Symphony No.4 in B flat, Op.60
Prince Igor – Polovtsian Dances
Debussy orch. Büsser
Debussy orch. Ansermet
Six épigraphes antiques
Le péri – Fanfare & Poème dansé
Masques et bergamasques – Suite
Pénélope – Prélude
Le chasseur maudit
Symphony No.22 in E flat (Philosopher)
Le Roi David – Dramatic Psalm
Concerto for seven wind instruments, timpani, percussion and string orchestra
Le tombeau de Couperin
Fountains of Rome
Schumann orch. Glazunov et al
Symphony No.4 in A minor, Op.63
Pulcinella – Suite
Plus pieces by Bach, Chabrier, Delibes, Liadov, Mendelssohn, Rimsky-Korsakov & Weber
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande
Recorded in Victoria Hall, Geneva between 1953 and 1967
Reviewed by: Paul Czajkowski
Reviewed: May 2007
CD No: DECCA ORIGINAL MASTERS
475 8140 (6 CDs)
Duration: 7 hours 26 minutes
This bargain box-set from Decca give a good idea of why Ansermet is held in such esteem. Naturally, there is a substantial amount of the French repertoire for which he was famous. Ansermet sparkles in the lighter repertoire: Chabrier’s Joyeuse Marche and Danse Slave are amongst the best performances of these works on disc. Just listen to the sense of exhilaration in the music-making, not achieved by mere speed: it is the rhythmic pulse which makes them so striking, along with the recording quality – the bass drum is captured here as only Decca knew how and the percussion in general is almost tangible. Decca provide similar brilliance in the ‘Tarantella’ from Rossiniana, the most entertaining movement from Respighi’s suite based on the music of Rossini; and Fontane di Roma is treated to beautifully balanced sound rather than out and out brilliance, and none the worse for that.
The Delibes items show Ansermet’s gift for ballet music (both his complete Coppélia and The Nutcracker are real classics). The Mazurka from Coppélia positively dances out of the speakers, whilst Les Chasseresses from Sylvia is rich in pageant and classical drama. We are summoned strikingly to attention with Dukas’s ‘Fanfare’ from Le Péri, and the ensuing ballet music is both lively and sharply characterised. A rarity on this disc is an orchestrated version (by Glazunov, amongst others) of Schumann’s Carnaval and works surprisingly well in its tapestry of rich nineteenth-century, colourful dress.
Ansermet was a mathematician and there is a sense that his mathematical mind sometimes worked too hard in the Romantic repertoire. His Beethoven cycle is unfailingly interesting though, and his poised, direct approach to the music works well (the Ninth Symphony, with Joan Sutherland as one of the soloists, won praise). The Fourth Symphony, included in this set, with its mysterious opening, is almost chilling in its beauty here, and Ansermet warms up nicely in the main Allegro. The conductor’s always-reliable sense of phrasing makes the string playing especially enjoyable with the articulation in the finale particularly memorable.
The Weber overtures, The Ruler of the Spirits and Preciosa, are highly enjoyable, the latter with its sparkling ‘Turkish’ music section. One is almost tempted to say Ansermet’s account of Mendelssohn’s Ruy Blas Overture is the best-ever version, with its vivid sound and sense of drama. There is an earthy vigour in the playing which makes it totally memorable. (It is hoped that Ansermet’s fine accounts of Schumann’s Second Symphony and Manfred Overture might make it on to CD on an international footing; the Symphony has been available in Japan.)
Most unlikely repertoire for Ansermet is Bach but, actually, he was rather warm-hearted in this composer; listen to the vitality of the opening of Cantata 31: good, honest and enjoyable music-making and more fun than many period-performances. Ansermet’s Haydn is memorable too, mainly for its elegant phrasing. The finale is especially enjoyable with its hunting rhythms, all very lively but not at all forced.
Decca cannot be accused of putting the obvious in this box and the rarest item here is Ansermet’s account of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony. This is perhaps not the most successful item here, not least because it is generally the most difficult of Sibelius’s symphonies to tackle. Those who know this work well will still get something out of this performance because Ansermet always has a way of illuminating strands of a score in an interesting way. The tubular bells in the finale, for example, are particularly memorable (albeit the composer seems to have wanted a glockenspiel). However, the tension notably sags in the slow movement and the performance lacks enough tension to hold the work together. However, the 1963 recording is outstanding.
Ansermet was the opposite of the flashy showman conductor: the excitement of listening to an Ansermet performance is more in the subtle nuances than overtly showy brilliance. It is also true that us collectors get a kick from the warm brilliance of the Decca sound, which still amazes in today’s iPod age. Most importantly, there is a character and virtue in the music-making enshrined on these six discs that makes them all the more cherishable.