For conductor Charles Munch, virtuosity meant taking risks

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For conductor Charles Munch, virtuosity meant taking risks
In an image provided by BSO Archives, Charles Munch leads the Boston Symphony Orchestra in Leonard Bernstein’s “Kaddish” Symphony at Symphony Hall in 1964. This 20th-century maestro could be extreme at the podium, but he also believed in the “beauty, joy and goodness” of an artist’s calling. (BSO Archives via The New York Times)

by David Allen

NEW YORK, NY.- When Charles Munch started work as the conductor of the Boston Symphony Orchestra in the fall of 1949, he gave a speech.

There wasn’t much he could say, in truth. His English was poor, though he had just sacrificed an umlaut in his surname in deference to American spelling. An Alsatian sometimes known in Germany as Karl, and in France always as Charles, he had served the Kaiser on the Somme in the First World War, then defended French culture in resistance to the Nazis in the Second. If he bothered to hold a rehearsal at all, he spoke to his musicians in a variety of languages, or let his gestures, flamboyant yet intentional, do the talking.

Munch wanted to make one thing clear to the Bostonians, though: He was not their former music director, Serge Koussevitzky. The orchestra’s players had toiled under the autocrat, whose shadow lingered over Munch, too. Even after Munch died in 1968 — while touring the United States with the Orchestre de Paris, which he had formed a year before — his New York Times obituary labored over the comparison with his predecessor, describing his task as having been “on a par with trying to follow Thomas Alva Edison as an inventor or Magellan as a navigator.”

Yet Munch had no interest in being Koussevitzky’s kind of maestro; once a Stradivarius-wielding concertmaster himself, he saw no artistic or human point in making a musician miserable. As Time reported in a cover story in December 1949, he spent his first weeks in Boston telling his players that they could rest easier. In his introductory remarks, he told them that “there will be joy.”

For him, “beauty, joy and goodness” were the calling of an artist. As such, music, as he said in 1954, could offer “reconciliation with life itself.”

Munch was shy and private when his baton was not slicing through sound; his biographer, D. Kern Holoman, has argued that conducting gave him relief from sadness of all sorts, whether the grief of enduring two wars between the cultures that claimed him, or the anguish of an unhappy marriage. (Holoman taught at the University of California, Davis, until 2017, when he left over rape allegations.)

Conducting may have given Munch relief but perhaps not deliverance. His interpretations could be as extreme as his times, at one moment outlandishly swift or brutally violent, contemplative or uncommonly tender the next, giddy fun at the last. Critic Virgil Thomson wrote of his approach to Franck’s Symphony that “he plays it very slow and very fast, very soft and very loud, reins it in and whips it up, gives it (and us) a huge workout.”

That description fits more broadly; Munch was the rare conductor who welcomed imprecisions, even coarseness of tone, in his pursuit of outright spontaneity. An objectivist he was not.

All this and more is clear from Munch’s enthralling discography. His Boston recordings for the RCA label were collated in an 86-disc Sony set in 2016; it has sold out, but most of the contents are still on streaming platforms. Warner and Eloquence have since separately boxed their catalogs of his pre- and post-Boston releases, giving a sense of Munch from his first sessions, with pianist Alfred Cortot in Saint-Saëns in 1935, to his last, with the Orchestre de Paris in Ravel in 1968.

Munch was a different musician under studio conditions than he was live, Holoman writes, and he controlled his most explosive tendencies in the hope of making records that would last. Even his two incendiary Boston readings of Berlioz’s “Symphonie Fantastique,” his trademark piece, come nowhere close to the maelstrom he inflamed onstage.

He dared one of the world’s most proficient orchestras to play beyond itself in concert; some of his finest releases — his Schubert Ninth, his Mendelssohn Third — are, conversely, those in which he builds tension by refusing to let go as blatantly as he might in front of an audience.

Even so, sample Munch’s recordings — more than the Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel in which he was justly celebrated — and it is hard to disagree with the verdict of Times critic Howard Taubman, who wrote of a 1950 concert: “Whether the music is illuminated or driven, it is never just respectable or indifferent. It is alive; it is the natural outgrowth of the conductor’s point of view.”

Munch was born in Strasbourg, which was then in Germany, on Sept. 26, 1891, into a dynasty of musicians. His father, Ernest, mounted a Bach revival leading the church choir of Saint-Guillaume; his brother, Fritz, was a conductor and conservatory director; his uncle Eugène was an organist who taught Albert Schweitzer, whose friendship and spirituality influenced Charles throughout his life.

Charles Munch learned all kinds of instruments, like a little Bach might, but settled on the violin and was playing under his father’s baton by his early teens. He went to Paris in 1912 to study with Lucien Capet, a famed quartet violinist, but returned home to his family days before Germany invaded Belgium. Conscripted into the German army with two brothers, he was injured as an artilleryman at Verdun; he subsequently embraced pacifism and took succor in music.

The common critique of Munch as a mature conductor was that his volatility ill fit works in the Haydn-to-Brahms tradition, but he had a strong training in the Romantic school of German conducting.

After playing as the concertmaster of the Strasbourg orchestra from 1919 to 1924, he spent a year under Hermann Abendroth in Cologne, then held the same post at the Gewandhaus Orchestra of Leipzig for six seasons, working for Wilhelm Furtwängler and Bruno Walter.

His return to Paris in 1932 to start his podium career — with Brahms’ First — was made possible by the wealth of Nestlé heiress Geneviève Maury, his new wife.

At first, Munch was renowned for supporting new music, and during World War II, he made his allegiances clear by protecting and promoting French composers. At the helm of the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, France’s leading ensemble, Munch told his players in September 1940 that it was through art that they could “continue the fight.” One of his most intimate friends, pianist Nicole Henriot, would have her hand crushed by the Gestapo; Munch joined the Resistance, helped those he could, and tried to avoid compromising situations.

Research on the culture of wartime France by Jane F. Fulcher, Leslie A. Sprout and other scholars has suggested that while the Nazis visited horrors on Jewish artists, neither the occupiers nor their Vichy collaborators — nor their Resistance opponents — sought to curtail concert life. Most musicians in the Resistance carried on as if the occupation did not exist; French music, except that by Jews, was not banned.

Careful still to tend to proud Parisian traditions in the Germanic classics, Munch spent much of the war showcasing contemporary scores, such as politically ambiguous new works like Honegger’s Second Symphony and pieces that had been written in Nazi camps, including Jean Martinon’s “Stalag IX.”

Munch and the Société became so busy, they reached a strikingly high standard. Their wartime recordings, now in the Warner box, are remarkable for their calm, even in “La Mer” or “La Valse.” After their liberation, they let loose for Decca; the Eloquence set superbly reproduces the orchestra’s distinctive postwar timbre, as well as Munch’s intensity of expression. There is crisp Beethoven, heartbreaking Tchaikovsky, delicate yet eager Ravel. An account of Berlioz’s “Le Corsaire,” from May 1948, is so exhilarating, it is little surprise that authorities were reluctant to let Munch leave.

But he did.

On an initial visit to the United States that started near the end of 1946, Munch enjoyed the New York Philharmonic yet found the Boston Symphony to be “the culmination of all orchestras,” as he told The Boston Globe. He led that ensemble in only seven concerts before he signed a contract to become its permanent conductor, in March 1948. Despite a brutal schedule that included the first tour by an American orchestra in the Soviet Union, in 1956, he stayed through 1962.

While George Szell was giving the Cleveland Orchestra a focused power, and Eugene Ormandy sought glitter and gold in Philadelphia, Munch brightened Boston’s formerly dark hues, bringing its strident brass and cutting winds to the fore — most prominently the quivering principal flute of Doriot Anthony Dwyer, who became the only woman in the orchestra after Munch hired her in 1952.

Critics heard the transparent, though dry, results as typically French, but the ensemble’s fervor — its blare, some said — under Munch was his own, removed from the grace that his mentor, Pierre Monteux, drew from the same players. If Thomson had warned the Symphony in 1944 that “its form is perfect, but it does not communicate,” after a decade of Munch, the reverse might have been more true.

The cliché about Munch’s Boston Symphony was that it was all but a Parisian ensemble in exile.

“When I was living in New York in the ’50s,” Michael Steinberg of The Globe wrote in 1964, “I used to imagine Symphony Hall as the scene of a more or less perpetual performance of the Berlioz ‘Symphonie Fantastique,’ relieved now and again by ‘Daphnis and Chloe’ and ‘La Mer.’” That slur notwithstanding, Munch’s advocacy was unwavering and proud: His Berlioz, Debussy and Ravel were references for a generation.

Although the beauties of Munch’s Boston-era recordings of French music are great, some of them stray intriguingly from the norm. He rarely treated Debussy or Ravel as scores only to paint with prettily: For all their gorgeous interplay of voices, there is often a bite to them, as if Munch were deliberately placing them in a lineage that ran back to Berlioz and forward to Roussel and Honegger, and later Dutilleux. Once or twice, his own loneliness breaks through; he draws out “Le Jardin Féerique,” at the end of “Ma Mère l’Oye,” until it is tear-inducingly poignant.

Still, Munch’s tastes were broad, and he could be as fascinating beyond the French repertory. As a matter of principle and proclivity, he kept up Koussevitzky’s loyalty to new music, ardently recording Piston, Martinu and other works that he premiered. He largely avoided Germany after the war, but the most performed composers in his first decade in Boston were Beethoven, Mozart, Bach and Brahms. Little of his hard-driven Mozart and already-outdated Bach survive, but his Brahms was strong, and his Beethoven full of ideas.

Some of those ideas work, and some do not, but that’s the reminder that Munch offers today: Virtuosity is empty without the thrill of interpretive risk.

“He was without peer in the things he did best and, even in the things he did worst, never less than interesting,” critic Martin Bernheimer wrote after his death. “There are few like him left.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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