant in the German army and, after the war, eventually became concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra, a position he vacated in 1932 to return to France, where he decided to pursue a conducting career. His wife, a member of the Nestlé Chocolate family, was wealthy enough to rent a hall and an orchestra for his debut. By the mid 1930s, he was making recordings for several companies. Between 1938 and 1942, he recorded the Ravel Concerto for the left hand three times (Jacqueline Blancard, 1938; Alfred Cortot, 1939; Jacques Fevrier, 1942), which must be some sort of discographic record. Since his wife had money, Munch passed his conducting fees on to the resistance during the German occupation. Around this time, he dropped the umlaut from his name, presumably to purge it of German associations, and became Munch, instead of Münch. After World War II, untainted by suspected Nazi sympathies or collaboration, he became a popular guest conductor outside of France, making his U.S. debut with the Boston Symphony in 1946, became its music director in 1949, and served until 1962. After that, his activities were centered in France until his death from a sudden heart attack while on tour with the Orchestra of Paris in Richmond, Virginia.

The first thing I noticed about this CD is how impressive the sound is. You can’t create missing highs, but it appears that Pristine Audio has managed to restore some of the dynamics to more realistic levels—the sound has impact. I never believed a 1949 New York Philharmonic broadcast could sound this vivid, and the NBC broadcasts are pretty impressive too. While Ravel’s two Daphnis and Chloe Suites amount to a bit more than half of the entire score, Roussel’s two suites from Bacchus and Ariadne actually comprise the whole ballet. Since I’ve singled out the 1949 Bacchus and Ariadne , which serves as a filler for the NBC broadcast CD, I will mention that Munch omits the “Dance of Ariadne and Bacchus” and also shortens the frenzied Bacchanal by about two minutes. I do not know if Roussel approved of these cuts, but I know that they also occur on the recordings of Froment and Ormandy. Järvi, Martinon (at least in Chicago but probably in Paris, too), and Tortelier (who does the entire ballet) perform the suite uncut. Not having heard Munch’s BSO recording for 10 years or so, I have no recollection of whether or not he makes the cuts on that one.

The very appropriate, informative annotations (what one wishes for in such a project as this) point out that Munch, for some reason, never made a studio recording of Le tombeau de Couperin . Many years ago, I managed to obtain a Radio France transcription disc that contained a Munch Tombeau . Unfortunately, I couldn’t hear it because my turntable could not play 16-inch transcription discs. Finally, I have heard a Munch Tombeau and I must say, I found it disappointing—it’s not that it isn’t “good,” but simply that I prefer slower, more pointed performances. He knocks the Forlane off in 3:46 by skipping every single repeat and observes half of them in the Minuet and Rigaudon. The orchestra, let it be said, responds with virtuosity; one can’t help noting the first trumpeter, Harry Glantz’s, clean articulation in the latter movement; at this zippy tempo, the solo is sometimes smudged.

Given the number of sonic spectaculars featuring the Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2 (including two stereo recordings of the complete ballet by Munch, himself), don’t expect to be blown away by this 1954 NBC recording, as good as it is. Munch doesn’t dawdle, but the NBC players seem unfazed when he depresses the accelerator, as he was known to do in showy finales. The principal difference between this NBC Iberia and his stereo Boston one is the lazy languor of “The Perfumes of the Night” that he evokes in this earlier performance. Comparison with Toscanini’s 1950 recording of the same piece with the same group suggests that Munch was excited by the splashy colors of the music while Toscanini reveled in the exquisite balance and refinement of the orchestration. He does not linger over the “Perfumes of the Night.” As I suggested earlier, the biggest problem I have with this otherwise interesting and welcome release is that it retraces what is, basically, familiar ground, despite Munch’s unfamiliar surroundings.

FANFARE: James Miller
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Works on This Recording

Images for Orchestra: no 2, Ibéria by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Charles Munch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1905-1908; France 
Date of Recording: 03/28/1954 
Venue:  Live  NBC Studio 8H, New York City 
Le tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel
Conductor:  Charles Munch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914-1917; orch. 191; France 
Date of Recording: 03/28/1954 
Venue:  Live  NBC Studio 8H, New York City 
Bacchus et Ariane, Op. 43: Suite no 2 by Albert Roussel
Conductor:  Charles Munch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  NBC Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1930/1934; France 
Date of Recording: 03/28/1954 
Venue:  Live  NBC Studio 8H, New York City 
Daphnis et Chloé Suite no 2 by Maurice Ravel
Conductor:  Charles Munch
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1913; France 
Date of Recording: 01/02/1949 
Venue:  Live  Carnegie Hall, New York City 

Sound Samples

Images: No. 2. Iberia: a. Par les rues et par les chemins -
Images: No. 2. Iberia: b. Les parfums de la nuit -
Images: No. 2. Iberia: c. Le matin d'un jour de fete
Le tombeau de Couperin (version for orchestra): No. 1. Prelude
Le tombeau de Couperin (version for orchestra): No. 2. Forlane
Le tombeau de Couperin (version for orchestra): No. 3. Menuet
Le tombeau de Couperin (version for orchestra): No. 4. Rigaudon
Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 2, Op. 43
Daphnis et Chloe Suite No. 2

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