SEVERAL OF Charles Munch's recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra have reappeared recently from RCA: on both its economical new cassette-only Victrola reissue series and its high-priced "Point 5" half-speed-remastered discs and tapes.
Such items as the Berlioz Requiem (Point 5, ATL2-4269) and the stunning collection of Berlioz overtures (cassette ALK1-4474) are especially welcome. However, three of the more recent reissues remind us that it was surely a mistake to think of categorizing Munch, the great French conductor, as a conductor of French music alone.
In fact, Munch was Alsatian, and in World War I he served in the German army. After the war, however, Alsatians became French citizens, and it wasn't long until Munch was one of the most prominent musicians in Paris, even creating his own orchestra. By World War II, Munch had become a symbol of continuity in French music.Four years after the war, he took over as conductor of the Boston Symphony. Munch died in 1968 in Richmond, Va., while on tour with L'Orchestre de Paris.
While Munch understandably was close to French repertory, his sympathies were no less broad than those of his senior compatriot Pierre Monteux. Two of Munch's Boston recordings, now on RCA's Victrola cassettes, somehow managed to be overlooked by many when they circulated earlier, and it is a lovely surprise to have a second chance to enjoy them. These are Schubert's Symphony No. 9, the so-called "Great C Major" (ALK1-4507), and Dvorak's Symphony No. 8 in G (ALK1-4628).
Munch's Schubert is especially refreshing. There is no self-conscious reverence, no monumentalism, no sentimentalizing in his approach. He simply does what he always did: he brings the music to life. To say that he did not sentimentalize is not to suggest he didn't show heart. Every phrase in every movement exhibits a natural pulse, a feeling of spontaneity akin to the impulse that moved Schubert himself--and a joyous sense of color. There will always be room for more than a single interpretation of this great work, but I don't know any that is more satisfying than Munch's, and the sound of this ridiculously inexpensive cassette is good enough to make it the outstanding version in this format.
The Dvora'k is perhaps even more of a surprise. While this marvelous symphony can hardly fail to endear itself in any competent performance, Bruno Walter alone seemed to have the magic key to its full and irresistible realization. Well, we ought to have paid more attention when Munch's recording first came out in 1962. It is absolutely a match for Walter's stereo remake (same vintage), and the Boston Symphony's brilliant playing is quite a plus. Sonically, too, this is one of the happiest items in RCA's new cassette series.
A third reissue, in London's new midprice Jubilee series (JL-41024, cassette JL5-41024), gives us Munch conducting the New Philharmonia in Respighi's "Pines of Rome" and "Fountains of Rome." This material is a good deal less substantial than the Schubert or Dvora'k, and for that very reason what Munch did with it is perhaps all the more remarkable.
In common with Toscanini, Beecham, Monteux, Reiner, Stokowski, Boult et al., Munch went all out in everything he undertook to perform--"all out" in terms of serious commitment, not just showmanship, in the Beethoven Ninth, Chabrier's "Joyeuse Marche" or anything in between. His way with the Respighi pieces is nothing less than definitive. No one--except Toscanini--has found the pulse of the "Appian Way" finale of the "Pines" as convincingly. In his hands it is neither garish nor pompous but is genuinely musical and actually has dignity as well as incomparable excitement. Toscanini's mono recording is dated now, but Munch's is sheer sonic glory, with perfectly balanced drums and organ.
Some of the other Munch reissues on Victrola are less fetching than those recommended above. Even if his father did conduct Bach performances in which Albert Schweitzer played the organ, Munch does not succeed with the "Brandenburgs," and the sound is lumpy. But the Respighi is indispensable, and the Schubert and Dvora'k are so appealing that I wonder how well the sound might come up if RCA would bring back that galvanic Beethoven Seventh that marked the beginning of Munch in all his glory.