Reissues Shine New Light on Conductor Charles Munch

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Boston is known for producing musical cult figures. It’s the city that nurtured the thoughtful pianist Russell Sherman, the maverick opera producer Sarah Caldwell and the idiosyncratic conductor Benjamin Zander.

It also provided a home base for Charles Munch, the Alsatian conductor who led the Boston Symphony from 1949 to 1962. In an age of podium autocrats, Munch was known to be a mild-mannered figure and an elegant champion of French repertoire, particularly the works of Berlioz, Ravel and Debussy. Yet after leading Boston through a bright period (he reportedly beat out Leonard Bernstein for the job), he was soon forgotten after his death in 1968. But that may be starting to change with a major new biography, video releases and box sets of long-absent recordings.

Chief among them are two RCA Romantic Masterworks sets that offer an broad overview of his work. Made in the early heyday of hi-fi, the second set, “Late Romantic Masterpieces,” spans seven CDs. It includes a passionate Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto with a young Henryk Szeryng; Dvorak's Cello Concerto and Strauss Don Quixote performed with the Russian cellist Gregor Piatigorsky; vibrant accounts of Wagner overtures and set pieces (with a young Eileen Farrell in golden voice for the Tristan and Gotterdamerung excerpts), and two Mahler song cycles featuring the great Maureen Forrester near the start of her career. With heaps of Tchaikovsky (including his Fourth and Sixth Symphonies), the set offers a side to Munch that is less appreciated.

These recordings were made at Symphony Hall between 1953 and 1962, but all sound remarkably clear and spacious in these 24-bit CD transfers. All are in stereo except for a fine-sounding 1953 mono recording of Don Quixote. If there is one drawback, it is the absence of any liner notes, although, at $20 the seven-CD set is still a good value. If this whets your appetite there are also new live sets of Munch conducting on West Hill Radio Archives and a new download from the Tanglewood Festival.

Late Romantic Masterpieces
Charles Münch
Boston Symphony Orchestra
Available at Arkivmusic.com