BBC Legends – Ernest Ansermet

0 of 5 stars

Concerto for Orchestra
Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Images pour orchestre – II: Ibéria
Symphony No.85 in B flat (La Reine)

BBC Symphony Orchestra [Debussy (Nocturnes) & Haydn]
Philharmonia Orchestra
Ernest Ansermet

Bartók, Beethoven and Debussy (Ibéria) recorded on 28 August 1958 in the Usher Hall, Edinburgh; Debussy (Nocturnes) and Haydn recorded on 2 February 1964 in BBC Studios, London

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: November 2006
BBCL 4202-2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 2 hours 33 minutes

Also included here is a 13-minute interview that finds Ernest Ansermet reminiscing about Debussy. Recorded in 1969, shortly before his death, Ansermet is lucid and engaged, and his memoirs seem very reliable – and certainly interesting. The interviewer, Robert Chesterman, introduces the programme as if it were one of a series (“We’re going to talk about Debussy today, Mr Ansermet…”); if so, one wonders if other instalments can be issued.

Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) indelibly associated with the Geneva-based L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, which he founded in 1918 and recorded many highly-treasured LPs for Decca, which continue to grace the CD catalogue – watch out for a Decca Original Masters box at the beginning of 2007.

Although Ansermet made commercial recordings of all the music here, it is interesting to have ‘alternatives’ with other orchestras; two very responsive London orchestras that leave one in no doubt as to the man on the podium. The Haydn (here not identified as ‘La Reine’) mixes elegance and severity with punctiliousness and simmering wit.

The first of Debussy’s Nocturnes (‘Nuages’) is very expressive with much latent emotion; the music is potently created and with ear-catching attention to detail. In ‘Fêtes’ the muted trumpets of the central parade suggest ideal ‘distance’, and the whole is played with fluidity and swagger and with a flexibility of tempo that is enlightening. ‘Sirènes’ has some emendations to Debussy’s score that amounts to ‘arranged Ansermet’ – in fact based on the “corrections” Ansermet discussed with the composer. Ansermet creates a vivid seascape, although not even the fastidious Ansermet can quite exact the pitch between the BBC Ladies Chorus (sic) – here sounding rather matronly – and the orchestra.

Mono the sound may be for this BBC studio recording, but it’s a fine production and subtleties of scoring are admirably lucid.

How wonderful to have a complete Ansermet concert, here with the Philharmonia Orchestra from the 1958 Edinburgh International Festival. Presumably ‘Ibéria’ began the concert; it’s slightly tentative in places but still vividly conjuring of ‘place’ – and what shines through here, given what one imagines wouldn’t have been ‘everyday’ music for this orchestra at this time, is the wholesome appreciation of it that Ansermet was able to get across.

Beethoven, however, was central to the Philharmonia’s cause (contemporaneous recorded cycles of the symphonies with Karajan and Klemperer, for example). Ansermet imposes his view, too. The slow introduction is solemn and expectant, and the whole is lyrical and strong, with depth and humour and a malleable approach to tempo. Outer movement repeats are observed and, in the first movement development, Ansermet gives the woodwinds’ ‘grace’ notes full rather than ‘decoration’ value (8’18”-8’25”). It’s a lovely performance and knocks spots off more recent ‘hybrid’ and ‘authentic’ accounts of Beethoven; here Ansermet’s purpose and observance is very rewarding and enjoys the Philharmonia’s particular tradition in this music. (A rider in the booklet allows for some distortion in the first movement that is “impossible to eradicate”; it’s but a mild distraction. No problems otherwise, though, for Tony Faulkner’s re-mastering of the material is typically well-listened.)

The Bartók, then just over ten years old, roughly the same age of the Philharmonia Orchestra, also speaks volumes for Ansermet’s musical appreciation and communication. The opening to the first movement is sinewy and shimmering, mellifluous and burgeoning, the questing spirit of the music made palpable and the inward and outward aspects of the whole brought out without losing the thread that connects the two; the harp interjection (8’35”-8’37”) goes for virtually nothing, though. Over the five-movement course Ansermet treats the work not as a showpiece but as a symphony, although in doing so he doesn’t denude the varied character of the work. One curiosity is the marked ‘pause’ between the timpani two-note ‘marker’ (here 5’47”-5’48”); in his 1956 Decca/SRO recording (currently on IMG Artists 5 75094 2) Ansermet does something similar, save there the second note is barely discernible! Interesting to sample the two performances and find a similar ‘Ansermet sound’ (although the Legends taping is mono) with the Edinburgh account being the more engrossing of the two.

This is a thoroughly representative selection of Ansermet, a great musician, and a notable addition to the BBC Legends catalogue. Hopefully there is more to come.

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