GHCD 2327 – Charles Munch (1891-1968)

NBC Symphony Orchestera, Charles Munch – Conductor

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Guild historic reissues

Serge Koussevitzky’s Vaughan Williams When I reviewed Volume 1 of Guild’s Koussevitzky ‘Live Recordings’ in April 2007 I said how much I was looking forward to further releases. Now Volume 2 has appeared and it’s a wonderful follow-up. As far as I know, Koussevitzky’s 1947 live broadcast of Vaughan Williams’s Fifth Symphony has been in circulation only privately among enthusiasts, but now Guild has released this radiant performance and it gives us the chance to experience Koussevitzky’s Vaughan Williams at its most radiant, expressive and – at the climax of the first movement ­electrifying, superbly played by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. There is a rehearsal fragment of the Sixth Symphony which is equally thrilling (in the Boston Symphony Broadcast Archives set), but this Fifth Symphony is an account to treasure – it has not only drama and ravishing beauty but also a symphonic cogency and sweep that is something to marvel at. A gem, then, and it comes coupled with three Russian classics:

Mussorgsky’s Niaht on a Bare Mountain – from the same concert as Koussevitzky’s live Bartok Concerto Jor Orchestra – and Khovanshchina Prelude (both in the Rimsky­Korsakov arrangements) and a searingly authentic reading of Tchaikovsky’s Francesca da Rimini (the booklet gives no date for this or for Khovanshchina, but I am fairly certain they are both from Symphony Hall on April 24th, 1946). This is clearly a series to watch:

I hope such rarities as Koussevitzky’s Peter Grimes interludes and Copland’ s Appalachian Sprina (from a concert at Hunter College, New York in 1946) will follow, as well as live readings of such Koussevitzky specialities as Prokofiev’s Fifth Symphony and Tchaikovsky’s Fourth. As with Volume 1, the disc comes with excellent notes by Robert Matthew-Walker. Very warmly recommended (Guild GHCD2324, 1 hour 18 minutes).


Munch in Debussy, Ravel and Roussel

Next is a thrilling NBC Symphony concert from 1954, conducted by Munch in a programme which includes Debussy’s Iberia, Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin and the Second Suite from Roussel’s Bacchus et Ariane. The Roussel was a great Munch speciality and, caught live, his performances of it could be hair-raisingly exciting in the final ‘Bacchanale’. This NBC account comes pretty close to the best of them (an amazing performance with the Orchestre National de France in 1966 on Disques Montaigne). The Debussy was another Munch favourite and while this live version doesn’t quite have the polish of the 1957 Boston SO studio recording on RCA, both performances demonstrate a superbly refined ear allied to a propulsive energy that marks out Munch’s Debussy conducting as something wholly individual. The Ravel is also delightfully done. Guild gives us the whole broadcast (in very well-restored sound), complete with opening and closing announcements – a form of presentation that gives a real sense of occasion, I think. A lovely disc (Guild GHCD2327, 56 minutes).


John Barbirolli in New York

A very enterprising Guild two-disc set includes live performances of John Barbirolli conducting the New York Philharmonic, made between 1937 and 1943. The biggest pieces here are Franck’s Symphony, Brahms’s Double Concerto (both 1939), to which are added Iberia by Debussy (1937), The White Peacock by Griffes (1938), the Overture to an Italian Comedy by Arthur Benjamin (1941), Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s Kina John Overture (1942) and other shorter pieces. The absorbing programme notes with this release (as for all the other Guild releases under review here) are by RM-W. He makes the important point that reputation, especially the notion that Barbirolli somehow ‘failed’ in New York, is simply not borne out by these concerts. I can only agree. There is a good deal of lovely playing (the last movement of the Franck has one rocky moment, but several passages of great beauty), and the conducting is propulsive and purposeful throughout. It’s marvellous to hear Barbirolli conducting The White Peacock,

a delectable work, and his account of Iberia makes an interesting contrast with the Munch reading discussed earlier. In general it doesn’t quite have Munch’s swing and swagger, but both conductors have a sure sense of direction and draw some fine playing from their players. The Benjamin and Castelnuovo- T edesco overtures are fascinating, and the Brahms Double Concerto with Albert Spalding and Gaspar Cassado is a particularly impassioned reading from two great soloists and a conductor who draws orchestral playing of unflagging commitment and warm-heartedness. Sound quality is variable: the originals are often in poor condition, but the best has been done with them here. Not to be missed by Barbirolli admirers (Guild GHCD2330/31, two discs, 2 hours 27 minutes)

Classic Net 2007

Recorded Live – 1954

This is another splendid release in the fast expanding series of historical reissues coming from the Guild label. Charles Munch has a sizeable discography but these intensity-filled live performances from 1954 show his penchant and flair for the music of his homeland.

Debussy’s ‘Iberia’ is filled with that magic and rural charm so typical of this composer whilst Ravel’s ‘Le Tombeau’ is imbued with solemnity, mystery and a touch of Gallic romance that is well nigh ideal for this enigmatic work. Finally we have a rip-roaring account of Roussel’s ‘Bacchus et Ariane’, the second suite in particular which moves along at a hell of a pace and which has the NBC players at the peak of their impeccable virtuosity.

These are well nigh definitive performances of these works recorded in rather fine sound so if you’re a Munch fan, this will certainly appeal.
Gerald Fenech