Respighi (after Rossini)
La Boutique Fantasque *
Petrushka [1911 version]
London Symphony Orchestra *
LOrchestre de la Suisse Romande
Petrushka recorded in Victoria Hall, Geneva on 29 & 30 November 1949; Boutique Fantasque recorded in Kingsway Hall, London between 20-22 July 1950
Reviewed by: Paul Czajkowski
Reviewed: August 2004
CD No: SOMM Céleste
Duration: 70 minutes
Decca has often used Stravinsky’s Petrushka as a vehicle to demonstrate its technical prowess, and Ernest Ansermet’s mono Petrushka recordings – there are two – have attained legendary status amongst hi-fi buffs. The first of the two was recorded in 1946 with the London Philharmonic, and released on five 78s. It caused a sensation on its release: never before had Stravinsky’s colours emerged so brilliantly – a wonderful example of Decca’s ‘ffrr’ (Full Frequency Range Recording) technique. Decca re-recorded Petrushka with Ansermet in 1949 with the Suisse Romande Orchestra, this time to show off the advantages of its new LP format, and it was, in 1950, amongst the very first batch of Decca LP releases in the UK (LXT 2502). It is this version which is released on this CD for the first time, and not a moment too soon.
It remains an impressive account. If the sound is a little restricted by today’s standards, or even Decca’s just a few years later (i.e. stereo sound that still amazes), it is still impressive. The strings may sound a little thin, especially above the stave, but the sound is beautifully balanced, with details emerging vividly, especially in the woodwind. In the brooding, darker passages, such as ‘In the Moor’s Room’, there is great atmosphere, particularly so when there is a hint of menace, whilst in the brighter passages, such as ‘The Shrovetide Fair’, the unbuttoned exuberance is fully realised. Indeed, one marvels at the felicities of detail and delights in the playing.
Whilst it is true that some of Ansermet’s later recordings found the Suisse Romande Orchestra (Ansermet’s creation) wanting in technical precision, in the early 1950s it was in rather better shape, often livelier than in the stereo re-makes: Ansermet’s 1957 stereo Petrushka is amazingly vivid in sound, but the performance – though interesting, as always with this conductor – lacks the tension of the mono readings. Ansermet had requested that for this second Petrushka, he used his Swiss orchestra, because he had given it a “certain style”, the French character of the woodwind sound the most striking feature. The conductor was acutely sensitive to the balance of sound, and the great record producer, John Culshaw, said of Ansermet’s recordings: “It was not the recording technique alone, but the quality of sound that Ansermet himself created that gave them such individuality” (“Putting the Record Straight”, Secker and Warburg, 1981).
La Boutique Fantasque was recorded in 1950, and one wonders if there has ever been a more magical account. From the opening pizzicato – so delicate yet evoking a wonderful sense of expectancy – this performance positively glows. Nothing here is forced, yet the performance fizzes with vitality. The playing of the LSO offers more polished playing than that of its Swiss rivals, and one is swept along with the sheer spontaneity of it all. The strings are stylish and phrase beautifully, and the woodwind tingle with animation. The sound, too, is a little warmer, thanks to the legendary acoustics of Kingsway Hall, and as usual with Decca and Ansermet, everything (with the possible exception of the oboe which is, as on the original LP, a tad too closely miked) is beautifully balanced. There are a few minor cuts, but most of this deliciously fresh score is included.
Unfortunately, I was not able to compare this Somm transfer with either of the original LPs, but they seem perfectly satisfactory if perhaps, in Petrushka, a little pinched in sound, though nothing more serious than that.
Apart from showing off Decca’s early LP recording prowess, these two recordings demonstrate just why Ernest Ansermet was considered such an outstanding conductor of ballet music (and other repertoire). Here are performances of real character, showing the conductor on top form, and a wonderful antidote to the often macho digital brilliance and flavourless perfection which affects so many of today’s recordings. Well done Somm for restoring these performances for a new generation.