Charles Munch, conductor

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Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Lance » Thu Mar 08, 2018 7:42 pm

https://images-na.ssl-images-amazon.com ... SY355_.jpg

I see many negative comments about conductor Charles Munch on CMG from time-to-time, yet I have been very much enamoured with the conductor's work as found on LPs and CDs over a long period of time. I always felt his French and Russian repertoire excellent and memorable, particularly his Berlioz. Here's a blurb RCA uses on the Charles Munch Big-Box Edition. It will be interesting to see what unfolds here after you read the blurb.

Sony Classical presents a new reissue of all the recordings that Charles Munch, one of the most dynamic and charismatic conductors of the 20th century, made for RCA Victor while in Boston conducting the Boston Symphony Orchestra. 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. An 86-CD box set, The Complete Album Collection marks the first time that this cornerstone of the classical catalogue has been available in a single box with 16 works new to CD and 29 works newly remastered from the original analogue tapes. The new set also contain Munch s 1963 French-music compilation with the Philadelphia Orchestra for American Columbia.

Charles Munch 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 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."
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by John F » Fri Mar 09, 2018 11:52 am

Sorry, a promotional blurb doesn't change my mind about what I've heard with my own ears.
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Lance » Fri Mar 09, 2018 12:14 pm

Thank you, John. Your one-liners continue to make me smile! So, apparently you don't hold Munch in very high esteem. The promotional blurb will, undoubtedly, have people want to buy this set. The one thing RCA did was to provide good sound either in original mono- and the stereo recordings. I've always loved the Boston Symphony, heard them many times live. Munch collaborated with some of the finest soloists in the business. And quite honestly, my favourite conductor of the BSO has always been Serge Koussevitzky despite some of the antiquated sound in the early years. His second recording of the Sibelius No. 2 is still among my most preferred of any recordings: the intensity is vivid. I also enjoyed some of Leinsdorf's work with the BSO, and what little Steinberg did with them. And then, of course, was the great Pierre Monteux, another great conductor whose late BSO recordings are outstanding. I was not an Ozawa fan. And then there was Levine whose musicianship was impeccable. All said, I am very happy to have the Big Box set of Munch. It is beautifully put together.
John F wrote:
Fri Mar 09, 2018 11:52 am
Sorry, a promotional blurb doesn't change my mind about what I've heard with my own ears.
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by John F » Fri Mar 09, 2018 12:28 pm

As I've said before, the BSO's playing went badly downhill by the late 1950s when I was hearing them in concert while at college, and apart from some French music, he often didn't seem very involved in the music he conducted. Those who know his work only through edited recordings may think better of him, and I recognize that some musicians did indeed hold him in "high esteem," notably Sviatoslav Richter. Chacun a son gout.
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Fri Mar 09, 2018 3:32 pm

Munch/BSO live, non-French repertoire:



Last edited by jserraglio on Sat Mar 10, 2018 8:48 am, edited 1 time in total.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Fri Mar 09, 2018 3:32 pm

John F wrote:
Fri Mar 09, 2018 11:52 am
Sorry, a promotional blurb doesn't change my mind about what I've heard with my own ears.
John F wrote:
Fri Mar 09, 2018 12:28 pm
As I've said before, the BSO's playing went badly downhill by the late 1950s when I was hearing them in concert while at college, and apart from some French music, he often didn't seem very involved in the music he conducted. Those who know his work only through edited recordings may think better of him, and I recognize that some musicians did indeed hold him in "high esteem," notably Sviatoslav Richter. Chacun a son gout.
My ears tell me Munch's BSO performances from unedited live broadcasts were not just exciting but passionate and warmly involving.

For example, this mostly German program of 12 October 1957
- Handel Concerto Grosso in B Minor, Op. 6, No. 12
- Von Einem Symphonic Scenes, Op. 22
- Mendelssohn Symphony No. 5 in D major, Op. 105 "Reformation"
- Dukas L'apprenti sorcier

Or this all-German program from 6 November 1959
- Bach Violin Concerto No. 1 (Stern)
- Berg Violin Concerto (Stern)
- Mendelssohn Symphony No. 3 "Scottish"

Or Brahms 1 (30 December1960)
Or Brahms 2 (April 1960)

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by RebLem » Fri Mar 09, 2018 4:37 pm

It is interesting that Munch recorded all the Brahms symphonies except the 3rd, which is the most difficult of the four.
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Fri Mar 09, 2018 5:30 pm

RebLem wrote:
Fri Mar 09, 2018 4:37 pm
It is interesting that Munch recorded all the Brahms symphonies except the 3rd, which is the most difficult of the four.
Yes, but Munch performed the Brahms 3 with the BSO 12-13 October 1951, both concerts broadcasted on WGBH and apparently still in the BSO archives.

He also performed it 12 April 1942 with Société des Concerts du Conservatoire in Paris.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by barney » Fri Mar 09, 2018 8:56 pm

It's interesting, JohnF, that Richter had gout. Do you think that coloured his view? He so often seems so irritated.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Sat Mar 10, 2018 8:34 am

Munch/BSO. Mendelssohn, late 50s, early 60s:






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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by John F » Sat Mar 10, 2018 10:14 am

barney wrote:
Fri Mar 09, 2018 8:56 pm
It's interesting, JohnF, that Richter had gout. Do you think that coloured his view? He so often seems so irritated.
I never heard that, and wouldn't know what to say about it. Seems to have had nothing to do with his admiration for Munch. In "Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations," Bruno Monsaingeon quotes him as saying, "At the end of a rehearsal of Beethoven's First Concerto with the Boston Orchestra, I was so moved by the wonderful accompaniment that I kissed Charles Munch on the hand." Monsaingeon says that Vaclav Talich and Carlos Kleiber were the two conductors Richter liked most.
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by maestrob » Sat Mar 10, 2018 11:44 am

Sorry, Lance, but I have to agree with JohnF about Munch. His recordings of French music were uniformly excellent IMHO, but he was out of his depth when it came to other composers, and IIRC, he never attempted Mahler or Bruckner. I purchased the RCA set pictured below, and, even with modern restorations, brasses blare, strings are dry and quite stiff, while there is an overall lack of discipline in the playing. MHO, of course. Leinsdorf improved the discipline when he took over, but there wasn't much he could do immediately with the quality of the sound of the orchestra: that took time.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Sat Mar 10, 2018 1:55 pm

John F wrote:
Fri Mar 09, 2018 12:28 pm
As I've said before, the BSO's playing went badly downhill by the late 1950s when I was hearing them in concert while at college, and apart from some French music, he often didn't seem very involved in the music he conducted.
I agree. Munch was a terrific "guest conductor". He apparently really enjoyed it, and always brought an energy, and spontaneity to his guest conducting venues...the regular day-to-day discipline of rehearsing, orchestra drilling, not so much. Munch hated to rehearse, and the BSO's playing deteriorated badly during his tenure..he liked to change things at concerts, do things a different way, which will naturally result in some inaccuracies and surprises.
To me, it always seemed as tho Munch performed the Austro-German repertoire as a "duty", a necessary but not particularly enjoyable part of the job. his performances of this music seem uninterested, uninvolved....rather like a chore to be performed...His performances of French music were more lively, and more in his element...but could be very sloppy...
as an orchestra builder, along with his distaste for rehearsing, he made some rather strange appointments to fill vacancies - and a lack of section/ensemble unity, that had started under late Koussevitsky, became more and more apparent.
Pierre Monteux had essentially rebuilt the BSO after the disastrous years of WWI-1919/20 strike, in which the BSO lost so many musicians, esp Germans. Monteux recruited many French musicians at this time, and gave the BSO a decidedly, very excellent French approach...Koussevitsky inherited this ensemble, and preserved it well until post WWII, when a number of bizarre appointments began to erode this concept....by the mid--50s, the BSO was a real hodgepodge of different styles, in sharp contrast to the other major orchestras like NYPO, PhilaOrch, Chicago and newcomer Cleveland, which were all developing their own characteristic sound and performance style.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by John F » Sat Mar 10, 2018 2:02 pm

RCA Victor did use Munch and the BSO to accompany Maureen Forrester's recording of the Gesellenlieder and Kindertotenlieder. Otherwise no Mahler, and no Bruckner at all that I know of.

Munch's native Strasbourg was part of Germany when he was born - he served in the German army during World War I and considered himself a German - and became part of France after the war. And he was concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra which played a lot of Bruckner under Walter and Furtwängler, though perhaps less Mahler. But his conducting career began in France, by which time his nationality had become French; he recorded mainly French music in those years; and of course we think of him as a specialist in Berlioz, Debussy, etc. But I suppose he didn't.
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Sat Mar 10, 2018 2:09 pm

Like Richter, Munch had goût. In France, he championed Brahms to Frenchmen who didn't much cotton to Brahms.

Orchestral refinement be damned. So too, precision. For that, the Clevelanders. For tonal beauty, the Philadelphians. Munch live, even in Austro-German composers like Mendelssohn, is musical. Exciting. Robust.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Sat Mar 10, 2018 5:06 pm

maestrob wrote:
Sat Mar 10, 2018 11:44 am
Sorry, Lance, but I have to agree with JohnF about Munch. His recordings of French music were uniformly excellent IMHO, but he was out of his depth when it came to other composers, and IIRC, he never attempted Mahler or Bruckner. I purchased the RCA set pictured below, and, even with modern restorations, brasses blare, strings are dry and quite stiff, while there is an overall lack of discipline in the playing.
the lack of unity in the brasses was pretty alarming...really below par...also, the woodwinds always sound stiff, harsh and rather strident....I don't know for sure, but I'd heard that many orchestras, BSO included, tuned quite sharp# during that period - supposedly it gave more brilliance to the strings....the problem is, woodwinds are not built to play that high, and they become "out of tune with themselves"..also, at higher pitch, lower and mid-range overtones are lost, upper ones dominate, and the tone takes on a thin, shrieky quality. I've never been able to ascertain the actual tuning level for the BSO during that period [A = 446+ ??], but the high tuning would account for the harsh, strident quality of the woodwinds.
Leinsdorf improved the discipline when he took over, but there wasn't much he could do immediately with the quality of the sound of the orchestra: that took time.
Leinsdorf was a total disaster....at least the musicians liked Munch, and liked playing for him...they hated Leinsdorf, and the morale plummeted badly. By the early 60s, the BSO needed a Reiner, Monteux, or Szell to get things back in order, but they were all committed elsewhere, doing great things....

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Sat Mar 10, 2018 5:48 pm

Interesting criticisms. During the Living Stereo LP years, I collected lots of BSO RCA studio recordings by Monteux, Munch and Leinsdorf. Still have all of them.

On another forum, the live BSO bcsts are discussed by many members with some enthusiasm, especially for those of Leinsdorf and Munch. Go figure.
maestrob wrote:
Sat Mar 10, 2018 11:44 am
IIRC, he never attempted Mahler or Bruckner.
John F wrote:
Sat Mar 10, 2018 2:02 pm
RCA Victor did use Munch and the BSO to accompany Maureen Forrester's recording of the Gesellenlieder and Kindertotenlieder. Otherwise no Mahler, and no Bruckner at all that I know of.
Symphony Hall, Boston
December 4, 1959
MAHLER Symphony No. 10
(unfinished, ed. Krenek)
Andante - Adagio
Purgatorio
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Just listened to the Mahler tonight. Quite a lovely performance.
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This thread has inspired me to get out my homemade Munch/BSO Live Edition and play all 8 CDRs to see if I can hear the defective playing described by some here.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by barney » Sat Mar 10, 2018 11:50 pm

John F wrote:
Sat Mar 10, 2018 10:14 am
barney wrote:
Fri Mar 09, 2018 8:56 pm
It's interesting, JohnF, that Richter had gout. Do you think that coloured his view? He so often seems so irritated.
I never heard that, and wouldn't know what to say about it. Seems to have had nothing to do with his admiration for Munch. In "Sviatoslav Richter: Notebooks and Conversations," Bruno Monsaingeon quotes him as saying, "At the end of a rehearsal of Beethoven's First Concerto with the Boston Orchestra, I was so moved by the wonderful accompaniment that I kissed Charles Munch on the hand." Monsaingeon says that Vaclav Talich and Carlos Kleiber were the two conductors Richter liked most.
Sorry John. It was a really childish joke on your French epigram, chacun a son gout. I never heard that Richter had gout either.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by barney » Sat Mar 10, 2018 11:56 pm

Going back to serious matters, Munch's career preceded my serious collecting days. He's prominent in the RCA Red Seal collection of 60 CDs and in a couple of other collections, but mostly I have him as an accompanist, as it were - to Heifetz in the Beethoven and Mendelssohn, to Primrose in Harold in Italy, to Szigeti in Bloch (a 1939 recording that was one of my first LPs), Menuhin in Lalo etc.
I haven't listened to any for years, but remember him as pretty sympathetic and attentive.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by John F » Sun Mar 11, 2018 4:12 am

Oh, you meant gout as in "Have some Madeira, m'dear" :

I don't care for sherry, one cannot drink stout,
And port is a wine I can well do without,
It's simply a case of chacun a son gout.
Have some Madeira, m'dear!


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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Sun Mar 11, 2018 5:08 am

Heck148 wrote:also, the woodwinds always sound stiff, harsh and rather strident...
Thinking that Mozart's Serenade for 13 Winds, K.361 might be a way to test this, I listened to Munch's live performance from Tanglewood 13 July 1962.

I hear supple, sweet and rather subdued sounds from the Boston winds. No fierceness. The entire performance stuck me as warm and committed, leisurely in pace and not at all perfunctory, as has been suggested here.

It was followed by a glowing performance of the Piano Concerto 35, K. 503 with Claude Frank and a lively Symphony 38, K.504. I would not fault the orchestral playing of these two works either.

My hearing must be shot.

Munch supposedly performed the central-European classics only out of a sense of obligation. Then why would he program all-Mozart for a summer-festival concert where presumably he would able to perform works that were close to his heart?

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Sun Mar 11, 2018 9:22 am

jserraglio wrote:
Sat Mar 10, 2018 5:48 pm
On another forum, the live BSO bcsts are discussed by many members with some enthusiasm, especially for those of Leinsdorf and Munch. Go figure.
I don't think you'll find much enthusiasm for Leinsdorf amongst professional orchestra musicians...known as a "dead stick", Leinsdorf had a huge repertoire, most all of which he conducted with a heavy, pedestrian stodginess that sucked the life from the music....never able to hold down a successful full-time music director position, his years with the BSO were a most troubled decade in that orchestra's history.
I heard many of the great American orchestras during the 60s, due to geographical location - NYPO, PhilaOrch, Boston, then Cleveland and Pittsburgh...Leinsdorf/BSO were simply not up to the level of the others on most occasions...lots of deadwood, esp in the winds and brass....poor ensemble -balance, tone, precision - the BSO still had a lot of "maverick musicians" left over from the Koussevitsky/Munch years...these assorted characters seemed to be in their own world, not much concerned with ensemble playing - matching tone, articulation, blend. it could make for some interesting performances, but overall, I did not find it particularly uplifting...
There's more enthusiasm for Munch amongst musicians - tho he disliked the day-to-day drilling and rehearsing, he did bring lots of energy and spontaneity to his concerts - a "bon vivant", Munch enjoyed life, and would often conduct "spur of the moment" - which could provide rousing live performances - very energetic, if lacking in precision...as I said before - he was a terrific guest conductor - he thrived with little rehearsal time, and brought lots of life to his concerts.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Sun Mar 11, 2018 10:54 am

Heck148 wrote:
Sun Mar 11, 2018 9:22 am
he disliked the day-to-day drilling and rehearsing,
I wonder if that was true thruout his career or only after he developed heart trouble and became easily exhausted? I have been listening to Munch's live recordings of Piston's Syms 3, 5 and 6 this morning, and your word "energetic" is definitely the term I would use to describe them. Also listened to a very lively Munch Sinfonia Domestica today. I am going thru all my many live Munch concerts.

Thanks for all your savvy observations about orchestral technique, even tho I hear the performances differently. I too was surprised at the enthusiasm live Leinsdorf/BSO garnered on that other forum. Over on Symphonyshare, they too are pretty sophisticated listeners. I do very much kike Leinsdorf's Cleveland and Rochester recordings, esp the Antar with the Clevelanders.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Sun Mar 11, 2018 12:01 pm

Heck 148 wrote:I've never been able to ascertain the actual tuning level for the BSO during that period [A = 446+ ??
I just got this email from a Boston-based oboist:

"I used to perform regularly in Symphony Hall and there is (still) a tuning bar bolted onto the wall in the musician's room - used for pre-tuning before going on stage. As I remember when I tested it, it was 441."

He also included this article about BSO oboist Ralph Gomberg, which includes this info about BSO pitch in that era.
Gomberg remembers the first two years as somewhat difficult in that the orchestra was tuning to 444 cycles per second as opposed to 440, the international standard pitch. "Koussevitzky had liked the higher pitch because he thought it made the orchestra sound more brilliant," explained Gomberg. "It was really difficult forme since it greatly affected the way I had to make the reeds."
I haven't had a chance to read the whole article yet, but here is the link.

https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid= ... authuser=0

NOTE: Munch did conduct Bruckner on several occasions: The Seventh and Te Deum. How many other conductors of his generation cozied up to Mahler and Bruckner on a regular basis?
Last edited by jserraglio on Sun Mar 11, 2018 1:28 pm, edited 5 times in total.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Sun Mar 11, 2018 12:32 pm

jserraglio wrote:
Sun Mar 11, 2018 12:01 pm
Heck 148 wrote:I've never been able to ascertain the actual tuning level for the BSO during that period [A = 446+ ??
I just got this email from a Boston-based oboist:

"I used to perform regularly in Symphony Hall and there is (still) a tuning bar bolted onto the wall in the musician's room - used for pre-tuning before going on stage. As I remember when I tested it, it was 441."
The BSO has tuned to A = 442, at least since the early 90s....I know this because I was invited to submit a tape to the orchestra when they were auditioning for principal bassoon after Walt's retirement....there were explicit instructions about providing a tuning A on tape - to be played at 442hz...

in previous decades, I believe the tuning was higher [it was for many orchestras, IIRC]...I don't know when the BSO established 442 - perhaps early 70s??

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Sun Mar 11, 2018 12:43 pm

I just did a search for "pitch" in the article linked above and found out that according to oboist Ralph Gomberg, the pitch was 444 during the Koussevitzky/Munch era.

Of course, this is all Greek to me.

As for the brief lodged against Munch in this thread . . . lack of interest, orchestral deterioration, sloppiness, etc. To the extent that his performances of Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven, Mendelssohn, R.Strauss and Piston bring to mind these qualities, I think we need more of them, not less.

For those that prize precision, computers lie thick on the ground; if great music, . . . great conductors. As I see it, Munch is one of them.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Sun Mar 11, 2018 5:23 pm

jserraglio wrote:
Sun Mar 11, 2018 12:43 pm
I just did a search for "pitch" in the article linked above and found out that according to oboist Ralph Gomberg, the pitch was 444 during the Koussevitzky/Munch era.
Of course, this is all Greek to me.


444 is pretty high, not as high as some of the European orchestras, which reputedly were up c446+...that would produce the thin, strident quality I referred to before...I know my own instrument -[bassoon] is manufactured to perform best at pitch levels not exceeding 443, and that already begins to present problems...
I think it's pretty indisputable that the hiring, filling vacancies during the late Koussevitsky/Munch era did not produce even, balanced sections, that would generate a unanimous tone quality or conformity of articulation and phrasing:
Into the predominantly French woodwind section - Laurent [fl], Gillet[ob], Allard [bn] was introduced V.Polatschek - from the Vienna St Opera/VPO....certainly a contrasting/conflicting style...
the bassoon section consisted of players who did not even perform on the same instruments!! R. Allard - [French/Buffet system], E. Panenka [German/Heckelsystem]- again Vienna VolksOpera....it is indeed a rather strange sounding section.
In the Munch era we find wildly contrasting styles, mainly due to the "maverick" styles of several principals - Cioffi [Cl], Voisin [tpt], Gibson [trb], and Stagliano[hn]....Cioffi was a journeyman clarinetist who bounced around the orchestra scene for some years before landing in Boston - noted for his free-wheeling style, and little concern for ensemble playing...Voisin played with an an excessively bright, strident tone, with a very heavy 'Nanny-goat' vibrato - the other members of the section never came close to matching his tone, volume or style...Gibson, another journeyman, played with a pronounced wobbly tone, and "wah-wah" vibrato that often sounded like a dance hall musician. the low brass ensemble was really lacking in tone and precision, and the orchestra did not have a world class tuba player until Chester Schmitz was hired in 1966. Stagliano [from LA studio musician/LAPO] was appointed as co-principal with W. Valkenier - an 'old school" style European trained musician - very refined, polished, smaller tone - in marked contrast to Stagliano's more coarse, brassy style. that left the section with a difficult task to match the principal....
The wind sections were all over the place as far as tone, style, articulation, and to me, these deficiencies are readily apparent when I listen to Munch/BSO era recordings.
Yes, Munch could generate excitement, but on repeated listening, the lack of tonal unanimity, and all-too-often sloppiness are real distractions for me...Maybe Munch favored that sound, with all sorts of different tones and styles coming at him, or maybe he was simply not concerned with it. Conductors like Stokowski, Ormandy, Reiner, Szell, Steinberg, Monteux all knew what sound they wanted to produce, and worked constantly at achieving it. Tho a talented musician, and fine guest conductor, Munch does not make the top levels of podium greatness for me...

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Sun Mar 11, 2018 6:18 pm

Interesting, thanks. Obviously I do not and cannot hear all these variegations with my untrained ear. I do wonder, however, whether the higher A=444 pitch SK chose might not have produced more clarity in the woodwinds. I listened today to Munch's Brahms Serenade 1 and the winds sounded fine to my ears.

Today I also surveyed opinion of Munch (excluding French repertoire not in dispute) on Symphonyshare (sophisticated listeners there too) and found it to be highly laudatory, precisely opposite to the negative consensus expressed here.

To summarize: One listener rated his studio Mendelssohn 3, Beethoven 9, and Brahms 2 among the finest of those works he has ever heard with the live versions being even better. Another, who has heard many of his rehearsals, praised his spontaneity, his willingness to change things up from rehearsal to concert. He also expressed appreciation for the individuality of Roger Voisin's trumpet playing, but I hear yr point about Voisin's sound not blending with the rest of the section.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Mon Mar 12, 2018 5:58 am

One of those interlocutors on the Symphonyshare forum, with a very different take on Munch from that expressed here, allowed me to use his name.
Karl Miller wrote:To say that Munch "didn't seem to very involved," is a subjective observation and there is no way to have an absolute response.

Mahler and Brucker were clearly not his thing. To say that he never attempted Mahler or Bruckner suggests to me that the individual making that statement sees that the music of those two composers is somehow the "measure" of the depth of a musician's intellect. Munch did do the Bruckner 7th and the Te Deum several times, and the Mahler 10th and Kindertotenlieder. One of the reasons orchestras have guest conductors is that guest conductors can be expected to explore repertoire other than that which the resident conductor feels comfortable doing. I could fault Toscanini for not attempting any Schoenberg by suggesting that Toscanini did not have the intellect to deal with the music. My guess is that the music had no meaning for him...plus, I happen to think he wasn't a great intellect. But, that did not keep him from being a great conductor.

Yes, by all reports, Munch hated to rehearse. His approach to music was spontaneous. There is a story of when Munch was ill and another conductor was to fill in for him. The other conductor visited Munch and asked things like, "what tempo do you take in the first movement?" Munch supposedly replied, "I never know until I get to the podium." I have listened to many of his rehearsals. He could nit pick when he saw the need, but with the BSO, and their familiarity with most of the repertoire, he really didn't have much need to do so. He was of the generation where making music was more important than getting all of the notes in the exact right places. That is one of the reasons I love his broadcasts.

Of course Leinsdorf was a different sort of conductor. He was an Austrian! Munch was Alsacian, German-born. During the war, he refused to conduct modern German music.

As for the brass sound...I am reminded of Roger Voisin. When you listen to the recordings of the orchestra you can almost always identify his playing. As to the tuning of the orchestra...I know that Koussevitzky had the orchestra tune high because he liked the brighter sound. Many orchestras tune higher than A=440. The history of tuning is a study unto itself. While one could say that a higher pitch would give woodwinds a "harsh, strident quality," you could also say that it brought clarity to woodwinds....

For me, if you want absolute precision, get a computer. If you want great music making, you can listen to Munch, Koussevitzky, Mitropoulos, Furtwangler, et al.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by John F » Mon Mar 12, 2018 6:19 am

I'm the one who said, "apart from some French music, he often didn't seem very involved in the music he conducted," which is based on my perceptions during BSO performances in Symphony Hall and Harvard's Sanders Theatre between 1958 and 1962. I heard coarse tone (e.g. from the blaring first trumpet Roger Voisin), defective playing (first horn James Stagliano repeatedly cracked in the first movement of Brahms Concerto #2 with Sviatoslav Richter), occasionally haphazard balances and poor ensemble. My sense of Munch's lack of involvement is based not only on some pretty routine if not careless music-making but also on his body language in works such as Brahms 4 and Schubert 9, as compared with when he conducted French music.

Karl Miller would dismiss such observations as subjective. I say they are based on objective perceptions, and anyone who attended the performances I did and others in those years can confirm or refute me. The orchestra's recordings and broadcasts make a somewhat better impression, thanks at least in part to the work of the audio engineers who controlled the balances. You had to be there in person.

The BSO was capable of better. Antal Dorati guest-conducted a program including Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra and the playing left nothing to be desired. For that matter, Munch's "Beatrice et Benedict" overture was as bright and delicate as can be. I should think he could have gotten as good results in Brahms and Schubert if it mattered to him.
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Mon Mar 12, 2018 6:38 am

John F wrote:
Mon Mar 12, 2018 6:19 am
You had to be there in person.
Well, at this juncture, the next best thing to being in Sanders Theatre actually is being there virtually--via DVD. Listeners may then draw their own conclusions about Munch and his orchestra late 50s, early 60s. BTW, I interpret Munch's body language in Brahms 2 quite differently than you did in Brahms 4.

Sanders Theatre excerpts from ICA Classics DVDs of the full concerts: Schubert, Schumann, Franck & Debussy









Brahms 2 (Sanders?)


John F wrote:I heard coarse tone (e.g. from the blaring first trumpet Roger Voisin.
Voisin was to the French manner born.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Mon Mar 12, 2018 9:29 am

It seems pretty well accepted that Munch disliked rehearsing, was not into the day-to-day rehearsing and drilling that is requisite for establishing great ensemble...some listeners find this most attractive, and enjoyable, others find it a deficiency that produces sub-standard results...some find the playing of maverick, individual musicians to be most attractive, others, including myself, find it almost painful at times.
I'm not even that crazy about some of Munch's supposed greatest efforts - the complete Daphnis & Chloe is ok, but surpassed by others [Bernstein, Monteux, Haitink], I find much of the solo playing rather stiff, inflexible, "uptight", and considerably underplayed in certain sections....same with the Saint-Saens Sym #3 - it's ok, but I find other performances more effective - Ormandy, Barenboim to mention two. I've never warmed to Munch's "Symphonie Fantastique" performances, of which there are many - he always takes the March to the Scaffold [IV] too quickly - who races to their own execution?? the repeated, martial, dotted eight sixteenth rhythms begin to break down and lose precision. the woodwinds get very scrambled and hashy in the Witches Dance[V],and invariably, the low brass flubs the descending roulades in the closing measures of the work....this , it seems, might almost have been by design. The then-bass-trombonist of the BSO told me that Munch would always change tempo at the end - sometimes accelerando, sometimes, MOLTO accelerando, sometimes subito tempo [no accel at all] - it was always different...

Whether or not Munch conducted Mahler or Bruckner well is quite immaterial - he was not attracted to those composers to any great extent, and the orchestra's sound was not well-suited to this task...for Bruckner esp, a cohesive, unified brass sound is mandatory - you simply cannot have poor balance, unmatching tones, lack of ensemble for Bruckner - it sticks out like a sore thumb....same with Mahler to a large degree - and with Mahler, you must have outstanding strength throughout the sections, not just the principals.
I don't think that a higher pitch level results in more clarity for the woodwinds...as I said before - it tends to result in a thinner, harsher, more strident sound, lacking in lower, mid-range overtones. With the Munch/BSO woodwinds and brass, one simply does not hear the uniformity, the unanimity of tone, articulation and balance that one hears routinely from the better sections in other orchestras. It's the conductor''s job to establish, and achieve these goals. The conductor must have the ideal in mind, and teach, drill the orchestra accordingly...

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Mon Mar 12, 2018 10:12 am

Heck148 wrote:Munch would always change tempo at the end . . . it was always different.
HvK-style reruns that mummify the listener in their lifeless perfection Munch did not go in for, damn good thing too. Each performance should speak to the listener with something fresh to say.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by maestrob » Mon Mar 12, 2018 12:14 pm

jserraglio wrote:
Mon Mar 12, 2018 10:12 am
Heck148 wrote:Munch would always change tempo at the end . . . it was always different.
HvK-style reruns that mummify the listener in their lifeless perfection Munch did not go in for, damn good thing too. Each performance should speak to the listener with something fresh to say.
Hmpfff! Not so, says I! Musicians, in order to perform at their best, need consistent tempi in rehearsal and performance. Changing tempo willy-nilly leads to poor articulation and other ills like running out of breath, which leads to sloppy-sounding playing. Musicians rightfully resent conductors who lead performances that are different in major ways from what has been rehearsed. At least that's what I was taught at Juilliard.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Mon Mar 12, 2018 1:38 pm

jserraglio wrote:
Mon Mar 12, 2018 10:12 am
HvK-style reruns that mummify the listener in their lifeless perfection Munch did not go in for, damn good thing too. Each performance should speak to the listener with something fresh to say.
yes, spontaneity is good, usually, but it helps greatly if the orchestra is in on it, too. :)

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Mon Mar 12, 2018 1:41 pm

maestrob wrote:
Mon Mar 12, 2018 12:14 pm
Hmpfff! Not so, says I! Musicians, in order to perform at their best, need consistent tempi in rehearsal and performance. Changing tempo willy-nilly leads to poor articulation and other ills like running out of breath, which leads to sloppy-sounding playing. Musicians rightfully resent conductors who lead performances that are different in major ways from what has been rehearsed. At least that's what I was taught at Juilliard.
yes, that is correct....musicians like to see the same tempi, the same preparatory beats, the same sub-divisions, etc, etc....if the conductor screws around too much, he's asking for sloppiness, or, worse - train wrecks...

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by John F » Mon Mar 12, 2018 4:06 pm

Tempo changes, even extreme ones, can be brought off if the orchestra is well rehearsed. The recordings of Willem Mengelberg, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, have countless examples of this. And it's not just in studio recordings with the possibility of many retakes; live performances recorded off the air are just as secure.

The thing is, Mengelberg got his results in the years before unionization, and present-day work rules and limitations prevent the number and length of rehearsals. No doubt the more straightforward modern approach to musical interpretation supplanted Mengelbergism for esthetic reasons, but it was also more practical, i.e. didn't require as much rehearsal.
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Mon Mar 12, 2018 5:24 pm

John F wrote:
Mon Mar 12, 2018 4:06 pm
Tempo changes, even extreme ones, can be brought off if the orchestra is well rehearsed. The recordings of Willem Mengelberg, with the Concertgebouw Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic, have countless examples of this. And it's not just in studio recordings with the possibility of many retakes; live performances recorded off the air are just as secure.
Yes, this is very true...many conductors have done this with great success - one has only to listen to many Stokowski recordings to hear further examples - he could take rather stunning tempo and phrasing changes, that were far off the usual performance patterns - esp works like Tchaik Sym #4, Capriccio Esp, Firebird Suite...one wonders how he got the orchestra to follow him at all, regardless of time available!! but he did!!
The thing is, Mengelberg got his results in the years before unionization, and present-day work rules and limitations prevent the number and length of rehearsals.
I doubt that it has anything really to do with unionization or modern orchestral scheduling. A good conductor can work these things out very quickly. preparation by conductor, knowing exactly what he wants, how he is to signal it, make quick work of it. as a present day example - I heard Nelsons/BSO perform Mahler 6th a year or so back - Nelsons made many small tempo fluctuations, not huge, but significant changes, nonetheless, that had to be clear to the orchestra...these were virtually all brought off without mishap, and these were all accomplished within the limits of modern union era scheduling...
Munch's spontaneity was something else entirely....what the musicians saw at rehearsal was certainly not guaranteed to happen in performance...

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by John F » Mon Mar 12, 2018 9:08 pm

Stokowski's efficiency was proverbial. I've just now read an orchestra player's story that Stokey got a student orchestra he played in to sound like the Philadelphia Orchestra in an hour of rehearsal. But Mengelberg was a famous talker in rehearsals, extremely longwinded, and if you put that together with his typical tempo changes, that had to add up to extra rehearsals.

As for spontaneity, probably the most spontaneous musician of our time was Mstislav Rostropovich. A friend sang in the chorus of his Mahler 8 with the National Symphony and told me that every performance was different - and great. Of course the NSO was never a BSO, even in the latter's somewhat rundown state, and I'm sure there was much imprecision in the playing and singing. But in music-making, there are more important things than precision. jserraglio and I agree about that, if perhaps not much else. :D
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Tue Mar 13, 2018 5:11 am

John F wrote:
Mon Mar 12, 2018 9:08 pm
Stokowski's efficiency was proverbial. I've just now read an orchestra player's story that Stokey got a student orchestra he played in to sound like the Philadelphia Orchestra in an hour of rehearsal.
I've seen a number of Stoky rehearsal segments with the AAYO and was astonished by what that man could accomplish with young musicians in no time flat. He knew exactly what he wanted but treated the kids like pros.

Inspired by this thread, I have been listening to a slew of Austro-German Munch live broadcasts over the past few days, and hearing them has not altered my opinion that if Munch's musical approach is sloppy, we need more of it. Last nite, Strauss, Sinfonia domestica (Symphony Hall 28 Feb 1959). Sunny interpretation: rhythmically supple, whimsically colloquial, Duke-Ellington improvisational, making Reiner and Szell (both of whom I love in this work) sound like they wore starched tuxedos to their recording sessions. Preceded by a Brahms Serenade 1 whose supposedly "shrill and harsh" wind playing is right in my wheelhouse.

I do, however, very much appreciate and respect the opinions of the generously knowlegeable listeners and professional musicians here in this thread. Learned a lot in the process about what an orchestral player expects and needs from a conductor.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Tue Mar 13, 2018 8:14 am

John F wrote:
Mon Mar 12, 2018 9:08 pm
.... Mengelberg was a famous talker in rehearsals, extremely longwinded, and if you put that together with his typical tempo changes, that had to add up to extra rehearsals.
Yes, Mengelberg was known as a "talker", a characteristic that generally drives orchestra musicians nuts....it has given rise to some of the best-known anecdotes in orchestra lore: the famous Klemperer-Labate incident [NYPO] - the physical giant OK in his earlier years was quite a talker - on and on he went, until the diminutive principal oboe Bruno Labate hails him "Hey Klemp, you talka too much!!' It was said that Labate was so short, that when he sat in his chair, he was actually taller than when he stood up!! lol!!
Paul Paray, another talker, ran into trouble guest conducting Chicago - on and on he went about how he was going to conduct a particular passage - finally, in exasperation, one the brass or percussion players said <Aw, come on, you conduct it, we'll play it!!> peals of laughter. Paray, enraged, swore he'd never conduct Chicago again, and he didn't....<just a bunch of 'gong-stairs' [gangsters]!! >

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Wed Mar 14, 2018 7:11 am

Munch was faulted here b/c he didn't conduct much Mahler or Bruckner. Did Toscanini, Beecham, or Koussevitzky? How much Bruckner did Stokowski, Reiner, Mitropoulos and Bernstein conduct? These composers were hardly the taken-for-granted cornerstones of the repertoire in the mid 20th century that they are now. Walter, Ormandy, Solti, and Leinsdorf conducted both but how many other US-based conductors performed both regularly? Steinberg?

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by maestrob » Wed Mar 14, 2018 9:17 am

Point well taken. I have recordings of Bruckner from the 1960's, by, say, Horenstein, Klemperer or Schuricht: not many conductors were championing his work in that era, and they were mostly German with German orchestras, except for Bruno Walter and Szell in this country. Bruckner then was not standard rep as he is now. Mahler had just been "discovered" by Mitropoulos, and was being explored for the first time in stereo by Leinsdorf, Solti and Bernstein. Ormandy's Mahler II on 78's was the rare exception, and not very well done, IMHO.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by John F » Wed Mar 14, 2018 3:52 pm

Toscanini conducted Bruckner's 4th and 7th symphonies at the New York Philharmonic, the 7th twice, but otherwise not at all, and he never conducted any Mahler.

An incomplete recording of the 7th as broadcast in 1935 sounds to me very idiomatic, and indeed I'd say quite beautiful. Toscanini was a Wagnerian, in the opera house and the concert hall, having conducted "Parsifal" at Bayreuth, so Bruckner's language was not foreign to him.


https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jLy68N3CDKU

Only maestrob has said that the sound of the BSO under Munch was not suited to Bruckner or Mahler, and Heck148 said rightly that "Whether or not Munch conducted Mahler or Bruckner well is quite immaterial." The issue is how well he conducted and the orchestra played his chosen repertoire.
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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Wed Mar 14, 2018 3:59 pm

jserraglio wrote:
Wed Mar 14, 2018 7:11 am
Munch was faulted here b/c he didn't conduct much Mahler or Bruckner.
I don't hold it against any conductor if they didn't conduct much Mahler, Bruckner or any other composer....I'm much more interested in what they did conduct, and how well they did it. Monteux did not conduct much Mahler or Bruckner [tho his Wagner is quite excellent], Reiner did not care for Sibelius...so what?? both great conductors, two of the greatest ever, and both were magnificent in a very wide range of repertoire.
...interestingly - Reiner, IIRC, was cited in his CincinnatiSO years by the Bruckner Society for his performances and attention to Bruckner!! Philip Hart, in his excellent Reiner biography, lists Brucker Sym 3,4,7,8,9, Te Deum in Reiner's repertoire...doesn't say when or where conducted tho....

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Wed Mar 14, 2018 4:04 pm

John F wrote:
Wed Mar 14, 2018 3:52 pm
An incomplete recording of the 7th as broadcast in 1935 sounds to me very idiomatic, and indeed I'd say quite beautiful. Toscanini was a Wagnerian, in the opera house and the concert hall, having conducted "Parsifal" at Bayreuth, so Bruckner's language was not foreign to him.
absolutely - I think Toscanini would likely have been a superb conductor of Bruckner..AT was a great Wagnerian, you're correct, the language was right up his alley...
Only maestrob has said that the sound of the BSO under Munch was not suited to Bruckner or Mahler, and Heck148 said rightly that "Whether or not Munch conducted Mahler or Bruckner well is quite immaterial."
I agree with Maestro that the Munch BSO did not have a good sound for Mahler, and esp Bruckner....the brass choir was all over the place, a deadly fault for Anton....
The issue is how well he conducted and the orchestra played his chosen repertoire
. yup, exactly.....

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Wed Mar 14, 2018 7:43 pm

The issue about Munch's Mahler and Bruckner should be how well he actually conducted them.

So has anyone here who questions Munch's BSO as a performance vehicle for Mahler and Bruckner actually heard a performance by Munch of either composer?

Just asking. Maybe I missed reading opinions arising from actually HEARING Munch perform Mahler or Bruckner, but I could not find any. So far all I can find is conjectural put-downs of how he MIGHT have conducted Bruckner and Mahler based on Munch's putative limitations as a conductor and those of his orchestra.

I listened to Munch's Mahler 10th, Adagio and Purgatorio (Krenek) 1959 BSO broadcast over the weekend and liked it. Not the greatest Mahler I've ever heard, but overall quite idiomatic, affecting and well played for a midcentury performance. I have not heard his Mahler KTL.

As for his Bruckner, I have not yet heard any so I have no opinion. I found a kinescope commercially available from IGA Classics of the Bruckner 7th. Karl Miller has stated that Munch conducted the Seventh several times, also the Te Deum.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by jserraglio » Fri Mar 16, 2018 6:43 pm

Another take on Munch from Symphonyshare that addresses from a different perspective several issues discussed in this thread. Sorry it's so long.
on SymShare Trombatwo wrote:Performing in the shadow of the great Cleveland Orchestra, the conversations revolve around the famous skills of that orchestra from the Szell era, including pitch, rhythm, accuracy, etc. but also including the musical elements of style, tempi, etc.

Performing in the shadow of the great Boston Symphony Orchestra, the conversations revolve around the famous skills of that orchestra from the Munch/Leinsdorf era, including personality, style, tempi, color, etc. but also including pitch, rhythm, accuracy, etc.

I believe that we listen in others for that which we enjoy from our own experiences. To a Clevelander, the BSO may sound ragged or undisciplined. To a Boston Symphony member the Cleveland may sound flat or rigid with few sparkling eccentricities.

Roger Voisin told me that Munch once asked him what was wrong with Mr. Gomberg. Mr. Voisin said that he replied “Nothing, he’s a great player.”, to which Munch said, (very poorly paraphrased by myself), “But he doesn’t express himself, he doesn’t play out!”. Mr. Voisin said that he replied to Munch: “Maestro, in Europe your job is to hold the musicians back. Here your job is to pull it out of them. He’s waiting for you.”

I was discussing the Munch/Boston/Berlioz Overtures recording with a conductor from the Cleveland area. He thought that the recording was very poor indeed, citing the ensemble in the violins specifically. Now, I had never heard anything but high praise about this recording and had enjoyed it from my youth. One of the principals of the Montreal Symphony mentioned that they had studied that recording prior to recording their own record. Curious, I listened to the recording again, with an ear to finding the problems and indeed there they were. Somehow the brilliance of the interpretation had averted my aural gaze, and in this case I have to say that I simply do not care if there is some scurrying in the violins.. it remains a downright exciting jewel.

The famous first rehearsal where Munch is said to have let the orchestra enjoy the day instead of rehearsing is often quoted, but the BSO players that I knew never mentioned a lack of rehearsing. Even on this wonderful SymphonyShare there are recorded and shared Munch rehearsals, most recently I believe the Prokofiev: No.6 rehearsals from 1951, which is a very interesting listen.

I’m not sure that the criticism of “lack of unity” is easy to address. Listening, many orchestras were easily identified immediately in those days; not so in the current day. Strong principals playing with personality vs. a determined desire to blend was the recipe in that era. In today’s orchestras this level of eccentric playing would rarely be found or accepted but it was then, and was appreciated.

Pitch.. while unpredictable pitch is always an issue, when you know that you will be performing at a specific pitch the instruments, mouthpieces, reeds, head joints, etc. can be purchased which will give you that result. On oboes there are shorter and longer staples in addition to how the reeds are made, in clarinets there are different length barrels.. on bassoons bocals longer, shorter, reamed, etc. I am no woodwind player, but on trumpets we cut slides, all of them, to accommodate higher pitch if necessary. Armando Ghitalla was known to have owned a trumpet that was cut for off-stage playing. One does what one has to do to get the job done. The problem is when you are confronted unawares with that requirement and have not yet solved how you will deal with it.

I believe that Munch’s repertoire was quite expansive, with a weighting toward the modern French but which included all of the Germanic standards. It is not that he didn’t perform those works, but rather that his interpretations were infused with his energy and native stylistic preferences, and this makes some of his exciting performances foreign to our current cultural beliefs regarding interpretation and how to approach it. I do not find that the orchestra went “badly downhill” following the Koussevitzky era, but this is a commonly heard criticism from those who dislike the Boston style. Munch brought many guest conductors to the podium, and even his concertmaster (Richard Burgin) was well received as conductor of a fresh repertoire. Burgin’s “Das Lied..” remains one of my favorites, and if I’m not mistaken, he introduced other Mahler to Boston.

Excellence is excellence. Munch was a marvelous musician, with exciting ideas and performances.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by Heck148 » Sat Mar 17, 2018 8:35 am

jserraglio wrote:
Fri Mar 16, 2018 6:43 pm
Another take on Munch from Symphonyshare that addresses from a different perspective several issues discussed in this thread......
So this listener is basically confirming the criticisms leveled against Munch and his BSO ensemble - sloppiness, less than stellar ensemble, eccentric playing from principals....these are really rather indisputable...
for some listeners, the energy and enjoyment of the conductor offset these performance shortcomings, which is fine, but there are some objective standards that do exist and it is fair to pass judgement based on these criteria.
I do think that the performance quality of the BSO declined under Munch, but it had already started in the later Koussevitsky years...apparently, for both of these conductors, matching of tones within a section, dynamic balance, uniform execution were not major priorities. for Munch, excitement and spontaneity were the goals - but, as other conductors and orchestras have shown, it is possible to achieve these goals, and maintain precision and ensemble at the same time.

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Re: Charles Munch, conductor

Post by maestrob » Sat Mar 17, 2018 9:29 am

Heck148 wrote:
Sat Mar 17, 2018 8:35 am
jserraglio wrote:
Fri Mar 16, 2018 6:43 pm
Another take on Munch from Symphonyshare that addresses from a different perspective several issues discussed in this thread......
So this listener is basically confirming the criticisms leveled against Munch and his BSO ensemble - sloppiness, less than stellar ensemble, eccentric playing from principals....these are really rather indisputable...
for some listeners, the energy and enjoyment of the conductor offset these performance shortcomings, which is fine, but there are some objective standards that do exist and it is fair to pass judgement based on these criteria.
I do think that the performance quality of the BSO declined under Munch, but it had already started in the later Koussevitsky years...apparently, for both of these conductors, matching of tones within a section, dynamic balance, uniform execution were not major priorities. for Munch, excitement and spontaneity were the goals - but, as other conductors and orchestras have shown, it is possible to achieve these goals, and maintain precision and ensemble at the same time.
Yep! Agreed.

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