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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    




KAREL ANČERL EDITION VOL. 2

Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809): Symphony No 92 in G major, ‘Oxford’ (1789) [25’56"]*
César FRANCK (1822-1890): Symphony in D minor (1888) [36’21"]*
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904): Symphony No 8 in G major, Op. 88 (1889) [34’59"]**
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953): Symphony No 1 Op. 25 ‘Classical’ (1917) [12’43"]***
Interview with Karel Ančerl, July 1968 [6’10”]
Concertgebouw Orchestra, Amsterdam/Karel Ančerl

Recorded live in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam *21 January 1970; **28 January 1970: ***23 February 1969
TAHRA TAH 124-125
[116’15"]
www.tahra.com

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Having recently 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.

Ančerl (1908-73) 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 work.

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 passages.

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 orchestra.

Tahra have put us in their debt by issuing this set which I warmly commend.


John Quinn

See also review by Jonathan Woolf

 


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