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Charles Munch: Boston Rarities - Volume Two
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Gratulations-Menuet in E-Flat Major, WoO 3 [3:31]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No. 2 in B-Flat Major, D.125 [26:18]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun [9:05]
Ernest BLOCH (1880-1959)
Schelomo [22:02]
Alexei HAIEFF (1914-1994)
Symphony No. 2 [18:49]
Gregor Piatigorsky (cello)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. Symphony Hall, Boston, 20 Dec 1949 (Beethoven, Schubert), 23 January and 27 February 1956 (Debussy), 30 January 1957 (Bloch), 30 November 1958 (Haieff)
stereo (Debussy, Bloch, Haieff)
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC417 [79:45]

This disc presents Munch, the powerhouse conductor with an orchestra to match his brake horse power. Take the little Beethoven Gratulations-Menuet which is played with hammered emphasis. It impresses - there's no doubt about that - but any hope of gentle humanity has been pummelled out of it. The Schubert Second Symphony courts the same peril but comes off better. The music is driven to the limits as if a V12 sports saloon yet its Largo is still gentle enough and there is a Mendelssohnian flightiness at play, even if the wings are steely. As a reading it stands at the opposite pole from the sort of treatment it used to receive from the London Mozart Players under the outwardly lumbering yet inwardly graceful Harry Blech. Sometimes it is tempestuous to the point of overbearing but you are not going to forget this and it is a strong counterpoise to the bone china readings more commonly encountered.
 
The Debussy receives a warmer and closer approach and a recording that is clean and quiet yet evinces a richer amplitude. This rises to a notably rhapsodic Rimskian warmth at 5:10. The sound dies away too rapidly - we could have benefited from more of the original ambient silence. The Bloch Schelomo responds well to anger and brooding but Munch also finds intensity and inwardness which is just as well because Piatigorsky is bathed in a Heifetz-style close-up recording.
 
This year (2014) sees the centenary of the American composer Alex Haieff. His Second Symphony is mildly astringent and very cleanly orchestrated. There are no clogged arteries here and the progress of the music across three movements flows with frictionless ease.
 
The first movement has a fantastic fugal feel, so deftly instrumented that one could easily backwards-engineer a score from this if the orchestral materials had been destroyed. While all that fugal stuff rarely does it for me Haieff has created an enchantingly fey sound-world. Its successor is a warming and slightly overcast Andante. This is sultry and tightened by an initial pizzicato. There's thunder in the air. The finale is busy and neo-classical rather than romantic. It can be equated with a sort of Till Eulenspiegel or Tam O'Shanter-lite.
 
This is the second of two Pristine Munch revivals of rare material. It is a follow up to Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer, Mark Obert-Thorn's first release on Pristine PASC 403, containing Schumann Symphony 1 and Brahms Symphony 4 (review). We are assured that many of these Munch/Boston recordings have never seen an “official” CD reissue, not even in the 40-CD (plus one bonus CD) Japanese RCA series, “The Art of Charles Munch”.
 
While these Munch readings have not won my heart they are impressive sky-scraper achievements that are at long last presented in sound that will please even the unconvinced.
 
Rob Barnett