Classical Reissue Reviews

Charles Munch Boston Rarities = SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 1 “Spring”; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor – Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch – Pristine Audio

These two enhanced Munch performances from RCA archives make an immediate, entirely gratifying impact, poetic and powerful.

Published on February 4, 2014

Charles Munch Boston Rarities = SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 1 “Spring”; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor – Boston Sym. Orch./ Charles Munch – Pristine Audio

Charles Munch: Boston Rarities = SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 1 in B-flat Major, Op. 38 “Spring”; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 4 in E Minor, Op. 98 – Boston Symphony Orchestra/ Charles Munch – (avail. in various formats from) Pristine Audio PASC 403, 72:07 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****: 

For those who continue to admire the French maestro Charles Munch (1891-1968), this new release from restoration master Mark Obert-Thorn must come as a long-awaited delicacy of high order. Obert-Thorn has resurrected two fine musical examples Munch inscribed with the Boston Symphony, the Schumann First (25 April 1951, on RCA LM 1190) and the Brahms Fourth (10-11 April 1950, on RCA LM 1086), both of which suffered pitch and distortion errors, here beautifully corrected. Munch had made his BSO debut on 27 December 1946, after having led a number of concerts and recordings in New York. Munch assumed the post of Music Director in 1949, succeeding the relatively “tyrannical” regime of Serge Koussevitzky, but at the same time having inherited an outstanding, responsive orchestral instrument well-trained in the French taste. The results would prove energetic, passionate, and often reliable, although Munch had his detractors in Joseph Silverstein and Erich Leinsdorf, the latter of whom labeled Munch “a musician who found the work too much and who spent thirteen years doing too many concerts and too few rehearsals.”

The two performances inscribed on Pristine tell a different story, one that confirms first trumpet Roger Voisin’s impression: “When [the Munch magic] worked, that was a magnificent era of the orchestra. . . .It was poetic and it was always different. You were never bored. For an extended period in the love-scene of the Berlioz Romeo and Juliet, I had a tacet part. I brought a book or magazine so I could read for the twenty-five minutes. But for twenty-eight days [of this tour] I never opened the book. I was completely mesmerized by that man.” Coincidentally, both the Schumann Spring Symphony and the Brahms Fourth have their Koussevitzky renditions on records.  But the “new” sound Obert-Thorn has coaxed from these early LPs demands every consideration: the third movement Allegro giocoso from the Brahms would warrant anyone’s audition and purchase by itself! Rarely has a conductor imbued this aggressive movement with a true scherzo’s character, stunning in its impact.

The berries, however, may fall upon the Schumann Spring Symphony, a rendition whose éclat and pungent vivacity rival those qualities in my preferred version by the New York Philharmonic under Leonard Bernstein. The warmth of sonic resonance, the alert interplay between strings, triangle, tympani and winds in the Allegro molto portion of the first movement, its finely graduated crescendos, compel repeated hearings.  Recall the Schumann himself claimed the symphony had been “born in a fiery hour.” The last bars of the first movement, bearing a chorale motif followed by a pageant, become imbued with the BSO grandeur. The second movement Larghetto combines nocturne and devotional prayer, whether pantheistic or as homage to Schumann’s beloved Clara. Played at a relaxed tempo, we always feel that within the procession we can hear the opening motif from the Brahms Third Symphony. The good, hearty cheer of the Scherzo – with its patented two trio sections – leads to the final movement, intended by the composer to represent “Spring’s Farewell,” and so – in abeyance to Schumann’s demand – Munch does not play otherwise frolicking or “giddy” figures with too much frivolity. Suavely buoyant, the performance imparts an elastic grace into this “longing for spring” which Schumann conceived as eternal “summons” to the spirit of youth.

A recording of special merit, this restoration.

—Gary Lemco




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