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Hector Berlioz
Symphonie Fantastique

Claude Debussy
La Mer

Maurice Ravel
Daphnis and Chloe Suite No. 2

Charles Munch conducting
the Boston Symphony Orchestra
DVD: VAI 4317

 

Anton Bruckner
Symphony No. 9 in D Minor (Rehearsal and Performance)

Carlo Maria Giulini conducting the Radio Symphony Orchestra of Stuttgart
DVD: Arthaus Musik 101 065

Review By Max Westler
Click here to e-mail reviewer

 

DVD Label: See Above 

 

  First of all, grateful thanks to both VAI and Arthaus for making it possible for us to see as well as hear two of the 20th century's greatest conductors on occasions that serve their memories well. The Munch concert comes from April 17th, 1962, and was part of a regular seven-concert series the orchestra gave at Harvard's smallish (capacity 1666) but acoustically perfect Sanders Theater. It was the next-to-last regular season program Munch would conduct in front of the orchestra he had led for the past 13 years, a farewell bouquet of three French works with which he had been most closely associated over his long career. The performance of the Bruckner Ninth by guest conductor Carlo Maria Giulini and the Stuttgart Radio Orchestra is equally momentous. Taped in 1997, when Giulini was 83, it may well be one of the last concerts Giulini ever gave. In this respect, the choice of the Bruckner Ninth Symphony is significant, for it was clearly intended to be the dying composer's farewell. Though Giulini only started conducting Bruckner in the 1970's, I dare say no composer mattered more to him as he got older.

 

A Common Virtue

Munch and Giulini shared a virtue rare among orchestra conductors: modesty. "I think people should listen to the music. Opinions and details about the interpreters are not so important," Giulini once said. But he could easily have been talking for both men. Munch never liked to talk about being a conductor, and often seemed to approach his calling with a Gallic nonchalance. It was, of course, the utter lack of pretension and self-regard that made both men popular figures with orchestral musicians, who are characteristically less than forgiving when it comes to judging world-class maestros. In the end, Munch and Giulini avoided imposing their wills on the orchestras they worked with, preferring to lead by example. Given the visual evidence, it's clear to see exactly what the musicians are responding to with such intensity:  Giulini's reverence, Munch's infectious ardor.

 

Night and Day Different

In most ways, however, Giulini and Munch were night and day different: most obviously in their reputations for preferring tempos that were very fast (Munch) or very slow (Giulini). That same profound difference also applies to their rehearsal practice. Given the lengthy (and fascinating) excerpts that precede the actual performance, Giulini was exacting and meticulous in preparing a work for performance. Though he does indeed deal with expression ("I can't say it often enough: sing!"), in fact he devotes most of his time to matters of  balance and clarity: distinguishing between "forte" and "fortissimo" in a climax, asking the strings to change the bowing to darken the sound of a theme, gauging the relationship between trumpets and trombones to mark a transitional moment. For Giulini, the devil is in the details.

After watching this rehearsal, it's also clear that the characteristic transparency of Giulini's performances was no accident. At the very end, he tells the orchestra that the performance they're about to deliver will avoid any trace of emotion or extravagance; instead, they'll just be playing the notes.

 

Bruckner's Ninth

By "emotion" and "extravagance," I take him to mean "not in any way exaggerated," for the performance we actually see and hear is almost unbearably intense. In past reviews for "enjoythemusic," I've talked at some length about Giulini's Bruckner. In general, the older he got, the more his interpretations slowed. But that's certainly not the case here. Surprisingly, this Bruckner Ninth times out as the fastest performance Giulini ever gave of the work. Which is not to say, he is inattentive to Bruckner's gothic sense of architecture: there is a strong and purposeful sense of dramatic movement from first note to last. But there is also a greater sense of urgency, of electricity in the playing. This is in fact the greatest Bruckner Ninth I've heard from Giulini; and though the Chicago Symphony Orchestra (in 1976), the New York Philharmonic (in 1979, from a bootleg tape), and the Vienna Philharmonic (in 1982) all play magnificently in their recordings of the work with Giulini, the Stuttgart simply outdoes them all here. In even the quietest passages, there is a profound concentration that lets every note register with full expressive force. And the big climaxes are simply staggering in the sheer force of their attack. The booklet reminded me that this same orchestra once had Sergiu Celibadache as its music director, so you know it is well used to rising to a challenge. But judged from the visuals, it is also a very young orchestra, clearly making the most of its opportunity to play under the one of the great conductors. The full-hearted freshness of their response makes all the difference here. If this does turn out to be the last record we'll ever have of a performance by Giulini, I am profoundly grateful it is one of his greatest. I cannot think of a more appropriate testament to the recently departed conductor than this package.

 

Le Beau Charles

Unlike Giulini, Munch didn't really believe in the value of careful rehearsing. In fact, Munch ended his very first rehearsal in Boston after a half hour; instead, he asked any orchestra members who were game to join him in a round of golf. Typically, it was Munch's practice to deliberately under- rehearse a work, leaving most important questions to be answered in the heat of   performance. As a rule, orchestra musicians hate surprises, but over time these players came to accept if not enjoy the spontaneity and improvisational verve of Munch's conducting. Trust is, I think, the key issue here, and it worked both ways. The orchestra could trust that the volatile Munch would never lead them too far astray, and Munch could trust that these hugely virtuosic players would give him everything they had, hold nothing back, engage fully in the performance.

 

The Greatest French Orchestra. Period.

Which is exactly what they do here. At this point in its history, the Boston was commonly known as "the greatest French orchestra in the America," and they had the uncanny ability not just to negotiate the trickiest passages with  total unanimity, but to color the music they were playing in the boldest possible way. Their sound is intensely sensuous, visceral--more Matisse than Renoir. But they were also an orchestra of strong individualists, each of whom had an unmistakable aural profile of their own. Listening to the distinct, if not inimitable sound of, say, Roger Voisin's trumpet or Doriot Anthony Dwyer's flute or Ralph Gomberg's oboe or James Stagliano's French horn, to take only a few examples, is one of the unalloyed pleasures of this package.

 

Dr, Munch Plays Your Favorites

The performances are, as you would expect, sui generis. How could it be otherwise given Munch's total identification with these scores and the orchestra's long experience of having played them often under his direction. The Symphonie Fantastique sounds more like Munch's famous 1955 recording, than the more nuanced one he had recorded a few days earlier (and which I slightly prefer). If you know either or both of these performances, you'll appreciate the opportunity to actually see the orchestra making the astonishing sounds you've grown used to hearing. As for La Mer, this strikes me as an even better performance than the one he recorded five years before. Though somewhat more restless, it is also more compelling and intense, with remarkably atmospheric playing from the soloists. But if I had to single out one performance here, it has to be the Daphnis and Chloe. There is a deeply emotional sense of occasion to the playing here: the orchestra giving Munch a parting gift, something very special to remember them by. If you've been hungering to know why Charles Munch was a great conductor, or why the Boston Symphony was, during this period, one of the truly great orchestras, these glowing and preternaturally beautiful twenty minutes will provide the answer. It is pretty much the performance of a lifetime.

 

Some Technical Matters

The source of the Boston performances is a kinescope, and the black-&-white visuals are clear but a little dull, especially given the high-contrast digital signal that we're used to nowadays.  Happily, the sound is quite good, for the broadcast was simulcast by WGBH, then a pioneer in FM high fidelity. Though you would never mistake it for a studio production, it is remarkably honest and revealing, due at least in part to the perfect acoustic of Sanders Theater and the engineers' undoctored presentation. One caveat: there is a minor and apparently unavoidable blemish in the sound of the second half of the program, but it isn't enough to detract from the power of the Debussy and Ravel performances. Though the director had only two cameras at his disposal, he clearly knows the scores thoroughly and deploys his scarce resources judiciously. I was always under the impression that I was being shown exactly what I needed to be seeing.

The Stuttgart production is more up-to-date and sophisticated. Here the director takes us deep inside the process of the music being made, and his shots of the musicians working their instruments (or of Giulini conducting) are lovingly detailed and expressive. The direction is in no way obtrusive (unlike, say, the "films" of Karajan conducting, presentations that manage to be simultaneously loony and portentous). Here we get intimate and revealing portraits that suggest not just the musicians' technical accomplishments, but also the intensity and concentration of a great performance unfolding in real time and space. Happily, the sound is on the same high level. Though not quite demonstration quality, it could be the best sound Giulini ever received: vivid and transparent from top to bottom, but with great solidity in the climaxes that register with full terrifying force.

In brief, here you have two invaluable historical documents that turn out to be thrilling musical experiences as well. These productions will be self-recommending for fans of Munch and Giulini, but I would also recommend them strongly to anyone interested in the art of conducting. It simply doesn't get any better than this.

 

(Editor's note: I had the great pleasure of experiencing the Munch DVD on a short visit to Max this summer, and I enthusiastically endorse his conclusions. Also, I must mention one moment whose memory still brings me shivers.  Throughout the Daphnis, Doriot Anthony Dwyer's exquisite flute is one of the highlights.  During bows, Munch wades into the orchestra, grabs her hand, brings her to the front of the stage and gives her a huge hug.  This scene at once brought a smile to my lips and a tear to my eye.  Bravo maestro!  --- WD) 

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Giulini

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