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More than four decades after his death in 1968 at the age of 77, the absence of a biography of the pioneering conductor Charles Munch, a figure who surely stands alongside peers such as Toscanini and Bernstein, has been long overdue. Happily, it has been worth the wait for University of California music professor D Kern Holoman’s portrait of a man who did much to champion French music, who was a staunch advocate of new music, who transformed the Boston Symphony Orchestra into one of America’s greatest (and one of its most commercially successful) bands, and whose energised and illuminating performances on the podium were often at odds with a personality ‘muffled by timidity and simple disinclination to say much’.

Munch’s achievements as a conductor seem all the more astonishing given that he first picked up a baton relatively late in life, after more than 20 years as a violinist and concertmaster. Remarkable, too, that such a private and diffident man should have placed himself in so public and exposed an arena that led to his becoming a leading figure in the cultural life of America. Himself a conductor, Holoman writes with enormous sensitivity about a man whose personal life bordered on the reclusive, who made few public pronouncements, and who gave fewer interviews. He is especially articulate in connecting Munch’s elusive and enigmatic personal life to a noticeably more extroverted approach to music making, his description of the ‘fundamental mission’ of the conductor as ensuring ‘feelings must be made to reach an extreme of intensity’ in performance.

Holoman’s admirably elegant interrogation of the dichotomy of Munch’s on- and off-stage personality is sympathetically handled and proves to be both insightful and informative. It makes a strong and persuasive argument for a reassessment of Munch and for his place among the great conducting talents of the last century, one who never sought to cultivate his own ‘sound’, but was always and only at the service of music.

A companion website includes more than 120 audio clips, links to videos, and a detailed discography.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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