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  Living Stereo
  Mendelssohn: Symphonies Nos. 4 & 5 - Munch
  Mendelssohn: Symphony No. 4 in A major Op. 90 "Italian", Symphony No. 5 in D minor Op. 107 "Reformation"

Boston Symphony Orchestra
Charles Munch (conductor)
Track listing:
  Classical - Orchestral
Recording type:
Recording info:

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Related titles: 9 show all

Reviews: 5 show all

Site review by ramesh July 10, 2006
Performance:   Sonics:  
1. Scherzo from Octet, Op. 20 ( Rec. 7/60 )
2. Symphony No.4 ( Rec. 2/58 )
3. Symphony No. 5 ( Rec 10/57 )

One has to chuckle at some covers. The picture depicts the Arch of Titus, with what possibly is a pine tree at the edge of the photograph. Yet, when one turns to the jacket of Respighi's 'Pines of Rome' in the same SACD series, what does one see? Very few, if any pines.

This SACD of vintage Munch performances also includes a cherishable bonus, the famous scherzo from the octet.
It is interesting to compare the 'Italian' symphony to Szell's 1962 performance, also on SACD. The only deficiency in the Munch is the absence of the first movement exposition repeat, which Szell observes. Szell's performance could well be described as 'brilliant', the outer movements bursting out of the starting blocks and maintaining this pace to the end. Some might find this verging on the militant.

Munch's tempi are less fleet. Indeed, all the movements in this disc strike a happy medium. The orchestra is recorded slightly more closely than Szell's Clevelanders. The string sound of the Boston orchestra consequently sounds fuller. The woodwinds have a slight but appealing nasality which I gather represents the orchestra's Gallic tinge during the Munch era. The brass has presence and bite, without blare. Throughout the performances of both symphonies, I was reminded of Munch's conducting of Berlioz. Szell's phrasing sounds leaner, more streamlined, and aimed to contain longer stretches of music.

In contrast, Munch's style, especially amongst the strings, presents more highly moulded and articulated phrasing. Every now and then, the strings will 'dig in' over some notes, before relaxing the pressure to allow details from the woodwind to suddenly shine through. One is reminded here of Berlioz's orchestration and melodic writing, with the quicksilver and unexpected handovers of melody from one set of instruments to another. This is not to say that Munch's performance is maverick, nor that he moulds the music in a style at odds with the composer's intentions. The shifts in emphasis are subtle, but audible if one is alert. In other words, there is more to discover the more one listens, unlike some superficially more exciting renditions. ( Szell is brilliant and not superficial, although charm is jettisoned along the way.) Munch's inner movements may in principle lean towards the stately, but because of the detailed perspectives, especially from the woodwinds, there is so much of interest that one welcomes unhurried tempi. These comments I aim mainly at the 'Italian'. I am almost certain he weaves the same individual magic in the 'Reformation', but as I barely know the piece, I'm not familiar with the standard interpretative formulae for these nuances. This is the first time I have actually found the 'Reformation' symphony semi-interesting, so it must function as an enthusiastic welcome.

The sound has remarkable little tape hiss, and is typical of the Boston recordings from this source. The strings are warm and solid, the brass not as piercing and obviously virtuostic as at Chicago, the stereo spread rather wide but without a hole in the middle, the orchestra bathed in a lush but not overresonant acoustic.

Review by Peter November 14, 2006 (6 of 6 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
This is another addendum to Ramesh's excellent review above.

Mendelssohn's music seems to be enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in recent years and hardly a month goes by that another important recording appears of his music.

He started working on the "Italian" symphony in 1830 on a visit to Italy, and eventually completed it in 1833, after some difficulty. He composed much of his music with such facility that it is perhaps surprising that this wasn't one of those works he tossed of between breakfast and morning coffee. The "Italian" is in fact earlier than the "Hymn of Praise" or the "Scottish".

The first movement is quintessentially joyous and it isn't difficult to imagine the Italian countryside in Summer as its inspiration. The second is said to have been inspired by a solemn procession of pilgrims in Rome or possibly Naples. The third and fourth are dance movements, the last a Saltarello which is an energetic Italian skipping dance. I have only just discovered that Mendelssohn wasn't happy with the final product and intended to revise both the first and last movements; the symphony was first performed after his death.

The "Reformation" symphony was written before the "Italian" in 1829 (finished in 1830), to celebrate the 300th anniversary of the Protesant Reformation and, I guess, is a homage to Martin Luther, as the last movement is based on a chorale written by Luther. The first movement is famous for its inclusion of the "Dresden Amen" which Wagner used, too, in "Parsifal".

Munch's Living Stereo recordings of Mendelssohn are nearly 50 years old and wear their age lightly. The Reformation gets a fine performance and recording, as does the "Italian" though while strings are excellent (if a little too toppily recorded) the rest of the orchestra seems balanced too far back and is overwhelmed by them. The Octet movement, in its arrangement for orchestra for the 1st symphony, appears on CD/SACD for the first time and demonstrates Munch's ability to produce filigree - really outstanding playing.

Fans of Munch or Living Stereo need not hesitate. Fans of the "Italian" may prefer Linn's more modern recording and performance.

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Review by threerandot June 25, 2007 (5 of 5 found this review helpful)
Performance:   Sonics:  
I have had very few recordings of Charles Munch over the years, except this one, which was on CD. This disc presents these works with new depth and better sound than was made available previously.

The "Italian" Symphony gets a full-blooded performance with an exhilirating opening. Munch has no reservations about pushing the orchestra full steam ahead and there is a delightful exhuberance to the opening movement. The second movement may seem a little faster to some ears than it should be and I think it could have benefited from a little more pathos. The third movement exudes a more pastoral quality even though, again, the tempos may seem a little too fast. At least to my ears. The wistful qualities of the winds and horns are present, however. The BSO are encouraged to dive into the last movement just like the first, with great gusto. I feel that there could have been a little more finesse in this performance.

The "Reformation" opens with a stately mood rather than a feeling of calm or tranquility. Again, Munch pushes fearlessly on, with a Beethovenian urgency. The second movement gives us a bit of a breath with a more laid back approach and Munch does stop to smell the flowers. Munch is probably nowhere on this disc more restrained than in this third movement. He also settles things down very nicely leading into the Finale with strings actually reaching a nice pianissimo. The finale builds and surges to a grand climax with the work ending on a truly heroic note.

The Scherzo from the Octet in E flat ends the disc on a light note. Munch gives a precise and controlled reading. The recording lacks the vibrancy of the previous two performances, however.

As someone above has pointed out, this disc presents a very militant view of Mendelssohn. Make no mistake, these are robust and fiery performances of these works. I wish that Munch would have added a little more contrast between inner and outer movements.

Strings are perhaps a little too forward, but basses come through quite well. Woodwinds are clearly caught. Brass comes through very vividly. It is easy to tell that the sound is very close with the orchestra almost on top of you. This does limit the depth to the recording however. Tympanis could be clearer. Some might even describe the sound as somewhat congested, but there is a certain degree of warmth which is welcome. For its age however, the sound is very good, with improvement because of the original three-channel reproduction.

Overall, the approach is quite fierce and this may appeal to some. I am still not sure just how much I like this approach to Mendelssohn. I appreciate Munch in has grand climaxes which are exciting. The Subtler moments are not always savoured as much as I would like, although the subtle passages in the "Reformation" are more keenly felt. Still, there is much to enjoy in this disc and the low price makes it an easy choice. If you like your Mendelssohn with lots of fire, this could be the disc for you. Recommended with reservations.

(This review refers to the Multi-Channel portion of this disc.)

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Works: 2  

Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy - Symphony No. 4 in A major, MWV N 16 Op. 90 "Italian"
Felix Mendelssohn-Bartholdy - Symphony No. 5 in D minor, MWV N 15 Op. 107 "Reformation"