Notes and Editorial Reviews
Symphony No. 5.
Overture; Symphony No. 2
Charles Munch, cond; Boston SO
ICA ICAD 5052 (DVD: 76:00) Live: Cambridge 02/27/1962, 04/18/1961, 04/07/1959
Yet another volume appears in the ICA series of releases of Boston Symphony telecasts with Charles Munch, and this is a particularly successful one. All of the performances here are taken from concerts given in Sanders Hall at Harvard University, rather
than from Symphony Hall in Boston. While the audio quality in all three works is quite acceptable monaural sound—only occasionally suffering from congestion or blare—the quality of the video portions varies significantly, being poorer with increasing age. All suffer from a considerable degree of bleaching out of the black-and-white film; in addition, the Schubert is somewhat grainy and murky, while in extended portions of the Schumann symphony the musicians’ faces and figures become blurry and distorted. Somehow this never affects Munch himself, whose trademark long baton whips about in a flurry of motion sufficient to trigger a tornado. As with other issues in this series, the set includes the introductions to the original broadcasts (here, for the two symphonies) by longtime Boston Symphony announcer William Pierce.
Of the three works presented here, the only one that Munch recorded commercially was the
Overture, and that back in 1951. That version wears its age well and is competitive with the one presented here. Live performances of the other two works have been issued elsewhere: a 1952 Schubert Fifth and 1955 Schumann Second, both by West Hill Radio Archive, and a 1956 Schumann Second from a concert tour in Moscow by Arte. However, in addition to the video dimension (not a great desideratum for me), these performances of the symphonies have several advantages over the rival versions. The WHRA issues are in a large multi-CD set of Boston Symphony performances from the earlier 1950s that limit their appeal almost exclusively to dedicated Munch collectors. These later performances are not only preserved in superior sound—much moreso in the case of the Schubert—but are also in superior interpretations that benefit greatly from slightly slower tempi.
Munch’s brisk take on the Schubert Fifth is the antipode of the lyrical
of Bruno Walter or the stateliness of Karl Böhm, both very Viennese; but what is exhilarating in 1962 crosses over into the jarringly manic a decade earlier. The final movement in 1962 still suffers from some abrupt shifts in tempi and is one point here where Munch is not at his best. While I much prefer Walter’s approach, I nonetheless find this a bracing alternative that challenges my previously held conceptions of how this piece ought to sound.
With Schumann, we come to a composer for whom Munch had a very special affinity. It is a crying shame that his only studio recordings of the major orchestral works were the First Symphony for RCA and the Piano Concerto for EMI; fortunately live performances of the Fourth Symphony and Cello Concerto have also found their way into print, leaving the Third Symphony as the major gap in a Munch Schumann discography. Of the composer’s four symphonies, the Second has proved to be far and away the most difficult for conductors to get right; in my estimation the number of recorded performances that exceed mere competency and achieve greatness can be numbered on the fingers of one hand. Here we have one of those exalted rarities. There are no traces of leaden heaviness anywhere, and Schumann’s often dense orchestration is made to shine. The ever-tricky transition from the slow introduction to the faster main section of the first movement is nicely gauged, though Munch needs a few bars to get up to full speed. The finale is a model of triumphant exuberance, though the latter section is taken a tad too quickly for my taste and requires the conductor to slow back down slightly for the final peroration on the trumpets and timpani, which is dispatched without the unnatural exaggeration that too often spoils the symphony’s close. The rendition of the overture is on a similar plane of excellence. In sum, then, this DVD is warmly recommended to fans of Munch, aficionados of historic performances, and lovers of Schumann alike.
FANFARE: James A. Altena
Recorded live from Sanders Theatre, Harvard University, 18 April 1961 (Genoveva), 7 April 1959 (Symphony No. 2), and 27 February 1962 (Schubert) Picture format: NTSC 4:3 Sound format: LPCM Mono Region code: 0 (worldwide) Menu language: English Booklet notes: English, French, German Running time: 75 mins No. of DVDs: 1 Read less
Works on This Recording
Genoveva, Op. 81: Overture by Robert Schumann
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1846-1849; Germany
Symphony no 2 in C major, Op. 61 by Robert Schumann
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Written: 1845-1846; Germany
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