Listeners today probably know Maestro Charles Munch best for his RCA recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra, which he led from 1949 to 1962. Regardless, he made numerous recordings with other orchestras, among them several for Decca in the late Sixties. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) remastered the present disc from a Decca/London Phase-4 recording Munch made with the New Philharmonia Orchestra in 1967. Munch was as good as ever, but the Phase-4 processing brings with it its usual advantages and disadvantages.
The HDTT remaster contains two of Italian musician, teacher, and composer Ottorino Respighi’s (1879-1936) most-celebrated works, the Pines and Fountains of Rome. Respighi wrote them as a part of his Roman Trilogy after studying with Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, which may have been where he got the idea for creating his pictorial material. Munch’s way with them is perhaps not so distinctive as that of Fritz Reiner in his Chicago Symphony recording (RCA or JVC) nor as smoothly sophisticated as that of Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony (Decca), but the performances are vigorous and colorful, nevertheless.
Although Respighi wrote the Fountains of Rome first (1917), the Pines of Rome (1924) starts the program, possibly because it’s the most-popular work Respighi ever composed. Munch opens “The Pines of the Villa Borghese” with a huge splash of color, which sounds rather fierce but soon enough settles into an appropriately solemn but never gloomy tone for “The Pines Near a Catacomb.” After that, the third-movement “Pines of the Janiculum” (a hill in Rome, once the center of the Janus cult) remains in Munch’s hands a peaceful nocturne, beautifully serene and complete with its familiar nightingale at the end. Respighi’s big finale, “The Pines of the Appian Way,” may be the single most-famous thing Respighi ever wrote. The movement provides the scene for ancient Roman soldiers returning to Rome along the Appian Way, the sounds of their marching footsteps interrupting the stillness of the setting. Munch develops it nicely, building a reasonably strong sense of drama and excitement until the music reaches its climax. The performance is perhaps not so graphic or high-powered as those of Riccardo Muti (EMI) or the aforementioned Reiner, but it’s effective, nonetheless.
The Fountains of Rome sounds more festive to me than the Pines, more colorful, more descriptive, and less ostentatious. Each of the four movements describes a well-known fountain in Rome. As we progress through a day in the city, we hear noises of the country, noises of the city, noises of mystical creatures, and noises of crowds, among many other things, the music at last receding into silence as night falls.
The town awakes with “The Fountain of Valle Giulia at Dawn,” one of Munch’s best spots in the program. There is an appealingly quiet yet cheery feeling about it. “The Triton Fountain in the Morning” energizes the town and the listener, Munch giving it an extra brilliance. “The Trevi Fountain at Noon” is just as grand and impressive as we expect it to be. Then, “The Fountain of the Villa Medici at Sunset” completes the show, with Munch communicating the sun going down with utmost tranquility and only a tinge of melancholy as the day closes.
The Decca engineers recorded the music at Kingsway Hall in 1967, utilizing their controversial Phase-4 recording process. Decca started using Phase-4 in 1961, a system that took multi-miking to the extreme and directed signals to ten and twenty-channel consoles before being mixed down to two-channel stereo. In terms of classical orchestral music, the sonic results ranged from flat, bright, and compartmentalized to spectacularly clear and dynamic (although often in a gimmicky, “hi-fi” manner, with whole sections of the orchestra coming to life and then fading away, occasionally provoking a hole-in-the-middle effect). Because the folks at HDTT work from original, commercially available tapes and LPs, neither adding nor subtracting anything (except in the case of a little discreet noise reduction), their remastering of the Pines and Fountains illustrates most of the benefits and liabilities of the process.
Let me put it this way: Listeners will either love or hate the sound of the album. There’s not a lot of room for opinions in between. Let’s start with the disc’s high points: As with HDTT’s other remasterings, this one retains the original recording’s wide dynamic range and impact. There is also very low distortion involved, with clean transients throughout. And the all-important midrange displays a commendable naturalness, smoothness, warmth, and transparency.
Be that as it may, there are downsides. The top end is pretty hot, especially noticeable at the beginning of “The Pines of the Villa Borghese,” which highlights every high-end percussion instrument in the orchestra. That said, the highs are quite clean, so while they may sound forward or bright, they are not harsh or grating. We also hear a sectioning-off of the sound, at times one or the other speaker falling almost silent. The Decca engineers didn’t appear to treat the center of the orchestra too well, either. In addition, and somewhat surprising, Decca’s engineers failed to capture all the bass they could have and made no attempt to replicate any sense of orchestral depth.
Finally, there are only some forty-odd minutes of content on the disc, which may seem short measure. Keep in mind, however, that that’s all Decca provided on the original recording, so it’s all HDTT provide as well. Besides, it may be a blessing in disguise not getting the most-common coupling, the third part of the trilogy, The Roman Festivals, they’re such bombastic pieces.
For further information about the various formats, configurations, and prices of HDTT products, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.
To hear a brief excerpt from this album, click here: