IN THE YEARS immediately following World War II, a number of new orchestral works became so popular, almost overnight, that they went immediately into the permanent repertory and now enjoy the status of beloved classics. Among these are Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, Prokofiev's Fifth Symphony, Hindemith's Weber-Metamorphoses and the concert suite from Copland's ballet APpalachian Spring, all composed about the same time in th mid-1940s, and Bizet's marvelous little Symphony in C.
The Bizet Symphony, of course, was written some 90 years before the other works mentioned above (when the composer was only 17), but remained unheard till 1935, when Felix Weingartner conducted it in Basel. It was not till a dozen years after that the work came into its own, with boosts from Arthur Rodzinski, who performed and recorded it with the New York Philharmonic, from Desire Defauw, who programmed it frequently in Chicago, from Charles Munch, who recorded it in Paris, and from George Balanchine, whose choreographic treatment was introduced in that city in 1947 under the title Le Palais de Cristal. Now Balanchine's ballet, still going strong, is known simply as Symphony in C, and the music itself has become almost as familiar and well-loved as Carmen.
There have been quite a few recordings of the work since the first, little noticed one under Walter Goehr appeared here in 1941 as Victor set DM-721, but there are not as many now as one might expect. The currnt Schwann lists nine, however, which is quite respectable representation - and there is not a single clinker among them. One might almost be guided by the matter of the respective couplings in selecting from this assortment, but it happens that the one with the least likely looking disc-mate is the most fetching of all.
That is the newest addition to the list, the Quintessence disc on which Munch conducts the Royal Philharmonic in the Bizet Symphony and Tchaikovsky's Francesca da Rimini (PMC 7048). This was the second of Munch's three recordings of the Bizet (despite a statement otherwise on the record jacket) and the second of this two of the Tchaikovsky. Both performances, taped in April 1963 for the Reader's Digest mail-order series; are irresistibly appealing, each thoroughly attuned to the specific idiom of the work at hand and projecting the sort of commitment that comes only from real love for the music.
There is even more brightness and spontaneity here than in Munch's subsequent recording with the Orchestre National (available for the last ten years or so on Nonesuch H-71183), and the royal Philharmonic is superior in terms of boths style and precision. Moreover, the recorded sound itself, superbly remastered by Quintessence, can hold its own against any of the more recent versions. The overside Tchaikovsky has not only excitement and tension, but uncommon breadth and dignity: clearly one of the two or three finest Francescas available.
Among the other current recordings of th Bizet Symphony, the one everyone might expect to head the list - Beecham, on Seraphim S-60192 - os a little disappointing, at least by Sir Thomas's own standards. The orchestra, curiously, is the one Munch leads, on Nonesuch, instead of Beecham's own RPO which Munch conducts on Quintessence. The sound is what used to be described as "subfusc," and the Lalo Symphony in G minor on the other side of the disc is so dull a work that not even Beecham could save it.
Jean Martinon's Deutsche Grammophon disc, again with the Orchestre National (2530 186), is more brightly recorded, but a little hard-driven; it is a shame RCA deleted Martinon's Chicago version, which was more flowing and in its way as attractive as the Munch/Quintessence.
It should be noted that Munch's Nonesuch disc includes the only current recording of Bizet's overture Patrie! and Louis Fremaux's handsome account of the Symphony is paired with the only current version of Bizet's Roma , a rarely heard work sometimes referred to as a symphony (Klavier Ks 546). Both of these are easy to take, but the Munch/RPO version is really in a clas by itself.