RAVEL:  Boléro.  Rapsodie espagnole.  Daphnis et Chloé (Suite No. 2).  HONEGGER:  Symphony No. 2
Orchestre de Paris/Charles Munch, cond.

EMI CLASSICS 67597 (M) (ADD) TT:  75:17

Strasbourg-born Charles Munch, second only to Pierre Monteux as the most important conductor of his generation, began his musical career as an orchestral violinist. For many years he was concertmaster of the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under Furtwängler  Munch began conducting in 1932 when he was forty-one, forming his own orchestra, the Paris Philharmonic, and became musical director of the Paris Conservatory Orchestra in 1937.  He recorded with this orchestra for Decca in 1946 and two years later recorded works of Brahms and Saint-Saëns with the Concertgebouw for the same label.  Munch visited the United States in 1946 and succeeded Serge Koussevitzky at the Boston Symphony. His countryman, Pierre Monteux, had been directori Boston from 1919 to 1924, remaining there until 1962.  Munc is best known for his interpretations of French repertory and made notable recordings of major works of Berlioz for RCA in the earlier days of stereo.  His readings of standard German repertory were often exciting although he seldom ventured far into its deeper meanings.  An example is his tremendously propulsive early RCA mono recording (his first for the label) of Beethoven's Symphony No. 7 (available in a fine transfer from Sound Dynamic Associates).  After leaving Boston, Munch often appeared as guest with many major orchestras of the world.  He died November 6, 1968 in the unlikely city of Richmond, Virginia, during a tour of the U.S. with the Orchestre de Paris.

Munch recorded profusely—usually French repertory.  This EMI Ravel reissue, taped in September/October 1968, is the conductor's last recording and finds him in a particularly expansive mood.  He leads the orchestra he founded which consists of musicians from the Paris Conservatory Orchestra. This Boléro is 17:08, one of the longest ever recorded; his 1958 Boston recording took but 14:57.  It's surprising that the trombone soloist in the French recording changes the infamous tune a bit, repeating a note other than written.  Munch obviously didn't object—and it is effective.  (As a matter of fact it would be fascinating if orchestras would consider Boléro to be an orchestral showpiece and let each of the many soloists improvise a bit on the theme. Of course the point of the piece is its constant repetition of the same tune, but it would be interesting indeed to hear it played with more individuality).  Likewise this Rapsodie espagnole is longer than his 1958 RCA recording (16:42 vs. 14:55).  The Daphnis suite, always a specialty of this conductor, and a work he recorded in its entirety twice in Boston, is also more leisurely than his previous recordings.

Honegger's Symphony No. 2 was close to Munch and he recorded it three times; this CD contains his last, recorded in December 1967.  A friend of Honegger's, Munch had a particular love for this symphony so much so that in 1942 when he recorded it he could not bring himself to record the third movement with its trumpet chorale because of "circumstances of the time" (the Occupation).  The finale was recorded almost two years later.

Salle Wagram in Paris was the site of these recordings; it obviously is a cavernous place and the engineers did not solve the problem of excessive reverberation.  Low frequencies are blurred and the bass drum in the concluding pages  of Boléro is just a part of a big, undefined mass of sound.  Collectors will not be acquiring this CD for its sonic quality.

Munch admirers should also investigate his 1946 recording of two suites from Daphnis with the Paris Conservatory orchestra available in a fine transfer on Dutton coupled with other Ravel conducted by Ernest Ansermet and Sidney Beer (CDK 1201) and, of course, the RCA Living Stereo reissue of his 1955 complete Daphnis (61846).

R.E.B. (Sept. 2001)