Ravel: La mère l’oye Suite

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COMPOSERS: Debussy,Ravel
LABELS: ICA Classics
WORKS: Ravel: Ma mère l’oye Suite; Debussy: Ibéria; La mer
PERFORMER: Boston SO/Charles Munch (recorded live 1958-1961)
CATALOGUE NO: ICA Classics ICAD 5014 (NTSC system; LPCM Mono; 4:3 picture format)

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Charles Munch left a large legacy of filmed performances but, although a decent number of them have appeared on DVD, those from his tenure as music director of the Boston Symphony (1949-62) have been relatively neglected. ICA’s releases are consequently welcome for documenting Munch’s work with ‘his’ orchestra, then as now one of the world’s great symphonic ensembles. 
 
Some of the most expert playing here comes in the Beethoven Symphonies, in which strings demonstrate effortless synchronisation and winds pass phrases between one another seamlessly; further, the confident playing of principal cellist Samuel Mayes in the Adagio from The Creatures of Prometheus makes for an arresting solo turn (Louis Speyer’s very French cor anglais playing in the Franck Symphony is another). Despite the attractions of the orchestra, however, Munch remains the primary feature of interest.
 
He seems perpetually engaged and is liable to break into a grin or ecstatic grimace at any moment. His apparent spontaneity is based on an extensive repertory of gestures that intrigue by coalescing into many different physical units – one can find him conducting alternately from the wrist, the elbow, and the shoulder, or even swaying from the waist with everything else remaining rigid; rearing far back when preparing to give especially strong beats; bouncing lightly on his feet; waving his long baton rapidly at the pace of quick figuration (a worryingly destabilising effect); fully extending his arms to the front; and so on. Such descriptions cause Munch to sound like a meretricious showman; instead, he conveys a natural, relaxed, humane demeanour that justifies the nature of his physical activity.
 
His interpretations follow suit and he shows himself to be a musician with both considerable expressive range and a direct, unaffected approach. Munch drives the orchestra hard in the ecstatic culmination of Debussy’s La mer and in the finale of the Franck Symphony, while he creates a pleasant sense of flow in the slow movement of Beethoven’s Fourth Symphony and the second movement of the Franck (one passage here finds him conducting briefly without a baton). Meanwhile there’s breathtaking eloquence in the second movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (an unusually broad account) and in Fauré’s The Death of Mélisande. Even in the Fauré Sicilienne, where his tempo inflections and extensive articulations initially seem a bit fussy, Munch’s manner creates a vibrant and deeply felt interpretation.
 
Recorded in 1958-61, the sound of these performances is dated, and the quality of the picture ranges from quite clean (Ibéria) to comparatively dark and fuzzy (Fauré). Camerawork – sometimes effective, sometimes clunky – captures delightful moments: for example, Munch waits to begin Ibéria until a fire siren fades, and, at the end of Ravel’s Mother Goose suite, immediately calls the contrabassoonist to the front of the stage for a solo bow. David Breckbill