The new set also contain Munchs 1963 French-music compilation with the Philadelphia Orchestra for American Columbia and as always from Sony Classical, every performance comes from the best source, some newly remastered from the original tapes.
“I hope there will be joy,” Charles Munch said in 1949 at the beginning of his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. When he stepped down 13 years later, a keynote speaker proudly and happily confirmed that “there has been joy”. Sony Classical is proud and happy to announce a new reissue of all the recordings that Munch, one of the most dynamic and charismatic conductors of the 20th century, made for RCA Victor while in Boston. This 86-CD release marks the first time that this cornerstone of the classical catalogue has been available in a single box.
Charles Munch (originally Münch) was born in Strasbourg in 1891, during the brief period when Alsace-Lorraine was part of the German Empire. He himself straddled the two cultures: trained as a violinist at the conservatories of Strasbourg and Paris, he was conscripted into the German army in World War I. After the war he taught at the conservatory and played in the orchestra of Strasbourg (by then French again) from 1920 until he was appointed concertmaster of the illustrious Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra in 1926 under Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter. After making his own podium début in Paris in 1932, Munch settled there and established his reputation as one of the leading French conductors of the day, championing the music of Berlioz as well as of such contemporaries (and friends) as Honegger, Roussel and Poulenc. Following World War II – during which he strongly supported the French resistance (he was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1945) – his international career took off. In 1946 he made his début with several US orchestras, including the Boston Symphony. Three years later, aged 58, he was appointed by that patrician ensemble to succeed Serge Koussevitzky as music director.
Reflecting his own cultural duality, Munch turned the BSO into arguably the greatest French orchestra in the world while preserving its sovereignty in the American, Austro-German, central European and Russian repertoires. He took the orchestra on an unprecedented tour of the Soviet Union in 1956 and premièred many important BSO commissions.
How to summarize this huge achievement? Let the reviews speak, starting with those composers with whom Munch enjoyed a special affinity and devotion, and those performances which have, arguably, never been equalled, let alone surpassed. Beginning with his Berlioz: “Munch owns the Requiem,” declared ClassicsToday.com … SACD technology removes the last barrier to experiencing the full sonic impact of this magnificent recording.” The Overtures, including the Roman Carnival, etc. are heard in “dazzlingly brilliant performances. The virtuosity of the Boston players is breathtaking … Wonderfully poetic and thrilling account of the Royal Hunt and Storm … The early stereo (1957/9) is remarkable: one really feels the hall ambience” (Penguin Guide). “An unforgettable Harold [in Italy] (BBC Music Magazine, 5 stars), with [William] Primrose (in his farewell Boston season) in imperious form, and a finely chiselled, sonorous d’Indy symphony.” La Damnation de Faust: “A lasting legacy of Munch’s command both of detail and broad scope”; L’Enfance du Christ: “One of the most moving of all recordings of this work” (MusicWeb International). His Franck: “Munch’s 1957 performance of the Symphony in D minor was always among the finest ever recorded … Le Chasseur maudit (recorded five years later) also sounds spectacular” (Penguin Guide); and his Saint-Saëns: “Overwhelmingly spectacular [Symphony No. 3] … One of the most successful and most believable recordings ever made in Symphony Hall. The performance is stunning, full of lyrical ardour and moving forward in a single sweep of great intensity” (Penguin Guide). “Still the greatest recording of the Organ Symphony ever made” (ClassicsToday), “this latest remastering sounds even grander than the previous Living Stereo incarnation, with a more present and bass-rich organ making a positively cataclysmic experience out of the finale.”
His Ravel: The legendary Daphnis et Chloé, now in SACD, “is one of the great glories of the 1950s” (Penguin Guide). “The playing in all departments of the Boston orchestra is simply electrifying … There is a heady sense of intoxication that at times sweeps you off your feet.” “One of the earliest stereo recordings, Munch’s 1955 Daphnis still sounds terrific … The performance itself is marvellously alive to both the colours and structure of Ravel’s greatest score … Munch remains a must” (BBC Music Magazine; 5 stars).
His Debussy: “Munch’s 1956 recording of ‘La Mer’ harks back to a time when American orchestras retained great individuality and the Boston Symphony, shaped by Monteux and Munch as well as Serge Koussevitzky, could seem a superb French instrument” (New York Times). “Mesmerising accounts of ‘La valse’ and ‘Ibéria’ … The sound on this disc is remarkably vivid” (BBC Music Magazine; 5 stars); “Iberia in particular has a visceral quality that few other performances match, while Rondes de printemps is truly joyous” (ClassicsToday).
But Munch was always more than a French specialist. To cite just a few other examples from his BSO discography: “Munch’s Schubert Ninth is unbelievably exciting, with the orchestra playing as if its collective life depended on it … The “Unfinished” is scarcely less fine … the orchestral winds positively glow in the Andante … This is one of the true ‘desert island’ classics'” ClassicsToday). “Thrilling. I would still count this Munch [Schubert Ninth] among the finest versions ever” (Gramophone).
“Munch always was a great Tchaikovsky conductor; he responded to the composer’s often almost hysterical passion with complete spontaneity and conviction [symphonies and tone poems]” (ClassicsToday.com). “Galvanic conducting and orchestral playing of simply superb virtuosity [of Dvorák’s Symphony No. 8] … The clarity of detail in both performance and recording is remarkable” (Gramophone). And, not least, some of his other acclaimed Boston recordings of 20th-century works: Honegger Symphonies 2 & 5 (“There is no better version … ” and Roussel 3 (“ranks with the best” – ClassicsToday.com) as well as two BSO-commissioned Sixth Symphonies: Piston’s (“An invaluable premiere recording” – MusicWeb International) and Martinu’s (“Munch conducted the world première … and no one has surpassed it” – Classical Net).
There is also Munch and the BSO accompanying singers: “Eileen Farrell, the legendary Wagnerian soprano … appears in a stunning program of highlights from Tannhäuser, Tristan, and the Ring” (ClassicsToday). “A witty, incisive, deliciously pointed performance [of Stravinsky’s Jeu de cartes] which is beautifully balanced and recorded. All Stravinskians will want this” (Gramophone). “The great Mahler singer Maureen Forrester is in spectacular voice in these performances of Songs of a Wayfarer and Kindertotenlieder” (ClassicsToday).
And, of course, accompanying instrumentalists: Walton wrote his Cello Concerto for Gregor Piatigorsky, who gave its première – and recorded it – in Boston in January 1957. “He plays it with a gripping combination of full-blooded eloquence and subtlety of feeling. Munch provides a totally understanding accompaniment, with the strings of the Boston Symphony finding that special quality of lyrical ecstasy which is such a distinctive part of this concerto” (Penguin Guide). Indeed most of the major concerto repertoire is included here, played by pianists such as Rubinstein, Richter, Casadesus, Janis and Graffman; violinists Heifetz, Oistrakh, Menuhin, Milstein and Szeryng, violist William Primrose and clarinettist Benny Goodman.