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Charles Munch and Beethoven? An unlikely combination of French conductor, and arguably Germany's greatest composer and his greatest composition! But this wonderful reading with stellar soloists (including a young Leontyne Price) and the New England Conservatory Choir under Lorna Cooke de Varon made at Boston's Symphony Hall in 1958 was one of my most treasured LP sets. Now it's been transferred to CD, and in spite of some significant gripes about the transfer to CD, this is one of those rare occasions when everything comes together: Conductor, Orchestra, Soloists, Chorus, and original Recording Production to produce a breathtaking musical statement.
In my opinion, this is one of the finest performances recorded of Beethoven's Ninth available, including Toscanini's! From the opening majestic Allegro (but not too much so), through the driving Molto Vivace (a theme once used for closing credits for NBC Nightly News... "Good Night, Chet. Good Night, David!"), on to the sweeping Adagio with a very sustained but understated rhythm, to the wonderous solo singing and choral finale, this recording excites by its cohesive yet dynamic structure and wonderfully preserved sonics. Albeit very marred by some overload, "puncher", or limiter distortion which is tragically, very evident on the louder passages.
Maybe it was his Alsace birthright, but Munch, remembered for his outstanding, and somewhat spontaneous interpretations of French music, applied an overview to Beethoven's masterpiece that knits the entire massive work into a performance that flows, overwhelms, and excites, but never seems overblown in theatrics. And it's all accomplished in less than 63 minutes! The "velvet gloved fingers of steel" of the Boston Symphony Orchestra (BSO) string section, inherited from Serge Koussevitsky, never cease to create intonations of a silken yet intense sound. I think the great master, Beethoven, whose name is emblazoned above on the Symphony Hall proscenium would have been very pleased indeed!
And just to add spice to this feast, there are some demonstrations of Munch's well deserved reputation for creating a unique ambience in French repertoire that has rarely been equaled by any other conductor. Albeit they are a mixed bag of mono and stereo recordings owing to the vintage of some of the performances.
We are treated to Bizet's youthful "Symphony in C" with the French National Radio Orchestra from 1966, Saint-Saens' "Overture to La Princesse jaune" with the BSO in one of Munch's earliest recordings with this ensemble from 1951, Berlioz's "Le Corsaire" overture in a performance of reckless abandon with the Orchestre de la Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire from 1948, Martinu's Symphony No. 6 written specifically for Munch to help celebrate the BSO's 75th anniversary, was premiered by this ensemble in January of 1955. Then a marked divergence into Prokofiev with extracts from "Romeo and Juliet" recorded with the BSO shortly after the conductor's first performance of this work from 1957. Whether intentional or not, this set also includes one of Munch's last recordings with the BSO, made in 1960: the "Scherzo" from Mendelssohn's "Octet". It's a pity not to hear the entire Octet performed by this ensemble. I guess we'll just have to settle for Toscanini's dated NBC reading for intensity of overall performance.
I earlier noted a major gripe concerning the transfer, however. Having executed similar transfers on old master tapes with similar issues, it's worth mentioning as a "caveat" to this set.
The original BSO recordings were probably made directly from strategically placed Neumann U47 microphones, through a tube mixer (with no added equalization - it's all they had in those days!), and recorded using tube-based Ampex 300 tape recorders onto 3 track 1/2-inch tape for the "Living Stereo - Orthophonic" release. I suspect a dub of the final 2 channel LP master is what was used for this CD release.
Hat's off to the original Production-Engineering team of Richard Mohr and Lewis Layton at RCA; they did a spectacular job with what they had to work with in the 1950's and 1960s', notwithstanding the wonderful acoustics of Boston's Symphony Hall!
The original raison d'etre for these tape recordings was transfer to consumer vinyl LP stereo discs, which inevitably have some high frequency losses due to transfer, manufacturing, and playback systems of the day. Thus, at the time of original releases, tape hiss was masked on the final LP discs along with correcting slight rise in the frequency response of the U47 microphones; nowadays referred to as a "presence" rise.
I suspect the recording team were well aware of these characteristics and worked diligently to make the master the tape recording in such a way as to compensate for these vinyl transfer issues. Certainly, this was a curious complementary effect of the recording and playback systems of 1958. Now there are simple software tools available to easily compensate for this situation, which restores the original acoustical sound by removal of this "presence" peak, gently reduce the steady background tape hiss, and possibly even "scrub" the overload distortion for CD release.
Alas, the re-issue engineers have seen fit to "tinker" much more heavy-handedly! Not with the overall frequency balance, but with the dynamics in the worst possible way! Critical listening points up "constricted" and distorted passages throughout all the transfers. They have evidently applied a now popular signal processing technique for "pop" recordings to create a "punchy" sound to the detriment of the original recordings. This is a true pity, and mars the wonderful effort of the originals to the point of creating grating and strident effects during loud passages of the music in both strings and chorus. At first, I suspected my own playback equipment. But on further critical examination of all the disc set contents, I discovered that all the various recordings, made at different times and by very different recording companies employing different recording techniques, suffered from the same wretched effects; distorting the true dynamics of the original masterpieces and influencing the final product with overuse of non-musical production tools.
All things considered, I guess 'tis better to have the recording, albeit in a marginal transfer. The re-mastering staff has indeed done service in providing these wonderful examples of great conductors of the 20th century with such landmark recorded performances. I only regret that they would learn to apply the vast array of post-production tools now available in minimal ways.
To paraphase award winning music producer and mastering engineer, Bob Katz ([...] As with fine food, a little seasoning can do much to improve the taste. But too much produces bland or bitter results, unworthy of a great repast! Sigh! Such tools need to be applied minimally and judiciously, so as not to spoil the fruit of so many peoples labors in generating the original recordings.
However, hat's are also off to this team of folks and their management for producing the entire series, albeit with some of their unnecessary, "heavy handed" post-production processing.
In spite of these aural flaws, if you love Beethoven, this one is a "must" for your collection! If you have never heard Munch conduct, then this is certainly a tantalizing introduction to him and some great repertoire.