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CD Review

Great Conductors of the 20th Century

Leontyne Price, soprano
Maureen Forrester, contralto
David Poleri, tenor
Giorgio Tozzi, bass
New England Conservatory Chorus
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
* Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/Charles Munch
** Orchestre National de la Radiodiffusion Française/Charles Munch
EMI Classics 75477 ADD part monaural 2CDs: 77:23, 79:04
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Charles Munch (1981-1968) was not, perhaps, a great conductor but he certainly was among the best of the last century. He recorded the finest Saint-Saëns "Organ" Symphony in the catalogue as well as one of the top three or four recordings of La Mer. Still, Furtwängler and Stokowski had more personality in their conducting. (I will now duck into the trenches.)

Munch led the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1949-1962. At that time orchestras had a "sound". The Philadelphia had the Stokowski/Ormandy sound… the Cadillac of orchestras. So did Cleveland and Chicago. The Boston Symphony had what some people referred to as "French" sound. What I noticed most is that the woodwinds had a reedy, almost pungent sound. This was particularly the case with the oboe. It is not an unpleasant sound, just distinctive.

Let me get to the point right away. I would give this release an unqualified recommendation but for one caveat. The Beethoven is just not very good. Munch was known for his work in the French repertoire but he was not limited to that. In my collection I have an excellent Brahms 1st Symphony with him at the helm. In the case of the 9th, however, the stings are thin, as is the whole recording. The balance between the sections is homogonous. Inner details are not there. David Poleri, the tenor, sounds like he is yelling at me. Finally, the whole thing has no character. This may seem overly harsh, but I have to call them as I hear them.*

I wish EMI had selected something different to include with this set because Munch was very good. There was a recording of the Symphonie Fantastique with the Orchestra de Paris, Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire from 1967 that was recorded by EMI (473722)! It would have made an excellent disc mate with the Berlioz included here. The 1967 Fantastique doesn't have the intensity of his Boston Symphony Orchestra recording but would have been better than the Beethoven.

It fascinates me that a composer must hear music in their head and then write it in a foreign language before it is actually played. That means that the listener is offered an insight to the person's mind. This is one reason why I immediately ordered the set when I saw that it included Martinů's "Fantasies Symphoniques". Martinů's mind flits about from idea to idea in a surreal way. It engages my brain as I flow with each synapse of is. Munch conducted the world première of the symphony, in fact it was written for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, and no one has surpassed it. The sound is excellent to boot. In fact, I would probably recommend the whole set just for this recording.

But there are other reasons for a recommendation. In my continuing education I learned that Mendelssohn orchestrated the scherzo of his octet. I have to admit that I don't fully appreciate Mendelssohn but I do love the octet and Munch plays it with chamber music lightness. The Bizet symphony is possibly the best I have heard. It is a rich, Romantic interpretation and the sound is excellent with inner details and solos clear. Beecham (EMI: leads a performance that is lighter in texture and, frankly, not as involving. Solo instruments, like the oboe in the slow movement, are not as prominent which spoils the dialogue between the two. The Prokofieff, well, it passes my toe-tapping test. That is, the music involves me and has me swaying with it. The sound is very good and the details are clearly heard.

* Shortly after I put this baby to bed Tom Godell reviewed the same release in American Record Guide. I respect Tom's opinions and generally we agree, but in this case we reached very different conclusions about the 9th. Tom calls the performance "stunning" and the soloists "magnificent". About the only place we agree regards the sound, which he calls "congested and claustrophobic". So it goes.

Copyright © 2003, Robert Stumpf II