Charles Munch in Boston: A phoenix deferred

814368_DSSMUNCH26. Charles Munch (photogrpaher unkown, courtesy BSO Archives).
814368_DSSMUNCH26. Charles Munch (photogrpaher unkown, courtesy BSO Archives).
Posted: June 27, 2012

Posterity is full of dramatic reversals in the music-and-politics nexus that makes the last decade's irrelevance the next generation's cult figure. So it is with Charles Munch (1891-1968). Once curiously overlooked, the Alsatian conductor is emerging as the primary voice of none other than the Boston Symphony Orchestra.

While he was Boston's music director from 1949 to 1962, Munch represented a unique confluence of French and Germanic music-making that long seemed unappreciated. But in the last year, posthumous critical mass has been building, with a major biography, boxed sets of long-absent recordings, and videos released for home consumption for the first time. Munch is now a legend in the making.

His talent easily accommodates such lofty status even when compared with great artists who have led the Boston Symphony before and since. Serge Kousevitszky (1924-49) made the orchestra what it is today but left limited discographies. Because of ill health, William Steinberg (1969-72) and James Levine (2004-11) were incomplete chapters in the orchestra's history. Seiji Ozawa scaled exciting heights but was accused of having let the orchestra go to seed when he stepped down in 2002 after 29 years.

Munch's legacy was initially chipped away by factors that shouldn't matter. He was perfectly charming off the podium, writes biographer D. Kern Holoman, author of Charles Munch (Oxford University Press), but not very public. His less-distinguished successor Erich Leinsdorf (1962-69) bad-mouthed him for allowing too many concerts with too few rehearsals. Others said he recycled his Berlioz/Debussy party pieces too often. His post-music director visits to the Boston Symphony left a bad taste because his fees had shot up so high. Recording companies back then did not necessarily enshrine their deceased artists as they do now, and Munch had nobody to plead his case after his death.

Now that a wide range of his recordings is out, new truths emerge. The RCA Red Seal boxes, Charles Munch Conducts Romantic Masterworks (eight CDs) and Charles Munch: Late Romantic Masterpieces (seven CDs), and live sets on West Hill Radio Archives (not officially available in this country but downloadable from Qobuz.com) show how the Strasbourg-born Munch had a matchless affinity for Berlioz, Debussy, and Ravel and the suave musical surfaces that come with them. And, having spent formative years in the 1920s playing violin in the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra under the great Wilhelm Furtwangler, he preserved that personalized tradition of Germanic music-making long after it was buried in World War II's rubble.

To all that Munch added volatility, sometimes manifested in glints of madness but grounded in a piece's musical structure, which allowed him to push a performance to the brink of chaos without losing integrity.

His tempo changes could be frequent, and even when they were subtle he ran up against the straight-tempo hegemony created by Arturo Toscanini. That's fine for the French stuff, but Beethoven and Brahms? Though he doubtless had many philosophical opponents, one is confounded that such ceaselessly interesting performances, bristling with such inner heat, haven't been more widely heard.

So it's fascinating to learn from the Holoman book — one of the best conductor biographies in recent years, even if the author could have used more dispassionate distance — that Munch's career hit high gear at an age when some conductors start winding down. He made his debut at age 41 in 1932, and not until after World War II was he a sensation in the United States.

When he arrived for a Los Angeles Philharmonic guest appearance, Boston Symphony emissaries intercepted him to keep him from signing an agreement there. The intricate behind-the-scenes politics are reported in glorious detail, offering a rare glimpse of how such things are negotiated. Yet the Boston tenure almost didn't happen. Munch was pushing 60 and had significant health problems that might have left him without the needed stamina for a full-time music directorship.

In his personal life, Munch had felt compelled to marry his benefactress, the Nestlé heiress Genevieve Maury, who suffered such physical disability that the marriage possibly was never consummated. She chiefly remained in France, while in Boston, he had other relationships.

In his post-Boston years, he had a brief love affair with the Philadelphia Orchestra that Holoman describes as "slipping from a Cadillac into a Continental," though his crowning achievement was forming Orchestre de Paris in 1967. The following year, he dropped dead in his natural habitat: on tour with the Paris orchestra in Richmond, Va.

Nearly all Munch's recordings are well worth hearing. Among the current sets, the RCA Romantic Masterworks is the best. Made in the early heyday of hi-fi, the Boston recordings were blue-chip productions — in fact, the original album of his Daphnis et Chloe had illustrations by a young Andy Warhol. The smooth, seamless Mendelssohn symphonies ( Nos. 3, 4 and 5) suddenly became more eventful with Munch's tempo shifts and electric undercurrent. In Brahms' symphonies ( 1, 2 and 4) he let the tunes soar but found wonderful psychological complications in the counterpoint. His Schubert Symphony No. 8 goes to disarming existential depths. His concerto accompaniments never just tag along with the soloists but give them real ideas to engage with. Few conductors gave such interpretive credence to Jascha Heifetz's brisk tempos.

The Late Romantic Masterpieces is spotty. Still, Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 4 and Violin Concerto with Henryk Szeryng are hot, along with the classic Dvorak Cello Concerto with Gregor Piatigorsky. Oddly, Wagner with Eileen Farrell and Mahler with Maureen Forrester feel buttoned down.

On the ICA videos (originating from Boston's WGBH), Munch's physicality has to be seen to be believed. In particularly excited moments, he seems to sprout a few more arms that start flailing vertically, aided by his fat, long baton. I particularly relish the all-Beethoven disc's Symphony No. 5: The first movement flows as few do, and in the second each variation is a musical world unto itself. The French aren't supposed to be good at Beethoven. But Munch didn't transcend nationalities as much as he encompassed them.

Contact David Patrick Stearns at dstearns@phillynews.com

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