Les grands concerts inédits du Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, vol. 3. Charles Munch dirige Claude Debussy (Iberia, Fantasie for piano & orchestra w. Nicole Henriot, La Mer), Arthur Honegger (Symphony no. 1), Henry Dutilleux (Symphony No. 2 “Le Double”), Albert Roussel (Bacchus et Ariane Suite No. 2). Orchestre National. 2 CDs Disques Montaigne TCE 8730 (1987), barcode 3305721587302
Recorded 8 May 1962 (Debussy), 5 June 1962 (Honegger-Dutilleux-Roussel) at Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, Paris.
Debussy: Valois / Audivis V-4828 “Charles Munch Edition” vol. 4 (1998), barcode 3298490048283:
Honegger & Dutilleux: Valois / Audivis V-4830 “Charles Munch Edition” vol. 6 (1998), barcode 3298490048306:
Both collated in 9-CD set Valois/Audivis V-4822 (1998), barcode 3298490048221:
Lavish set from Disque Montaigne and Munch’s only recording of Honegger’s First Symphony – and a fine performance, too
February 5, 2018
This is one of those lavish sets (volume 3) devoted to live concerts given by Orchestre National at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris, by which the label Disques Montaigne burst onto the scene and became instant collectors’ treasures. Obviously aimed only at the French market, though: the thick booklet (47 pages), filled with fine iconography and a number of essays, came only in French. Ultimately Disques Montaigne released only 16 in the series, including 12 2-CD sets, and then (after a small Munch series and one devoted to Nikita Magaloff) focused mainly on contemporary music and particularly the Arditti Quartet. For those who missed it, or wouldn’t find it (it’s not listed under its proper barcode on Amazon.com), or for whom French-only liner notes would be an impediment, there are the 1998 Valois reissues (whose Munch series also taps from Montaigne’s Munch series). They leave out the Roussel, because Montaigne’s Munch series also had a Roussel CD, MUN 2041, which included another performance of Bacchus & Ariane Suite No. 2 (from Nov. 22, 1966), and that’s the one picked up by Valois.
For the time being I’ll limit my interpretive comments to Honegger’s First Symphony, as it is moment of thorough comparative listening, back in 2013, that led me to pull out this set from my shelves.
In fact, other than its collector’s appeal, the set is musically important ( for the Munch and/or Honegger afficionado) principally because it is the conductor’s only recorded testimony in this work. He recorded Dutilleux’ Second Symphony “Le Double” in the studio (with Orchestre Lamoureux in 1965 for Erato, CD reissued in 2003 on Warner / Erato 2264 60575-2 with Métaboles and Honegger’s 4th Symphony), and there are numerous recordings of him, of course, studio and live, in Debussy’s Iberia and La Mer (all the details are given in the invaluable online Munch discographies of Benoît Duhoux and Sylvain Gasser). On the other hand, Fantaisie for piano and orchestra was a premiere in Munch’s discography when the set was published in 1987 (another live version from a month later, given in Strasbourg, again with Nicole Henriot and Orchestre National, was published in 1991 on Euromuses EURM 2009, paired with Roussel’s Suite en fa and Vincent d’Indy’s rare 2nd Symphony); but then, Fantaisie isn’t essential Debussy. Honegger’s First symphony, composed in 1929-30 on a commission of Serge Koussevitzky for the 50th anniversary of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, IS essential Honegger, one of his most daring and brutal utterances.
Munch was an ardent champion of the composer, he conducted many world-premieres or French-premieres of his works, made three studio recordings of Symphony No. 2 (in 1942-44 with Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, 1953 with Boston on RCA, and 1967 with Orchestre de Paris on EMI) and there are a number of live ones, as well as one studio recording each of Symphonies No. 4 (see above) and 5 (Boston, 1952, paired on CD with Boston’s 2nd). On the other hand, although the dedicatee and premiere performer of Symphonie liturgique (No. 3), that’s also one he never recorded commercially. Fortunately, in 1990 Multisonic (31 0025-2) released a 1956 live recording with the Boston Symphony Orchestra made on tour in Prague, closing the circle and giving us complete documentation of Munch’s interpretations in the five symphonies.
With Munch’s fiery and instinctive personality, I would have expected him to hurl more furiously into Honegger’s furious 1st Symphony, raising the doubt that, given Orchestre National’s less than virtuoso status, he may have had to exercise some caution in concert. But truth is, he hurls even marginally more furiously than Serge Baudo, in the studio, with the Czech Philharmonic (1973, part of his complete traversal of the symphonies for Supraphon), although it didn’t give that impression, because the articulation of his strings his thicker, less biting than Baudo’s. Still, other than a few occasional glitches (not always in the difficult spots), Orchestre National acquits itself very competently, and the crudeness of the brass section is perfectly in situation in the two aggressive outer movements, and further enhanced by the very detailed sonics. That said, the French players in 1962 didn’t have the tonal refinement to fully convey the mystery of the second movement. But then, any doubts about their ability to cope with the music are dispelled in the Finale. There, something very interesting happens, typical of Munch and typical of a live situation. He starts at a relatively moderate tempo, which again you may justifiably think was dictated by caution at the music’s very tricky syncopations. But, at 2:17 (rehearsal figure 10), judging possibly that the orchestra had the music plenty in its stride, Munch accelerates markedly and, other than one or two imprecise spots of ensemble, the orchestra bravely follows. The coda, at 5:16, is beautifully appeased and “tranquillo”, and here the strings and flute do have the tonal refinement to make it wonderfully atmospheric.
So make no mistake: despite my few reservations here and there, this is a fine rendition of Honegger’s rarest, and most aggressive and biting symphony. Great 1962 stereo too, affording many instrumental details and character.