Feature Review – Ernest Ansermet Eloquence

Written by: Paul Czajkowski

The Australia-based Eloquence label has ‘inside’ access to the bulging catalogues of Decca, Deutsche Grammophon and Philips. The releases below are a selection of Decca Eloquence’s inspired decision to release all of Ernest Ansermet’s many Decca recordings. In February 2009, Paul Czajkowski, who contributes to The Penguin Guide to Recorded Classical Music, offered the following thoughts…


Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969)

Ernest Ansermet fans have much to thank Universal Music Australia for. On the Decca Eloquence label the plan is to release the conductor’s entire recorded legacy.

Ansermet’s recordings received mixed reviews in their day. The Suisse Romande Orchestra was not the ultimate in virtuosity but the many excellent qualities of these performances seem to be more clearly appreciated with hindsight. In French and Russian repertoire, the Swiss-born Ansermet (1883-1969) was unquestionably in his element, but in the Romantic German repertoire, his approach yields fascinating results. Even if one has to accept that the quality of the playing – particularly of the woodwinds – is not of the first division, the rewards completely outweigh any negatives.

Throughout this Decca Eloquence Ansermet series, evident care has been taken with the quality of the transfers, which are uniformly excellent, bringing out all the qualities that have made many of these recordings rightly famous amongst the hi-fi fraternity – and the quality of the well-informed and often-extensive booklet notes is no less impressive.

Nikolai Andreyevich Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908)

The two-disc Rimsky-Korsakov set is a particular Ansermet highlight. The opening of the Christmas Eve Suite has a chilled, icy magical atmosphere. This colourful collection builds up to a magnificent polonaise – an adrenaline-inducing moment that finds Ansermet’s rhythmic bite is at its best. Snow Maiden Suite is similarly colourful, Ansermet bringing out all the brilliance of the woodwind- and percussion-writing in particular. Neither Russian Easter Festival Overture and Capriccio espagnol are as inspired as this, though the former warms up as it gets going, and both have plenty of admirable moments – the rhythmic point in Capriccio espagnol (the only mono recording in this Rimsky collection) is unfailingly enjoyable. The opening of Dubinushka is jauntily pointed, with the bass drum beautifully captured (as always from this source) adding to the piquant effect. Sadko has marvellous atmosphere and intensity – as well as drama – and there is plenty of felicitous music, as well as playing, in this score. The Overture to May Night, with its vibrant strings, comes off well, as does all the brilliance in The Tale of Tsar Saltan – again, the sparkle of the recordings amazes – and even if the insect depicted in ‘Flight of the Bumble Bee’ is a rather leisurely creature, it is invested with plenty of ‘buzz’. The longest work in this collection is the still-rare Antar. It if full of the usual imaginative touches and colour we expect from this composer. Ansermet recorded its first stereo release. In fact, this is astonishingly early stereo, dating from June 1954, yet sounds amazingly full and rich, if not as expansive as the later stereo recordings that Decca achieved in Victoria Hall, Geneva. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0827, 2 CDs, 2 hours 22 minutes]

It is typical of Universal Music Australia to include rarer and less obvious recordings in its releases. For Rimsky’s Scheherazade, it has used Ansermet’s 1955 performance with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra. This is generally livelier than his later, albeit more brilliantly recorded version, with the Suisse Romande Orchestra, and jolly good it is too. It offers much subtlety. Richard Osborne noted (of the third movement) in his 1979 BBC Radio 3 Building a Library survey of this work, that Ansermet observed that “… the repeated arpeggios on wind and strings should be nothing more than delicate veils of sound, like the quiet murmurings of an Aeolian harp caressed by a summer’s breeze”. With the exception of a slightly tubby bass, the sound is astonishingly good, and many will appreciate the distinctive ‘French’ sound of the Paris Conservatoire players. It is coupled with (new to CD) Ansermet’s mono version of Le Coq d’Or Suite. Here the sound is rather shrill but not unbearably so. Ansermet, typically, brings out all that the music suggests, with the opening marvellously mysterious with its exotic writing, and the ‘Marriage Feast and Lamentable End of King Dodan’ excitingly done, Ansermet’s strong rhythmic grip keeping the tension racked-up. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0081, 69 minutes]

Aleksandr Konstantinovich Glazunov (1865-1936)

Staying in Russia, Ansermet made one of the best recordings of Glazunov’s The Seasons. Recorded late in the conductor’s career (1967), the opening feels suitably chilly – appropriate for ‘Winter’, and the whole ballet is beautifully phrased and moulded. ‘Autumn’ has tremendous zest and crackles with life. Indeed, this whole performance has amazing energy, Ansermet’s knack for bringing out all sorts of detail consistently keeping the listener’s ears tickled. The two Concert Waltzes are as delightful as ever. The rest of this CD is filled out with Schumann’s Carnaval, his piano work orchestrated by, amongst others, Glazunov, Rimsky-Korsakov and Liadov, which gives Schumann a distinctly Russian flavour. But the scoring is done with such flair that any reservations about transcribing Schumann’s piano music are dispelled. The second CD opens with Ansermet’s June 1954 stereo recording of Glazunov’s Stenka Razin. This is one of the composer’s most successful tone poems; Ansermet brings out the brooding qualities of the opening and then the swashbuckling elements. The following Glinka items are highly enjoyable: the Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila is given a relaxed outing, but is no less enjoyable for that, whilst in the rarer Kamarinskaya and A Life for the Tsar Overture, Ansermet brings the bright colours to vivid life. The delightful Valse-Fantasie has a tune hard to get out of one’s mind. The lively Jota arogonesa is especially enjoyable with its glittering percussion. The Liadov items give both Decca and Ansermet a good opportunity to show off their respective prowess. Indeed, one is immediately swept into the evil world of Baba-Yaga and Kikimora is no less intense. Eight Russian Folksongs is very pleasing. The 1960s’ recordings are superbly transferred. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0038, 2 CDs, 2 hours 36 minutes]

Ansermet’s meticulous attention to detail yields great results in Pictures at an Exhibition (Mussorgsky/Ravel), recorded (brilliantly) in 1959. The performance has terrific character and is captured in sound that is extraordinarily vivid in terms of depth and range: it is recordings like this which makes Ansermet’s LPs still so sought after. Night on a Bare Mountain is dramatic in an intense, thought-out way, the drama coming from within the music, rather than it being used for orchestral brilliance. The Khovanshchina excerpts – ‘Prelude’ and ‘Dance of the Persian Slaves’ – are well done, as is the short but lively ‘Gopak’ from Sorochintsy Fair. The rarity on this disc is Balakirev’s Tamara, who lures hapless men to their death with her siren-calls and casts their bodies in raging waters as dawn breaks. Ansermet understands the melodrama of the score, and the quality of the 1954 stereo sound amazes. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0047, 78 minutes]

Alexander Porfiryevich Borodin (1833-87)

Decca has made something of a speciality of recording Borodin’s Second Symphony, such as Jean Martinon’s electrifying account with the LSO and Vladimir Ashkenazy’s digital version. Ansermet’s dates from 1954 but sounds far more recent. It hasn’t the brilliance of the aforementioned versions, but it has many fine qualities. If others have found more blazing excitement in the fast movements, Ansermet’s ear for inner detail makes plenty of amends as part of a thoroughly satisfying performance. The rarer (unfinished) Third Symphony is nicely done too, the sparkling scherzo finding the conductor on his colourful best form. The Prince Igor items go well enough: the Overture is lively and well played, and although the percussion and rhythms are well brought out in ‘Polovtsian Dances’, the tension sags a little when the choir (not the best in the world) enters; however, the end in a blaze of excitement – and, again, the recording (1960) is a thing of wonder. This disc ends in a beautifully shaped (and recorded) reading of In the Steppes of Central Asia. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0048), 73 minutes]

Ansermet is an undisputed master of Ravel (and of French music in general). Decca Eloquence has chosen to release Ansermet’s mono recordings of Ravel’s orchestral music rather than his more famous and brilliantly recorded stereo re-makes. However, it has to be said that these earlier performances are, if anything, finer than the later ones. For one thing, the SRO is generally on better form. Rapsodie espagnole opens with great atmosphere as well as poetry – something which Ansermet is sometimes accused of lacking – whilst, as ever, his rhythmic pulse is superb at bringing out all of Ravel’s subtle fluctuations. Alborada del gracioso is possessed of much inner-vitality, and if the following Pavane pour une infante défunte is perhaps a bit cool (there was some curious ‘crackle’ on my copy, perhaps a faulty disc) then Valses nobles et sentimentales finds the conductor on top form, with a vitality – in both the vigorous and sensual parts of the score – that is commanding. Mother Goose is given an enchanting performance. It is good that Ansermet’s complete Daphnis et Chloé has been included. This masterpiece has been lucky in terms of recording, with classic accounts by Munch and Monteux at the top of the tree. Ansermet’s account isn’t quite in their league, but it is still very good. To quote from the booklet note: “Ansermet never forgot that this music was written for dance. His interpretations are not flashy: on the contrary, they are full of intelligence, respect and sensitivity to the score”. This Ravel collection is completed by a stylish account of Le tombeau de Couperin. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 8321, 2 CDs, 2 hours 15 minutes]

Joseph-Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

There is another Ravel 2-CD set. This consists of a host of rare Ansermet performances and Ravel’s two operas, including a classic account of L’enfant et les sortilèges (its vividness in this recording still amazes) with artists like Hugues Cuénod and Suzanne Danco full of personality and the fresh, bright singing of Flore Wend as the Child a constant delight. L’heure espagnole was recorded a year earlier (1953) and the mono sound is not so opulent. But the cast is a strong one including Heinz Rehfuss singing with incisive clarity as the muleteer. Perhaps the occasionally sour woodwinds and rather thin violins prevented these recordings from become the top recommendations that they are, for there is nothing remotely second-rate about the music-making. The remaining items on these discs are mouth-watering: Danco’s glorious accounts of Shéhérazade, Deux mélodies hébraiques and Trois poèmes de Stéphane Mallarmé. You will not hear this repertoire sung with greater style or authenticity. The other performances are not quite in that league: Ansermet’s Paris recordings of Boléro and La valse. These are enjoyable – especially for the distinctive sound of the French orchestra but not quite as exciting as the later Suisse Romande accounts. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0124, 2 CDs, 2 hours 28 minutes]

A single Ravel CD comprises the two piano concertos with Jacqueline Blancard and Tzigane with Ruggiero Ricci. In the darker Left-Hand Piano Concerto, Ansermet commands an impressive grip of the single-movement structure, allowing plenty of detail to emerge in the mono sound (not one of Decca’s best efforts, the piano sounds rather thin, but is quite well-balanced). The Allegro section explodes with energy and Ansermet makes much of the woodwind detail – and the strings are well pointed. Blancard was the first pianist to record this concerto (this was her second version) and she is thoroughly inside the music. Indeed, there is a compelling ‘rightness’ about this account during which one forgets the minor imperfections of ensemble and recording. The sound at the opening of the G major Piano Concerto is initially disconcertingly dry, but the performance makes one forget such limitations. Indeed, the slow movement is gorgeously poised and the finale has an enjoyable elegance. The soloist’s impressively clear articulation is another highlight. Ricci’s brilliantly played and recorded stereo version of Tzigane remains thoroughly enjoyable. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0070, 53 minutes]

Ansermet was an inspired conductor of ballet music. His Royal Ballet Gala set, recorded with Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, in 1958, makes a very welcome return to the catalogue after an absence of many years. The orchestral playing is first class in every way. The Tchaikovsky items all come off extremely well: Ansermet’s complete The Nutcracker (SRO) is perhaps the most magical of all, and the Suite here is no less radiant; the opening of The Sleeping Beauty is wonderfully dramatic, and the point in ‘Danse des petits cygnes’ from Swan Lake is delicious. Of the other excerpts those from Coppélia are full of vitality and zest but, and as in the La Boutique fantasque items, it is the rhythmic pulse that makes these recordings so full of life and they are beautifully balanced and rich in detail – in short: classic Decca sound. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9986, 2 CDs, 1 hour 37 minutes]

Albéric Magnard (1865-1914)

Ansermet’s recording of Magnard’s Third Symphony was something of a curiosity in its day. Alberic Magnard, born in the same year as Glazunov and Nielsen, 1865, had, until recently, never made a name outside France. He was killed by the Germans during the First World War. His Third Symphony, perhaps the best of his four, is very accomplished. It was Ansermet’s last recordings (September 1968). Its rather imposing introduction is well controlled by Ansermet and the ensuing Allegro is given plenty of vigour. The second movement, ‘Danses’, is full of vitality, the strings impressively articulated. The slow movement is a rather uneasy pastorale, and the finale has a great forward momentum. Also included on this 2-CD set are Ansermet’s Liszt recordings, mostly from 1967, which are superbly recorded. The opening of A Faust Symphony sounds especially haunting in Ansermet’s hands, and there is much drama, too, the strings themselves richer and fuller than penny-in-the-slot criticisms of the SRO might suggest. There is much delicacy in the ‘Gretchen’ movement. In the finale, Ansermet really tells a story through this music with excellent characterisation and ending in a blaze of sound with chorus and organ; Werner Krenn is the superb tenor soloist. Dance at the Village Inn (Mephisto Waltz No.1) is a bit tatty in terms of playing (and without the brilliance of Solti’s supreme also-Decca version) but lusty enough – and the sound is very rich and full, Ansermet using the quiet-ending version of this work. Nocturnal Procession, which opens CD 2, is full of brooding atmosphere and is one of Liszt’s most impressive scores. Ansermet’s was the work’s premiere recording and it stands up very well. The flamboyant Battle of the Huns was recorded earlier (in 1959) yet still sounds very full and vivid. Here Ansermet matches the flamboyance of the writing with a spontaneous, hell-for-leather performance, which is exciting from first note to last. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 442 9992, 2 CDs, 2 hours 28 minutes]

When it comes to Brahms, Ansermet comes head to head with the great conductors and orchestras steeped in the German tradition. How does Ansermet stand up? Actually, very well. His Brahms is direct and with virtually no distracting mannerisms. Indeed, Ansermet’s clear-sighted view of these works brings its own rewards – the excitement is in hearing these great works presented with honesty; indeed there is often more real excitement found than in some of the more ‘sophisticated’ rivals. One is compelled by the lusty vigour of the First Symphony and the sensitive pointing of detail in the Second. Partly due to the recording, and partly due to Ansermet’s acute sense of balance, the inner textures of these scores are revealed to a degree rarely heard in other performances. Tragic Overture is astonishingly good – the opening thwack on the timpani as arresting as the performance is dramatic and intense. Variations on the St Anthony Chorale (‘Haydn Variations’) suffers form some less than exact intonation, especially from the woodwinds, but is reasonably enjoyable. Academic Festival Overture comes off very well, the bass drum again captured as only Decca knew how! Of the choral items, both Nänie and Alto Rhapsody are very good indeed. The former is a very attractive rarity that ought to be better known. Both works include the singing of Helen Watts, and her sensitive account of the Rhapsody is excellent. Ein deutsches Requiem doesn’t come off quite so well; Ansermet’s ‘straight’ approach isn’t as effective as it is in the symphonies and lacks something of a spiritual quality not quite made up for by the beautiful quality of the recorded sound. Nevertheless the textual clarity of the score and the performance is not without a pleasing warmth and sensitivity. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0448, 4 CDs, 5 hours]

Richard Wagner (1813-83) in Paris in 1867

Perhaps even more unlikely repertoire for Ansermet is Wagner’s music, yet his conducting of various preludes and ‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music’ dispels any reservations. Again, partly thanks to the 1963 Decca sound, and Ansermet’s ear for detail, you’ll hear more of the textures in these scores than you will on virtually any other recording. These are fascinatingly untraditional performances and show that the ‘German tradition’ is not the only way (Charles Munch’s way with Wagner is similarly instructive). The great cymbal clash at the climax of the Lohengrin Act One Prelude is one of this disc’s many highlights – and Ansermet moulds this music quite beautifully. Even if the intonation of the brass in ‘Siegfried’s Funeral Music’ is not spot-on, it sounds wonderfully theatrical with an astonishing depth of sound. The Prelude to Act One of The Mastersingers comes off splendidly and the music from Parsifal is excellently done, too. Such performances may not appeal to Wagner traditionalists – although I am sure that they would obtain a certain guiltily pleasure from them – but is a must for Ansermet devotees. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0567, 51 minutes]

Ansermet’s Sibelius, like his performances of the German repertoire, holds a certain fascination. Certainly, in the Second Symphony, Ansermet could not be accused of going overboard with romantic gestures. Indeed, this reading is entirely free from over-emphasis, yet the effect is cumulatively powerful. There’s a sense of real logic going on here and some striking moments of textual clarity. The Fourth Symphony is impressive in many ways, though perhaps Ansermet lets the tension sag a little in the slow movement. The use of tubular bells (instead of the composer’s intended glockenspiel) gives the finale a fascinating colouring. Colin Anderson remarks in his excellent booklet note, that “Ansermet is one of the few musicians who takes seriously Sibelius’s tacit instructions to do nothing as the symphony reaches its end; not by slowing it, the music stops rather than ends – and the effect is chillingly mournful: surely what Sibelius intended.” Anderson also beautifully sums up the performance of Sibelius’s last great work, Tapiola: “Ansermet and his varnish-free orchestra give an urgent, taut and raw account, absolutely at one with the music.” Rachmaninov’s masterful The Isle of the Dead is used as a rather appropriate coupling. This account, with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, is full of personality and character, the mono sound warm and detailed – almost giving the effect of this being a stereo recording. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0044, 2 CDs, 1 hour 55 minutes]

Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969). Photograph: Hans Wild

Even though Ansermet eschews romantic excess in his J. S. Bach recordings, his way with this composer won’t cut any ice with those with an ‘authentic’ mindset – but for the rest of us, his surprisingly warm-hearted way with this composer offers much to enjoy. The richness of the strings in Suites 2 and 3 does not swamp the contrapuntal writing, and the allegros within the opening ‘Ouvertures’ are lively and well-articulated. Actually, with the possible exception of some of the slower movements, there is very little here that is particularly heavy, as might be expected with interpretations of this repertoire from this era (the 1960s). The playing is really rather good (André Pepin is the stylish flautist) in the famous ‘Badinerie’ of Suite No. 2). However, the cantatas are perhaps the best thing here, largely on account of the superb quality of the singers – including Elly Ameling, Helen Watts, Werner Krenn, Tom Krause and Ian Partridge. The opening of BWV130, Herr Gott, dich loben wir, is lusty and has a real sense of communication, and in the baritone aria (the superb Tom Krause) the vivid timpani and trumpetsis tellingly recorded. Pepin makes another stylish appearance. Cantatas 45, 67, 105 and selections from 101 are included (all of it gloriously imaginative music of much beauty), along with the sinfonias to 12 and 31. In other words, Ansermet’s complete Bach recordings are collected together for the first time and beautifully recorded, too. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0027, 2 CDs, 2 hours 29 minutes]

Finally – and perhaps the most unlikely Ansermet disc here of all – comprises five Baroque pieces. Beginning with two Vivaldi bassoon concertos, the first, in A minor (RV497) recorded in rich 1968 stereo sound, the second, in D minor (RV481) as transcribed by Malipiero, in rather bright, up-front 1952 mono sound (almost authentic-sounding) – both offer warmly stylish playing from both the orchestra and the soloist, Henri Helaerts. The lovely C minor Oboe Concerto of Marcello follows (another transcription), and although the oboe, played by Roger Reversy, is rather startlingly close, it doesn’t distract too much from the poised music-making. The finale is a toe-tapping delight. There are two organ concertos by Handel (also mono, 1952, but better balanced) and performed with distinction by Jeanne Demessieux – and given unashamedly big-style readings. How delightful! It’s great to have them available again. [DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0833, 65 minutes]

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