reviewed a splendid Tahra set of CDs featuring the Concertgebouw
Orchestra and Pierre Monteux it has been most interesting to listen
to this set which celebrates their relationship
with another honoured guest conductor, Karel Ančerl.
was a pupil of both Hermann Scherchen and Václav Talich. He suffered
greatly during the Second World War when not only was he driven from
his conducting career but also, infinitely more seriously, the
Germans incarcerated him along with his entire family. He was the only
one of his family to survive the Holocaust and one can scarcely imagine
the effect this must have had on him. Resuming his conducting career
after the war, he eventually became Artistic Director of the Czech Philharmonic
in 1950. Following the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968 he
resigned that post and for the remainder of his life he focused on his
post as Chief Conductor of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (which post
he had originally intended to combine with his duties with the CPO)
and on guest conducting.
Ančerl’s links with
the Concertgebouw go back as far as did Pierre Monteux’s. He first appeared
with them in 1933. However, thereafter his career was centred largely
on his native land. This meant that, unlike Monteux who was a regular
visitor to the Concertgebouw podium, Ančerl did not reappear with
the orchestra again until 1966. In that year he visited them for what
was to be the first of three spells as a guest conductor. The
recordings in this collection stem from the second and third of those
visits. The Prokofiev symphony was played during a series of concerts
in 1969 and the other items all featured in what was to be his final
series in Amsterdam during 1970.
All the recordings were made by the Dutch broadcasting
company, NPS Radio and have come up sounding very well indeed. Apart
from the intrinsic interest of the performances the set will be welcomed
by admirers of this conductor as two of the pieces,
the Haydn and Franck, were never recorded by him commercially. Surprisingly,
there is no studio recording of the Dvořák symphony either.
The performance of the
Dvořák 8th is actually the same one recently
included in the most desirable EMI Classics set
devoted to Ančerl in their ‘Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century’
series. An A/B comparison of both issues indicated that, on my equipment,
the EMI transfer, which is more recent, has just a touch more punch
and presence. However the Tahra transfer is also very good, giving
clear, well-focused orchestral sound and forthrightly conveying the
ambience of the hall.
The Eighth is my personal
favourite in the Dvořák canon so it’s good to report that Ančerl
directs a spirited, fresh performance. The main theme of the
first movement moves along nicely, with no indulgence. Here, and in
the rest of the work for that matter, there’s great clarity of texture,
indeed, that’s a quality present throughout the set (for which the Dutch
engineers must take their share of the credit). The slow movement is
warm and affectionate. Perhaps this music above all reminded Ancerl
that, after the events of 1968 he was unlikely ever to see his homeland
again. Even if this were the case, his account of this lovely movement
evinces no sentimentality (though there is an appropriate level
of sentiment). There is lilt and charm in the Allegro grazioso:
the rustic inflections sound just right.
Ančerl’s control of rubato is effortless and, as one would expect,
wholly idiomatic. The finale is exuberant and packed full of rhythmic
zest, capping a most enjoyable and satisfying reading of this vernal
I liked Ančerl’s
Classical symphony as well. The first movement is played
at a tempo which is just sufficiently measured to let the music breathe.
The various strands of the argument emerge clearly – it’s not a scamper
like the amazingly fleet account by Koussevitsky and the Boston Symphony
in their 1947 traversal for RCA. While I find the Bostonians very stimulating
I prefer Ančerl’s rather more restrained
approach. To me it underlines more successfully the eighteenth century
allusions. In the larghetto the orchestral sound may seem
somewhat big-boned for some listeners’ tastes but I think you’ll still
find grace and charm in the playing. The helter-skelter finale fairly
fizzes along in a performance full of infectious gaiety. I enjoyed this
performance immensely and so too, it seems, did the Amsterdam audience.
His Haydn is a ‘big band’ performance but it is still
stylishly done, reminding us that good performances of classical symphonies
need not by any means be the preserve of period ensembles. Here, the
Dutch strings are lithe and the winds agile. Generally, phrases are
nicely turned and, as elsewhere in the set, one is impressed by the
clarity of the performance. I found both of the first two movements
had plenty of charm and grace. Some listeners may well find the minuet
a touch heavy and emphatic. However, in my view the spirited, characterful
playing compensates for any minor reservations over the basic tempo.
The finale quite simply sparkles and dances. In summary I found this
a most enjoyable, carefully prepared performance.
I’m afraid I’ve never really warmed to Franck’s symphony.
To my ears the thematic material is not
desperately interesting and is stretched a little further than it can
really bear. In addition, the rhetoric seems overblown. This was not
a piece which I would have associated with Ančerl but he makes
a pretty good case for it. I’m sure that part
of the reason for the success of the performance is that Ančerl
exercises his usual care for orchestral balance and clarity. Furthermore,
his approach is objective and he refuses to wallow in the rhetorical
The slow introduction to the first movement gives a
good foretaste of what is to follow. It is sober and powerfully built,
full of suspense. In fact, in terms of tension, I’d put the account
of this passage on a par with Guido Cantelli’s 1954 recording with the
NBC Symphony Orchestra (now on a Testament
set, SBT2194, which is indispensable for admirers of that short-lived
maestro.) In fact, as Ančerl’s performance unfolds it seemed to
me to have much in common with Cantelli’s reading for both are dark
as well as dramatic.
The discursive first movement
as a whole is strongly projected and in the places where Franck is wont
to linger Ančerl very sensibly keeps the music moving forward.
In the slow movement he encourages warm, intense playing from the Concertgebouw
players. The finale is robust and
purposeful but I find the invention in this movement is pretty thin
and even the fine sense of conviction which Ančerl brings to the
proceedings can’t quite convince me, I’m afraid. Nonetheless, this is
a cogent, well played reading of the symphony and listeners who
rate the work more highly than I do will find much to admire here.
The documentation consists
of a short but informative note, mainly about Ančerl’s links with
the Concertgebouw Orchestra. The note is provided in French, English
and Italian and there is a transcript of the recorded interview
in each of these languages also. The interview, which completes the
second disc, is an interesting if rather general little piece. It was
recorded in July 1968 in Prague, presumably by a local, English-speaking
interviewer for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The focus is
primarily upon Ančerl’s plans for his forthcoming relationship
with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. At that time the conductor envisaged
combining his duties in Canada with his work
at the helm of the Czech Philharmonic. Sadly, this was not to be. Only
a few weeks later Brezhnev’s tanks rolled into Prague and Ančerl,
then guest conducting at Tanglewood, resigned his Czech post, never
to return home.
This is a most valuable set. Admirers of this fine
conductor will welcome it, particularly since it allows us to hear him
in repertoire which is not otherwise included in his recorded legacy.
The Dutch radio recordings are very good and Tahra’s transfers of them
are excellent. Without exception the performances collected here are
thoughtful, well prepared and thoroughly musical. They are directed
by a clear-sighted conductor who communicates the music lucidly and
with conviction and who is able to command first rate playing from his
Tahra have put us in their debt by issuing this set
which I warmly commend.
review by Jonathan Woolf