Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

Reviews and occasional notes on classical music

"Music, both vocall and instrumental, so good, so delectable, so rare, so admirable, so super excellent, that it did even ravish and stupifie all those strangers that never heard the like." - Thomas Coryat, after hearing 3 hours of music at the Scuola di San Rocco in Venice, 1608.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Charlie in a trance

This remarkable 2-CD set of historic recordings is most welcome. These are all remarkable readings by the great Charles Munch, with marvellous singing by excellent choirs and star soloists, and outstanding orchestral playing. The sound is generally good, relative to the recording periods, though there are inevitable issues related especially to broadcast recordings.

For me the stand-out is the Debussy Martyre de Saint Sebastien from 1956, with the Boston Symphony, the New England Conservatory Chorus and soloists Florence Kopleff, Catherine Akos and the late Phyllis Curtin. This is an RCA recording that appeared on a mono Victrola LP, and was later released (in stereo) on a RCA Gold Seal CD, coupled with Iberia. The soloists are really excellent, as is the choir, though the French diction of the American singers has been questioned. Don't ask me about that, by the way. I can tell a really bad French accent - here in Canada we sometimes talk about 'Diefenbaker French', named for the Saskatchewan-based Canadian prime minister in the 1950s and 60s - but the subtleties at this level escape me. Also, Charles Munch himself provides the French narration. This atmospheric addition to the score - it sounds like something out of a classic French movie from the 40s - is a real plus for some. An Amazon reviewer says "Now, whenever I hear this music WITHOUT the haunting voice of Charles Munch, it feels empty." I can relate. I remember the LP with real fondness, and there is a positive nostalgic vibe here for me as well.

Another fine Debussy recording is La Damoiselle Elue, taken from a Boston Symphony broadcast from April 11, 1955, and originally released on West Hill Radio Archives. Again we have fine singers, led by the incomparable Victoria de los Angeles and the Radcliffe Choral Society. And again the amazing Boston Symphony shines. This is gorgeous music, played superbly well.

This recording of Poulenc's Gloria is especially historic; it's the world premiere performance from January 1961, with soprano Adele Addison and the Chorus Pro Musica. After some problems in rehearsal, everything worked out beautifully. Here is Poulenc's report, in a letter to his friend Pierre Bernac (from D. Kern Holoman's excellent 2012 biography Charles Munch):
Monday, 23 January 1961: And so, my dear, for a triumph it was a triumph! You know that because of the snow, the Friday concert was postponed until yesterday, Sunday. Saturday night was OK. Very good, very lovely, success, but Munch less inspired than usual. Yesterday, by contrast, with the critics there, a sublime performance. Charlie in a trance, but careful; the chorus amazing, La Addison unbelievable, and thus ovation on ovation. They told me this morning that the press was excellent. Marlene Dietrich was there: kisses, photos, and all.
Besides making me want to rush down to the library to get books of Poulenc's letters - what a sublime writer! - this makes me feel pretty good about this recording.

The Vaughan Williams 8th Symphony comes from a Tanglewood broadcast, and has previously been released on a Pristine CD. The stereo sound is pretty good, and I hope it's not getting boring for me to praise the interpretation and performance. This is one of my favourite VW symphonies; I like the way he goes all out with interesting orchestration and a non-standard structure. "I feel the thing is a symphony, and it is going to remain one," he said; he felt he had to say, that is, considering the oddness of the music compared with the bulk of his symphonic output. I love the way Munch presents a polished French sound when appropriate, but makes the fabulous Scherzo sound as English as possible. This is such a genial performance! (My goodness: now I'm writing like Poulenc!)

With the 2nd Symphony of Arthur Honegger we come to the first piece with compromised sound. This is from an HMV recording made in 1942 with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra.  The symphony is a favourite of Munch's; he made recordings for RCA in Boston in 1953, with the Czech Philharmonic in 1957, the Orchestre national de France for Auvidis-Valois in 1964, USSR State Academic Orchestra for Meloydia in 1965, and the Orchestre de Paris for EMI/Angel in 1967. Munch and Honegger had developed a close friendship, and in 1942 were trying, not always successfully, to navigate the problematic politics of living and working in Occupied Paris. Holoman's book is especially good in this period; I recommend it highly!

The album ends with the 1957 RCA (studio) recording of Barber's Adagio. Munch conducted a famous concert which featured this work at Chartres Cathedral during the BSO's European tour in 1952. And it was played by the Boston Symphony at the memorial service held for Munch in Boston on November 14, 1968, conducted by assistant conductor Charles Wilson. I find this version very moving not because it is so expressive - though it is, of course - but because it is so restrained. Charlie is again in a trance - but careful!

Charles Munch (26 September 1891 – 6 November 1968)

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