Charles Munch: La France résistante. Arthur Honegger: La Danse des Morts, Symphony No. 2. Jolivet: Les Trois Complaintes du Soldat. Cascavelle Vel 3060 (2005), barcode 7619930306019
Honegger: Japanese EMI TOCE-6867/71 “Charles Münch Memorial” (5 CDs with Munch’s 1967-68 recordings with Orchestre de Paris) (1991), barcode 4988006658196:
Honegger & Jolivet: (2 CDs) The Art of the Conductor, vol. 1: Charles Münch in Paris (with Berlioz, Debussy, Aubert, Ravel). A Classical Record ACR 40/41 (1997), barcode 603187004023:
Honegger: La Danse des Morts, Symphony No. 2 in Charles Münch volume 3 (with Le Roi David – excerpts, by Choeurs de Saint Guillaume and Orchestre Municipal de Strasbourg, Fritz Munch). Dante Lys 292 (1998), barcode 3421710412926:
Jolivet: Les Trois complaintes du Soldat in “Pierre Bernac chante A. Jolivet, J.S. Bach, L Beydts, J. de la Presle, F. Poulenc”. Dante Lys 514 (1999), barcode 3421710415149:
Honegger: Yves-St-Laurent YSL 249 78 Munch vol. 2 (with Roussel: Suite en fa with the London Philharmonic Orchestra, 2 June 1947) (can be purchased only from the label’s website):
Despite the cuts and antiquated sonics, an unequalled version of Honegger’s Danse des Morts (except by Munch himself)
originally posted on Amazon.com, 19 March 2013
Munch was, with Ansermet, Paul Sacher and George Tzipine (and Serge Koussevitzky, although sadly it isn’t documented on disc), one of the early champions of Honegger, and he championed no composition more than the second Symphony, as far as number of recordings can attest: three in the studio (this one with Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire from 1942-44, with the Boston Symphony Orchestra from March 1953 (first CD reissue on RCA GD60685 (Europe) / 09026-60685-2 (US)), and the last one with Orchestre de Paris from December 1967 on EMI, shortly before Munch’s death), to which the CD era has added at least two lives that have come my way (Czech Philharmonic Orchestra 17 May 1957 on Multisonic 31 0022-2 with Milhaud : Music for Prague & Symphony 10, and Orchestre National 1 September 1964 originally on Disques Montaigne MUN 2051, reissued by Valois) – but the great online discographies of Munch by Benoît Duhoux and Sylvain Gasser show that there are more.
In view particularly of his later studio recordings, especially the one with Orchestre de Paris and great stereo (but the mono sonics of Boston are so spacious you could almost confuse them for stereo), this first essay will be of interest only to diehard collectors, although it is a very significant one, since it was made in occupied France, on 15 and 16 October 1942, very shortly after the world premiere, given by its commissioner Paul Sacher in Zürich in May of the same year, and the French premiere under Munch, on June 25. We are not told exactly what additions were belatedly made on March 1, 1944: matrix numbers would suggest the second movement, and this is confirmed by Dr. Kern Holoman’s great online Munch discographic survey (p. 15), but Honegger’s authoritative biographer Harry Halbreich says the Finale. The 78rpm sonics are what they are – again, this is a document for collectors interested in historical interpretations.
For a premiere recording, the interpretation gives a fine account of the composition, although Munch later bettered himself. While some interpreters never change, adopting early on a certain approach and hardly changing later on, the interesting point in comparing Munch’s successive recordings over a span of three decades is that, although some basic aspects remain constant, none is exactly like the other. Very remarkable in the 1942 first movement is Munch’s slow and brooding pacing of the introduction, an approach that became the norm later, as exemplified by the recordings of Serge Baudo in 1960 (the first installment in his complete recording with the Czech Philharmonic on Supraphon), Ansermet (Decca 1961), or Karajan (DG, recorded in 1969, released only in 1973). But it is an approach that, by way of paradox, Munch himself abandoned in all his subsequent recording, in favor of a more urgent pacing, lending the music, from the outset, more of a sense of inquietude. In the movement’s Allegro section proper, starting here at 2:31 (the movement then alternates between the brooding and the biting), after the war Munch also demanded of his cellos and basses much more bite than Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire provided in 1942. That said, although not the ultimate, the movement did not lack fire and intensity either. The same sense of urgency imbues Munch’s slow movement, an abiding feature of all his recordings, not the brooding and moaning dirge Karajan made it in 1969, but a cry of revolt or perhaps an omen of the impending doom. That said, there is more urgency and (hence) intensity in Boston and the live versions from the 1950s and 1960s. The Orchestre de Paris version is the most spacious of all five (all being relative, it still makes it more urgent than anyone else’s), but here it is the stereo sonics and the phrasings of the soloists that lend it its unique intensity. In 1942 Munch also took the Finale at a relatively moderate pace, true to Honegger’s “vivace non troppo” indication, playing up the rhythmic robustness rather than the drive, as Ansermet later did in 1961. At least it enabled him to really whip up the tempo when comes the “Presto” at 3:31. With Boston, he’d play up the drive, but would return to the original approach with Orchestre de Paris. Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire may not be always entirely on top of the music, especially in the tricky syncopations of the finale, but they cope well enough, and the final trumpet, at 3:56, sounds very French, e.g. triumphant, but also glaring and crude.
Still, in view of Munch’s subsequent recordings, this CD is valuable mainly for La Danse des Morts. A fitting coupling to the 2nd Symphony since it too was a commission and a premiere performance by Paul Sacher (on March 2, 1940, in Basel), Munch giving, shortly after, the French premiere in occupied Paris (26 January 1941) and recording it soon after (27 and 28 March of the same year). The sonics are frustratingly limited, such a powerful work calls for wide stereo, here countless details of the orchestration must be imagined rather than heard and the words sung by the chorus are often incomprehensible (poet Paul Claudel doesn’t always use your familiar French vocabulary either). There are cuts also – including a substantial one between tracks 6 (`The Response of God”) and 7 (“Hope in the Cross”). But whatever the sonic limitations and cuts, it is an exceptional interpretation, rarely equaled ever since. The reason spells not only “Charles Munch” and the total commitment of all those involved and especially the choral forces, the touching plangency of baritone Charles Panzera in the Lamento (track 4) and the final vocalise of soprano Odette Turba-Rabier, but also narrator Jean-Louis Barrault – something like the French Lawrence Olivier. And what makes him such an unequalled speaker is the very nature of his delivery, something that was possible in the age of the radio but that nobody would dare anymore in our days of TV: its grandiloquence. Barrault doesn’t shy before Claudel’s text, he seizes it as a preacher would, he impersonates a kind of mighty Bossuet, the French bishop and theologian from the reign of Louis 14, “renowned for his sermons and other addresses” and “considered by many to be one of the most brilliant orators of all time” (Wikipedia). Barrault is great and contributes to an impressive Danse des Morts.
That said, the situation has been radically changed in 2007, when the invaluable Canadian label West Hill Radio Archives published a 7-CD set of live recordings from “Charles Munch in Boston: The Early Years”, WHRA 6015, which includes a live performance of La Danse des Morts from December 1952. It is even better than Munch’s studio recording. The speaker, Arnold Moss, delivers Claudel’s text with a more than acceptable French accent and he may not have the dramatic impact of Barrault, but he’s not far behind. The sonics are exceptionally good for the vintage, letting you vividly hear all those orchestral details that were inaudible in the 1941 recording – and the version is uncut. Now THIS is the version of La Danse des Morts to have in your collection, and it alone makes the purchase of the complete set worthwhile. The earlier studio recording is now no more than a historical document.
EMI reissued these two recordings at the end of the LP era, in their “References” collection, but they let it lapse in the CD era (at least in the West. There was a Japanese reissue from 1991, listed in the headings, a 5-CD set from EMI-Toshiba with Munch’s last 1967-68 recordings with Orchestre de Paris), leaving it to “unofficial” labels to reissue it. Before Cascavelle, the New York label A Classical Record was the first to reissue the two recordings (see heading – I haven’t heard that edition). Dante followed suit on their volume 3 of their Charles Munch edition. In fact both the Cascavelle and the Dante editions appear to have been masterminded by the same person, French radio host and specialist of “vieilles cires” (old shellacs), Philippe Morin, and some of the photos of the Dante booklet reappear in Cascavelle’s, even the typo error that has the 2nd Symphony premiered by Paul Sacher’s Collegium Musieum of Zürich – it should be Collegium MusiCum. That said, the sonics of Danse des Morts have slightly more presence and clarity on Cascavelle. On the other hand, I can’t detect much significant sonic differences in the Symphony, and if there is, it is in favor of Dante, if only because the volume is slightly higher. But the main difference is the filler, an all-Honegger program on Dante with 12 minute excerpts from Le Roi David by Munch’s brother Fritz Munch in 1929, an all-Charles Munch program on Cascavelle with André Jolivet’s Trois Complaintes du Soldat sung by Pierre Bernac under Munch in 1943-44 (which was already on the 1997 edition from A Classical Record, and it was also reissued by Dante on another CD, a Pierre Bernac collection, Dante Lys 514, see heading), and here too the Cascavelle sonics have more clarity and definition. The cycle was written by Jolivet on texts by himself, after the defeat of France to Germany and the collapse of the French army. A former pupil of Varèse and the author of very modernist works, like the piano cycle Mana (1936), in Complaintes du Soldat Jolivet returned to a simpler and more accessible style, one rooted in the vocal music of Ravel and Honegger. I’m not convinced that Cascavelle’s title, “France Résistante”, is truly appropriate. The rationale is that every manifestation of the creative genius of France was considered an act of resistance against German occupation. Yeah, well, maybe, but still, all these guys obtained authorization and A-OK from the German occupying authorities to perform these works and record them. I wouldn’t quite call it “collaboration” (collaboration implied much more evil acts of collaborating with the occupying forces), but calling it “resistance” seems way too far-fetched. TT 63:50, good liner notes, nice iconography, text of Dance des Morts not provided and even less English translation (and not either in the Dante release), which might be an impediment for American audiences. For sake of completeness I also list the more recent edition (undated and without barcode) by the Quebec label Yves-St.-Laurent, which can be purchased only from their website.