Charles Munch, Boston Symphony Orchestra. United Classics T2CD2013009.
In the first decade of the home-stereo era, the mid Fifties through early Sixties, RCA made a series of celebrated recordings with Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony, Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops, and Charles Munch and the Boston Symphony Orchestra, among others. The recordings were so good and became so popular, they’re still available in a variety of formats today. The RCA Munch recording of the Mendelssohn Fourth and Fifth Symphonies under review appeared originally on LP in 1958, then on CD and SACD from RCA, on XRCD from JVC, and now on disc from United Classics. No matter how you play it, the Fourth, especially, is a wonderful performance.
Of course, there is hardly a lack of good Mendelssohn Fourths available these days (Abbado, Blomstedt, Sinopoli, and Klemperer among my own favorites), but Munch’s was doubtless one of the earliest great stereo versions and one of my first recollections of the piece. Coupled with an equally good Mendelssohn Fifth Symphony from a year earlier, the album makes an easy recommendation, particularly when you can buy it at so reasonable a price.
Munch’s interpretation of the Symphony No. 4 in A major, Op. 90 “Italian” has all the forward drive you could want, with plenty of adrenaline flowing in the famous first movement. Munch begins the symphony with a thrilling surging of pace that get the blood racing like few other conductors in this work. When the second subject arrives, it does so under Munch in a sweet, graceful arch, returning to a variation on the opening. Then he takes the Andante briskly, almost to avoid any major contrast with the opening movement. It's not exactly the "slow march" we usually hear. The third movement is a kind of minuet that Munch has a little fun with. Finally, Mendelssohn said of the Fourth that he thought it was the "jolliest" of his works, and the final Presto (based on an exuberant Neapolitan dance) proves it, with Munch bouncing it around for all it's worth. You'll hardly find a better, more-spirited performance no matter what the cost or age.
What surprised me, though, was how much I liked the accompanying Symphony No. 5 in D minor, Op. 107 “Reformation.” I don’t suppose it should have surprised me; it’s a splendid piece of music. I just keep thinking of it in terms of its slow, heavy opening movement rather than its superbly light second-movement Allegro, a movement that suggests the “Scottish” Symphony in its delightful, folksy simplicity. Mendelssohn actually composed his Fifth Symphony a year or so before his Fourth; however, he wasn't too keen on it and dismissed it out of hand. Nobody heard the music again until some twenty years after the composer's death.
Anyway, after a fairly grave first movement, the second-movement Allegro vivace dances merrily along, reminding us this is, indeed, Mendelssohn. And again Munch makes the most of it. The work concludes with a Finale quoting Luther's "A Mighty Fortress Is Our God," which Munch handles with appropriate dignity and splendor.
I’ve owned this recording for several years now on a JVC XRCD remastering that costs a small fortune to buy, and I find it slightly but significantly more dynamic and better defined than the standard RCA product. This United Classics edition is not quite up the JVC standards, either, but it still sounds plenty good.
Like other RCA Munch recordings of the Fifties, there are things to like about the sound and things maybe not to like. It is an exceptionally realistic recording, with plenty of clarity in the midrange and treble and some solid, well-defined bass. On the minus side, it can also be a tad hard and bright in places. And like many of RCA’s “Living Stereo” recordings of the time, there is almost too wide a stereo spread.
The recording’s sound is fine in any format, but on this United Classics disc we hear what may be a bit more noise suppression than on the JVC disc. The sonics are very smooth, with the noise reduction having little effect on the high-end extension. A quick switch to the JVC, however, reveals the newer product displaying some slight loss of detail, definition, and focus. Nevertheless, if you don't have the JVC disc for comparison, the United Classics sound (or the RCA) is still good and surely belies its fifty-odd years.
Certainly, United Classics have priced this edition of the recording right. I noticed a number of retail outlets on-line offering it new for well under ten bucks, making it hard to resist.
To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here: