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CD Review

Hector Berlioz

Decca/Philips 4767962

Symphonie Fantastique, Op. 14

Hungarian Radio & Television Orchestra/Charles Munch
Decca/Philips Eloquence 4767962 (Australia)
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Nobody – not even Leonard Bernstein in his three recordings of the work – conducted this piece quite like Charles Munch. Now that Amazon is a reliable and inexpensive outlet for Australia's Universal Eloquence titles, I have no problem reviewing titles that were once only obtainable as overseas imports. Charles Munch has at least three other Symphonie recordings outside this one, the two in Boston regarded as classics. In no way is the Hungarian Radio and Television Orchestra close to the Boston Symphony, but there are truly some exciting moments here in this 1967 account.

Perhaps the best thing about this performance is also its weakness. The playing is coarse, notably unrefined in places. Still, they follow the conductor admirably through his typical mania and frequent gearshifts. Perhaps it is a stretch to say that this sort of ensemble fits the conductor's conception better than does the elegantly "French" sound of the Bostonians, but there certainly is no question that Munch gets the very best out of these players. According to most reports, this is in any event more exciting than Munch's EMI Paris version, which I have encountered only once in my years of searching record stores. I've also not heard this latter account, but can't imagine it's more spontaneous than this one.

The opening sets the tone. There is a feeling of freedom, of tension that so many more famous performances (the late Colin Davis comes to mind) miss. You really get the sense that you just don't know what the conductor will do next. It's an approach we don't usually hear, and the orchestra does very well to echo this spirit of adventure. These forces weren't known on disc then, and they aren't now, but some of the climaxes here are simply thrilling. Maybe they also lack the last ounce of technical and sonic weight, but those who love the work will find much to enjoy. I've read reviews from professionals and couch conductors alike, and I feel that those of us who are complaining about the orchestra are missing the point. If you're picking this disc up out of the Australian market, I'm going to assume that you have a Markevitch, Bernstein, or Muti in your collection already. You probably have one of Munch's, honestly. This is a supplemental account, but one which shows the conductor as orchestral trainer outside of France. For me, any Munch is at least interesting Munch. So it proves.

The fact remains that both of the Boston Symphony accounts feature vintage RCA sound and exceptionally committed playing from one of America's great orchestras. Phillips' takes a little getting used to, but provides an accurate picture of what goes right and wrong here. As stated above, this disc isn't for everyone, but rather those who are looking to see what the Symphonie sounds like outside of the "major" orchestras and in the hands of a master working in less than ideal conditions. Not many collectors are looking for a disc that is "less than ideal", and I can't imagine my review will have people running out to make a purchase. Still, for those of us who appreciate the music and artists involved, this remains an important document.

Copyright © 2016, Brian Wigman