C1713. CHARLES MUNCH Cond. ORTF S.O.: Symphony #1 in c (Brahms); Symphony #3 in g (Roussel). (Canada) St Laurent Studio YSL T-799, Live Performance, 20 Oct., 1966, Bunka Kaikan, Tokyo. Transfers by Yves St Laurent.
“Not everyone will find these impetuous and impulsive performances to their liking. For some, Munch’s approach might suit their ideas about Roussel more than Brahms. This Brahms is hot-blooded, changing demeanor frequently and sometimes suddenly. If you find yourself excited by a performance that will upend your received wisdom, that revels in abrupt tempo changes, and that seems made up on the spot, this is for you. Although this would not be the way I would wish to hear Brahms’ First Symphony often, as a change from more sober views I was completely swept along. In order to live, great music must exist in a wide range of interpretations and performance styles. It should never become predictable.
Charles Munch was concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra when it was led by Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter (1926-1933), and as an Alsatian he considered his musical approach as much Germanic as French. He may have had the two musical grammars in a more equal balance than most. Perhaps partly because this is a French orchestra, the sonority is brighter and the textures more transparent than we usually hear in Brahms. The winds are prominent, and while there is nothing lacking from the basses and cellos, they do not form the kind of rock-solid foundational sonority that you would hear from Furtwängler, or the likes of Kurt Masur and Daniel Barenboim. In the lighter passages there is an airiness to the sound that is quite appealing. But what will strike most listeners is the broad range of tempi employed. Fast sections are faster than normal, slow sections slower, and the shifts are sometimes sudden. Dynamic contrasts are explosive - sudden fortissimi seeming to come from nowhere. The result is high drama, edge-of-your-seat Brahms; you don’t know what is coming next. Because of the strength of Munch’s conviction about what he’s doing, because the players are giving him every bit of intensity and commitment he is demanding, the performance worked excitingly well for me. The work’s final chord is a perfect example, held far longer than the score would indicate and far longer than most conductors would dare. I loved it, but can imagine some recoiling. Munch’s Boston Symphony recording of the work for RCA is very different. It is more sober, more (if you will pardon the generalization) Germanic, as James Miller noted in his review of it in FANFARE 12:4.
Munch’s approach is perhaps more naturally suited to the Roussel Third Symphony, a work of enormous dramatic force and energy, with an almost bittersweet contrast in the second movement (Adagio). The climax of that slow movement is singularly powerful here. In the other three movements the emphasis is on rhythmic propulsion, energy, and brilliance of orchestral colors. Munch also made a classic recording of this work with the Boston Symphony, and this French ensemble is no match for the BSO in terms of technical polish (and in excellence of first desk soloists). But, and it is a big ‘but’, there is the frisson of a live performance, and of an orchestra on tour in Japan trying to prove its worth. There is an astounding energy to the playing here that offers its own unique rewards.
As usual, St. Laurent Studio offers a good sounding transfer of what must have been a Japanese broadcast, with naturally balanced and clean sound and only a slight hint of the dynamic compression one expects from broadcasts, particularly of that era. St. Laurent Studio recordings are available through Norbeck, Peters & Ford (norpete.com). I recommend this to the adventurous listener who is willing to explore a quite unorthodox but thrilling view of Brahms.”
- Henry Fogel, FANFARE
"It's difficult to articulate what makes Munch's conducting special - or indeed if there even is anything identifiably unique about it. A lesser talent would simply turn out generic, cookie-cutter performances; but Munch was anything but generic. He was one of the most musical of conductors; in so many of his performances, everything simply sounds 'right'. Certainly, his experience as an orchestral musician gave him a lot of practical insight into the mechanics of directing orchestra traffic. But a classic Munch interpretation never sounds calculated. Spontaneity was one of his hallmarks, sometimes to the surprise and discomfort of the musicians playing under him. From one night to the next, a Munch performance of the same piece might be very different, depending on his mood of the moment - yet it would always sound like Munch."
- Lawrence Hansen, AMERICAN RECORD GUIDE, Nov. /Dec., 2012
"When you played a concert with Charles Munch or attended one of his performances as a listener, it was not just a concert - It was an event. He never used the same palette twice. As a player, you had to give 110% of yourself, or be left out of the music."
-Vic Firth, percussionist, Boston Symphony Orchestra