The Alsatian conductor Charles Munch (1902-1968) led the Boston Symphony Orchestra from 1949 to 1962, succeeding the Russian-born conductor and teacher Serge Koussevitsky. Munch excelled in the French repertoire throughout his career and this RCA Victor disc features four excellent examples of his abilities with this unique music.
There is indeed a "French touch" in classical music, a certain amount of elegance, wit, and brilliance that requires a gifted hand to be successful. Munch was one of those rare conductors who could definitely bring out the best in the Boston Symphony, making an American orchestra sound more French than could be expected.
Munch, who founded the Orchestra of Paris near the end of his life, was chosen by RCA Victor to make its very first commercial stereophonic recording, in early 1954, of Hector Berlioz's "The Damnation of Faust." For the next eight years, Munch and the Boston Symphony made numerous recordings in RCA's remarkable "Living Stereo" process, which were made in Boston's historic Symphony Hall with a triple-track tape recorder and three microphones. The recordings first appeared in stereo on reel-to-reel tapes, while most listeners heard them on conventional high fidelity discs. Finally, in 1958, RCA began releasing stereo discs, relying on four years of stereo tapings.
This compilation begins with Paul Dukas' greatest work, his musical telling of "The Sorcerer's Apprentice," inspired by the Goethe poem that was itself inspired by an ancient legend of an Egyptian sorcerer who lived underground and enjoyed bringing inanimate objects to life. In this case, the sorcerer used a broom to fetch water. His apprentice, or assistant, had been watching and, after his master had departed, he was able to duplicate the feat. However, the apprentice soon discovered he did not know how to stop the broom, which continued to bring water, flooding the room. In desperation, the sorceror hacked the broom to bits, only to have the bits form new brooms with hands carrying more buckets filled with water. Only the return of the sorcerer himself prevented total disaster and, of course, he promptly disciplined the sorcerer.
Dukas' music closely follows the story and even the rhythms of Goethe's poem. In Munch's hands, the full drama of the story is presented with great intensity and finesse. He brings out the full mystery and intrigue of the musical tale. The growing flood can be visualized with the powerful playing of the Boston Symphony. This is definitely one of the greatest performances of this work and, unlike the familiar Stokowski recording for Walt Disney's "Fantasia," it is presented uncut.
Less familiar on this disc is Camille Saint-Saens' "Omphale's Spinning Wheel," a symphonic poem that depicts the legendary Hercules' humiliation for disobeying divine authority. He is put to work as a servant for a queen, who forces him to dress as a woman and to work endlessly at a spinning wheel. Saint-Saens' music is also mysterious and haunting; one clearly senses Hercules' humiliation as the music spins relentlessly, with no end in sight. This performance vies with Leonard Bernstein's later recording as one of the best recorded. The Boston strings particularly excel in the recording.
Maurice Ravel's delight in children and children's tales is wonderfully represented by his ballet "Mother Goose." This is the suite, which omits the introduction and interludes heard in the full score. It is magical, delightful music, representing several of the traditional fairy tales that have delighted children of all ages for many years. Munch brings out the best in this lushly-orchestrated music.
Finally, there is a real rarity: Cesar Franck's "The Accursed Huntsman." Here is a story of a man who dares to go haunting on a Sabbath and is pursued by demons as punishment. This 1962 performance was one of Munch's last recordings with the Boston Symphony. I first heard it on the original RCA Victor LP, in which it was coupled with Ernest Chausson's symphony. I have heard a few other recordings of this music and none have come close to the intensity that Munch achieved. The sound, of course, is exceptionally good and it remains a truly high fidelity achievement. The famous Boston Symphony chimes, used particularly in Munch's performances and recordings of Berlioz's "Symphonie Fantastique," are yet another more factor in this incredible performance.