Music & Arts / West Hill Radio Archives – Otto Klemperer / Pierre Monteux / Charles Munch

Written by: Colin Anderson

The splendid Music & Arts label has issued some mouth-watering titles to welcome 2008. The grateful Classical Source editor has fallen on some of the conductor-orientated selections for a brief mention, a cursory if focussed assessment.

Kicking-off is Otto Klemperer conducting the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra on 7 February 1957. A pungent-sounding and detailed account (particularly in the bass) of Brahms’s Variations on the St Anthony Chorale (Haydn Variations) begins the CD. Schubert’s Fourth Symphony continues it, a restless and weighty account, the Andante second movement a very expressive adagio, the finale especially propulsive. Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel completes the programme; anything but frivolous. These previously unissued performances seem to have benefited enormously from Pristine Audio’s restoration – the sound, always one of my prime considerations (in that such things can be shoddily achieved) is natural and open. [CD-1207; 62 minutes.]

Fans of Pierre Monteux will want to seize a 2-CD Boston Symphony collection of, again, previoulsy unissued performances, this time from between 1953 and 1957 and offered by West Hill Radio Archives, which in style of presentation resembles almost exactly Music & Arts’s style and was received from M & A. What is claimed to be the 1911 Suite from Stravinsky’s The Firebird seems more likely to be the 1945 version: 1911 ends with the ‘Infernal Dance’; the one that Monteux conducts here ends with the ballet’s ‘Apotheosis’ and contains movements not in the 1919 Suite, the latter being the version that I thought Monteux recorded in Paris for Decca). That seeming discrepancy aside – although booklet annotator John Canarina will disagree with my assertion about the Boston and Paris recordings – this is an atmospheric and cracking performance. Then comes the (a?) Suite from Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier” (made by Artur Rodzinski) and is followed by music from César Franck’s Psyche. There is a feeling of rightness to Monteux’s conducting and the Boston Symphony adds to the pleasure. The second CD includes Brahms’s Piano Concerto No.1 with Leon Fleisher as the patrician soloist, a linear account in which structure is uppermost and sentiment is welded to it. A tart account of the Suite from Stravinsky’s Pulcinella completes this fine release; and with no complaints regarding Maggi Payne’s transfers. [WHRA-6012, 2 CDs, 2 hours 17 minutes.]

Charles Munch is heard with the NBC Symphony Orchestra in a concert of French music (New York, 28 March 1954), a rather relaxed account of Debussy’s ‘Ibéria’ (Images pour orchestre) followed by Ravel’s Le tombeau de Couperin, which Munch did not record commercially (I recall reading somewhere that he suggested it was impossible to do this work full justice). This NBC version is a bit scrappy and hard-pressed. The Second Suite from Roussel’s ballet, Bacchus et Ariane, of languor and white-hot activity. As a bonus, another Second Suite from another ballet, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé, features the New York Philharmonic (2 January 1949). The sound on this release is more variable, Tombeau being a little murky, the earlier-recorded Daphnis (with a wild closing bacchanal) belying its years. Once more the transfers from Pristine Audio are expert. [CD-1208, 68 minutes.]

This particular Munch anthology makes no claims of first issue, whereas the other Munch one does, nothing less than 5 CDs of him conducting Beethoven, another West Hill initiative, a Boston collection from 1954 to 1957. An unforced, often-beguiling, sometimes-impatient ‘Pastoral’ Symphony opens the show and is followed by Symphony 7, Munch in mellow and stately mood. The ‘Eroica’ is also included, mixing leeway, momentum and keen accents, the Funeral March being especially spacious, the symphony’s ultimate coda both heroic and swinging. As an envoi to the ‘Eroica’ is the slow movement of Beethoven’s final string quartet (Opus 135) – played on full strings, of course – as a tribute, from 26 October 1956, to the then recently deceased Leslie Rogers, the BSO’s long-serving librarian; this is a notably deeply-felt and eloquent ‘in memoriam’. Piano Concerto 3 is with Clara Haskil, a rather gentle soloist and hampered by tinny piano sound, something not so afflicting of Claudio Arrau’s imposing ‘Emperor’. There are two performances of the Violin Concerto, one featuring Jascha Heifetz (November 1955), the other Zino Francescatti (April 1954). Apart from there being some nine minutes between them – Heifetz the quicker – as Canarina points out, the performances show Munch’s accommodation towards his soloists. Heifetz’s up-and-at-them account is very convincing in the first movement, somewhat matter-of-fact in the finale; Francescatti’s view is more songful and fantasia-based, the first movement somewhat indulged (in relation to Heifetz’s) and if his technique is not as imperious as Heifetz’s there is something more heart-touching about his performance. A couple of overtures bring up the respective rears of the Violin Concertos: Leonore No.2 and The Consecration of the House, the latter not quite getting into this underrated work’s spiritual heart. Still, what a great way to keep in contact with the musical past and all these great personalities long gone. As before, Pristine Audio has done an admirable job with sources of differing quality. [WHRA-6014, 5 CDs selling for the price of 4, 5 hours 16 minutes.]

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