Feature Review – ICA Classics: Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch [DVD]

Written by: Mike Langhorne

Here is a treasure-trove for admirers of Charles Munch (1891-1968) and the Boston Symphony, “The Aristocrat of Orchestras”. Five DVDs (details below) of performances from the golden age of the Boston Symphony Orchestra conducted by its Music Director as he approached the end of his tenure, which lasted between 1949 and 1962.

The footage come from the archives of the WGBH television channel and all is of concerts given in the Sanders Theatre of Harvard University (rather than Symphony Hall, the BSO’s home) between 1958 and 1961. Made available for the first time since their original airing, the excellence of picture and recording varies, although much expertise has been lavished on re-mastering the material to get the very best out of black-and-white footage as seen on television sets all those years ago. Some performances come up reasonably well in terms of broadcast quality. Others are pretty poor. Camerawork is unsophisticated and tends to wander through the orchestra with meandering panning shots occasionally alighting on a section of the orchestra with nothing to play at that particular moment. The odd glitch is also included – delays due to latecomers in the audience or a passing outside siren. Sound – mono of course – is clear and well-balanced and is maintained even if picture quality falls away. It’s better to watch and listen on a smaller television; a big screen and large loudspeakers tends to magnify technical shortcomings.

It is good to see some of the fine BSO musicians of the period, such as Roger Voisin, whose trumpet-playing was to cause Munch’s successor Erich Leinsdorf so much trouble. There is Sherman Walt on bassoon, timpanist Everett Firth, and flautist Doriot Anthony Dwyer who battled sexism and gained herself a principal’s chair in the BSO and kept it for 40 years.

Of the five DVDs the Bruckner/Haydn symphony disc presents the greatest interpretative problems. Although Munch is best remembered for the French repertoire he had a wide range of musical interests. Haydn’s Symphony 98 will not please the authenticity police, and is even without the written-out harpsichord solo in the finale. However he does instil a sense of joyfulness into the work. Bruckner 7 is hurtled through at world-record haste with little thought for the wide vistas implicit in the music. The finale exceeds the speed limit and is savagely cut.

The Brahms (Symphonies 1 & 2) and Beethoven (4 & 5) discs each suffer from the same drawback. Victories are too easily won. Munch seems content to skim across the bulk of each work with not much concern for depths that can be explored on the way to whipping up finales with breezy ebullience. Beethoven 4 comes out the best. César Franck’s Symphony is a considerable success with good picture and sound. Munch’s view on this piece is well-known because of his RCA recording and this concert rendition follows that pattern. High-powered and glinting, this Franck Symphony has nothing of the organ loft – and an exciting conclusion caps a thrilling interpretation. Of the accompanying pieces on this DVD the excerpts from Act Three of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg are neatly done, but Fauré’s Pelléas et Mélisande music has a poor picture. It is offered as a bonus.

Finally to the French repertoire for which Munch is so much admired. Debussy’s La mer, and Ibéria (from Images pour orchestra), are fleet, brightly coloured and rhythmically taut. The Suite from Ravel’s Mother Goose again displays no lingering but is delicately done.

It has been enjoyable to witness Charles Munch at work, an opportunity to see how he did it. What comes over consistently is how much he relished conducting a great orchestra.

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