Michael B. Richman | Portland, Maine USA | 05/05/2004
(5 out of 5 stars)
"RCA/BMG is continually playing catch up to the likes of Sony, EMI and Universal when it comes to classical CD series. In my opinion, their latest creation, "Red Seal Classics," is just as uninspired as their earlier "Basic 100" series. Part of this has to do with the fact that many of the performances they have chosen to reissue are just not very appealing, but it mostly has to with pricing and marketing inconsistencies. First, when your competitors' series are all priced at budget-line, don't charge a few dollars more for your product. That's a guaranteed no sale. I mean seriously, which CD do you think a novice classical fan will buy? Second, RCA already has a budget-line, the "Red Seal" Series, so why reinvent the wheel with the "Red Seal Classics" series. When the same artists are featured in both series (see my review of Munch's Dvorak Sym 8/Cello Concerto), then what is the difference between regular and "classic" anyway? I guess there is some larger strategy at work here that I just don't comprehend.
What I do understand is good music, and that it can rescue an otherwise poor product. RCA/BMG is fortunate to be able to call upon the classic vintage stereo recordings of Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra for their reissues. The exact contents featured on this CD -- "La Mer," Prelude a l'apres-midi d'un faune," "Nuages," "Fetes" and "Iberia" -- were previously issued as Volume 7 in the "Basic 100" series, and the very same "La Mer" performance continues to be available on a "Living Stereo" title coupled with Saint-Saens' 3rd Symphony. Munch was a master of the French repertoire, and his performances of the aforementioned "Organ" Symphony, Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique" and Ravel's "Daphnis et Chloe" (see my review of the latter) are still regarded by many as the definitive accounts nearly fifty years later. While Munch did not leave us with as much Debussy as conductors Martinon, Ansermet or Cluytens (see my reviews), what he laid down for posterity is as good as it gets. Overall, the "Red Seal Classics" series is nothing to get excited about, but return of this magnificent Munch is indeed."
Not what I expected
Larry VanDeSande | Mason, Michigan United States | 06/23/2005
(3 out of 5 stars)
"When I began collecting classical LPs about 1970, Charles Munch was still one of the reigning heavyweights in this country, having died just two years earlier. His recordings peppered the RCA label and his reputation, both with critics and the public, was big. I read over and over what a great champion he was of French music and how he and his orchestra, the Boston Symphony, were the kings of French music.
I never got on the Munch bandwagon and nothing going on in this CD is going to get me there too quickly. The label of this remastered recording says, "Charles Munch and his 'French' orchestra deliver timeless interpretations of daring and delicacy." Well, they got it half right.
From the time I studied French impressionism in high school through my years studying music and art, I learned this particular time in history was one when artists (and composers) hinted at their subjects instead of stating them. A work of French impressionism is more pastiche than place mat, more cloud than caricature, more gossamer than grapefruit.
To use terminology from the American Heritage Dictionary, French impressionism is, "A musical style...using lush and somewhat vague harmony and rhythm to evoke suggestions of mood, place and natural phenomena."
Not having much exposure to Munch, and having read over and over about his greatness in French music, I thought this would be a conductor of delicate pastry that crumbles under any weight. Turns out this recording is hardly the exemplar of French impressionism. His conducting, based on examples given in this CD, almost completely lack subtlety and that famous "delicacy" cited on the back cover.
I was astonished when I listened to "La Mer", Debussy's portrait of the ocean. I have heard this music by many conductors expert in French music including Ansermet, Baudo, Boulez and Stokowski. None were as impatient and extrovert as Munch in their interpretation of this wonderful score.
I searched through all my volumes of LP, cassette, tape and CD criticism and had to go all the way back to 1970 -- to Martin Bookspan's "101 Masterpieces of Classical Music and Their Composers" -- to find a reference to this performance I found appropriate. In that tome, Bookspan (a great admirer of Munch and his orchestra) discussed "La Mer" and its relationship to the Boston Symphony, Kouzzevitsy and his successor, Munch.
When it came time to discuss Munch's recording (this one), Bookspan called it "near hysteria". After hearing this remastered CD, I couldn't agree more. I recently listened to Abbado's new recording of "La Mer" with a Swiss orchestra that shares a recording with Mahler's Symphony 2. I never thought of that as the epitome of greatness in this music, but compared to Munch, it is close!
Some things on this CD are better than "La Mer". His afternoon of a fawn is better, more in keeping with traditional recordings. The two excerpts from "Nocturnes" are pretty good although also very literal. In "Images" Munch seems to get impatient again, especially in "Gigue" and "Rondes de printemps". I've never read the score for this music so perhaps he is doing it properly. But it is quite distant from my conception of French impressionism.
Perhaps that is more the issue here...that my expectations were shattered by this recording, for the technical details are wonderful. The playing by the Boston Symphony Orchestra is exemplary throughout this disk and the recording is a successful upgrade of music first recorded in early 1950s stereo. The notes, while not being extensive, discuss the music and its place in Debussy's life. There is one paragraph on Munch and the symphony.
Still, after more than three decades of listening to the likes of Stokowski, Boulez and Ansermet in this music, I don't see how Munch's performances can be considered in the same class. They are too literal, too fast, too unsubtle and, frankly, too loud. Never has my expectation over a long period been less well met than by my introduction to the Debussy of Charles Munch.
My favorite recording of "La Mer" is Stokowksi's London/Decca CD first published as a London Phase 4 LP in the 1960s. It still sounds wonderful today and, with slower speeds and more introspection, gives a better idea of what is possible in this music. It is available through Arkiv music and probably for sale here via that vendor. Stoki's EMI studio recordings of "Nocturnes" and "Images" also show off everything Munch misses here."
'La Mer' before it grew muscles
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 06/03/2006
(4 out of 5 stars)
"Munch was an undisputed mster at Debussy and conductor of the most renowned "French' orchestra in the world, not excluding France. His BSO was not as virtuosic or precise as it had been under Koussevitzky, and you have to be prepared for that when listening to these remastered Living Stereo recordings. The current style of razor-sharp ensemble was introduced by Boulez in his thrilling Debussy recordings with the Cleveland Orch. in the Sixties, and Karajan's blockbuster 'La Mer' redefined the work as an orchestral showpiece.
I wonder if Munch doesn't come closer to the composer's intentions. He favors delicacy over razor-sharpness and relaxed impressionism over visceral impact. Detractors argue that the BSO plays a bit sloppily, coasting on its laurels--true enough in the Munch era. But the spirit of Debussy seems to breathe in his hands; Munch doesn't force the music into his own inflated conception of it. The major works here--La Mer, Images, and Nocturnes--all emerge with the same unforced scintillating sparkle. Personally, I love the current virtuosic way with these works, but there's a place in my heart for Munch."
Robert E. Nylund | Ft. Wayne, Indiana United States | 01/25/2006
(5 out of 5 stars)
"I find Charles Munch's interpretations of the music of Claude Debussy (1862-1918) second only to Arturo Toscanini. Both Munch and Toscanini recorded for RCA Victor; of course, Munch's recordings had the advantages of "Living Stereo," RCA's brilliant use of triple-track stereophonic taping. Toscanini did make two stereophonic recordings at the very end of his career; unfortunately, the performances were not up to his usual high standards because he was about to retire and realized that NBC would soon disband its wonderful symphony orchestra.
Munch (1902-1968) conducted the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1962, then founded the Orchestra of Paris near the end of his life. While on tour with the Parisian orchestra in the U.S., Munch died suddenly from a heart attack in 1968.
Back in February 1964, however, he guest conducted the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra in an all-French program that included Debussy's "La Mer." It was the first time I had heard this wonderful example of impressionistic orchestral music and I was overwhelmed by the intense, very moving performance of Debussy's music. This led me to purchase the RCA Victrola vinyl disc of Munch's 1955 stereo recording of "La Mer." It was every bit as exciting as the live performance I had heard in San Francisco.
Debussy often sat on the ocean shore, observing the waves and the wind; he was deeply moved by the effects he witnessed and sought, in 1905, to give his musical impressions of the ocean, climaxing with a violent storm that produced huge waves. All of the various moods of the ocean are included in the piece. The Boston Symphony recording remains a definitive performance.
Munch was actually Alsatian and quite a tall, imposing figure. He was clearly at home with the French repertoire, as can be heard in his recordings, particularly of the music of Debussy and Maurice Ravel. Fortunately, RCA Victor recorded many of the French impressionistic works with the Boston Symphony under Munch and these remain highly enjoyable performances.
After some experimental stereophonic recordings with Leopold Stokowski, RCA Victor chose Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra to make its first commercial stereophonic recordings in early 1954, beginning with Hector Berlioz's "Damnation of Faust." These early stereo recordings were initially issued on reel-to-reel tapes and then, in 1958, on the newly-developed vinyl "New Orthophonic" RCA Victor Red Seal recordings with the logo "Living Stereo" at the top of each album.
The listener is amazed at the clarity and fidelity of such early stereo recordings and, of course, the wonderful playing by the Boston Symphony, as recorded in its acoustically perfect Symphony Hall. These are performances to treasure! "