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Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Violin Concerto in D minor, Op.47 (1903 rev. 1905) [31:14]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Symphonia domestica op.53 (1903) [42:13]
Ruggiero Ricci (violin)
Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch
rec. 28 February 1959 (Strauss), 29 January 1960 (Sibelius); Symphony Hall, Boston, USA. Stereo

The first pleasant surprise for the listener here is the excellence of the stereo radio broadcast sound, revived, cleansed and enhanced by Andrew Rose’s typically expert and sensitive XR remastering; one would hardly believe that this recording is sixty years old. There is still some edge to the instruments, some mild background coughing, audience applause is included – including a desultory attempt to applaud the first movement of the violin concerto - and the quaint, effete drawl of the announcer gives proceedings a period atmosphere but the performances themselves here are of timeless appeal and certainly the sonics are far from being a barrier to appreciating them.

Munch’s programme was by no means one would necessarily associate with him but for this listener at least, the pairing makes for a remarkably satisfying combination of Sibelius’ most melodic and soulful score with Strauss’ wry orchestral blockbuster. Incidentally, the prolific Ruggiero Ricci of course plays the revised version of the concerto which was premiered in 1905 under the baton of…Richard Strauss.

Its technical challenges hold no fears for Ricci; his intonation, double stopping and passage-work combined with an exceptionally luminous tone emphasis the Romantic warmth of the concerto, rather than any supposed Nordic gloom; the main theme twitters and soars angelically aloft like Strauss’ whirling larks in “Im Abendrot”, and the plangency of the Adagio is given full scope. Munch’s accompaniment there is, for the most part, flexible, unhurried and relaxed but equally capable of suddenly generating the tension and menace which lurk beneath, bringing out the demonic glee of the finale.

Nothing I say will reconcile those who find Strauss bombastic and self-absorbed to the attractions of this great sprawling narration but I love the music and was intrigued to hear how the arch-French stylist Munch would tackle it. If you treat the overtly autobiographical elements of Strauss's paean to himself and his married, family life as a metaphor for universal, human, domestic experience the whole piece becomes less embarrassing. In any case, the music itself is so spectacular that it transcends its personal origins. It's true that there are occasionally too many ideas which seem too recognisable from acquaintance with Strauss’ more popular works but its gamut of moods and modes is nonetheless very satisfying - and the tunes are simply glorious.

Munch exhibits the same intensity and control that we hear in the Sibelius. Far from being too refined, he captures the Schwung and bravado of Strauss’ domestic epic; indeed, some of the playing is a tad rough and ready, especially in the brass section, but he was a conductor who valued inspiration over polish. His approach is slow-burn and very effective; he keeps his powder dry during the earlier scenes of domestic calm and bliss interspersed with humorous ructions, then gradually moves via the Wiegenlied through the Adagio from leisurely languor into the depiction of the rapture of conjugal bliss which so discomfited and even outraged the New York critics at its premiere. The absurdly prolonged and pot-boiling finale is, I think, an extended joke on Strauss’ part and I certainly enjoy the way Munch has the brass lean into those absurd, prolonged fanfares and risk a few more bloopers rather than play safe.

My favourite performances have long been the almost exactly contemporaneous recording from Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra and Karajan’s sumptuous 1973 recording; also highly desirable are versions by Maazel, Reiner and of course Furtwängler, whose 1944 account is in rough mono but incandescent and this stands up well with, if not against, all of them.

The overall timing includes several minutes of announcements and applause which breaks into the final notes of the Strauss; you can certainly hear much the audience enjoyed it – and I think you will, too.

Ralph Moore

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