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Karel Ančerl Volume 1
Joseph HAYDN (1732-1809)
Symphony No.93 in D (1791)
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Symphony No.9 in C D944 Great (1825-28)
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Slavonic Dances Opp. 46 and 72 (1878 and 1886)
Nicolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)
Scheherazade Op. 35 (1888)
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Romeo and Juliet Op. 64 – excerpts (1938)
Berlin Radio Symphony Orchestra except
Gewandhaus Orchestra Leipzig (Prokofiev)
Karel Ančerl
Recorded from radio broadcasts 1957-1961
TAHRA TAH 117-119
[3 CDs : 206.19]


It is a tribute to the affection and loyalty Ančerl inspired in those who knew him and worked with him, as well as his fans in a wider sense, that my merely daring to suggest, in a previous review, that the question of whether or not he was a great conductor was a matter which might still be open to discussion rather than accepted as a matter of course, produced a prime specimen of hate-mail. Our Webmaster was exhorted not to give any more Ančerl reissues to “this twit”. This contrasts interestingly with the complete lack of any such reaction which has met my lambasting of certain famous recordings by, for instance, Klemperer, Giulini and Colin Davis. Our Webmaster’s reaction was to send me this set!

As a general issue, I am concerned by the alarming proliferation of "great conductors" in the recent past, a proliferation which was not particularly noticed at the time. When I began my listening in the late 1960s there were plenty of well-respected names around such as Jochum, Kempe, Böhm, Keilberth, Szell, Munch, Cluytens and Ančerl himself, but critics in those days were too busy telling us that we would not be seeing again the likes of Toscanini, Furtwängler, Beecham or Walter to claim “great” status for any of these. Now they and many others are the subject of historical reissues and special editions. I am sure it is right to question continually our historical perspectives, but if we apply the epithet "great" too easily it will become debased, becoming merely synonymous with "excellent", and we will have to invent a new "super-great" status for the Toscaninis and the Furtwänglers.

But to return to Ančerl, the present set of radio performances, consisting of works which the conductor did not record for Supraphon, with the exception of the Prokofiev (and even in this case there is a movement more included in the Leipzig version), has clarified my ideas considerably and leaves me in no doubt that Ančerl was a great conductor – sometimes. To illustrate what I mean I will turn first to the Slavonic Dances. In the op.46 set Ančerl’s treatment of the music put me in mind of the Strauss family performances which Robert Stolz used to give and which we get today from Ernst Märzendorfer. That is to say, performances in which the dance element comes first; the polkas are really polkas (none of the lugubrious treatment we often hear of no.3 for example), the furiants are really furiants and so on, and each is danced through without any of the sort of rubato which compromises the spirit of the dance. It is at the opposite pole to, say, Celibidache’s treatment of these eight pieces, where he indulged in a wide range of speeds to elevate each one into a personal and poetic statement – but one which ultimately told us more about Celibidache than about Dvořák. Since Ančerl’s rhythms are always alive, his phrasing and his response to orchestral colour always precise, it follows that these are "authentic" performances in a true sense but, just as no one, so far as I am aware, has claimed that Stolz’s and Märzendorfer’s similarly authentic Strauss performances are the work of great conductors, nor would I make any such claim for Ančerl here.

But in the op.72 set something remarkable happens. The approach is still "authentic" – none of Szell’s lavish rubato in no.2 for instance – but there is also a sense of complete freedom of expression, each dance being liberated from the page, the strings soaring or sizzling as required, the countermelodies luscious, the rhythms all-embracing. From the melancholy sweep of the wonderful no.4 to the galvanic fire of no.7 there is a sense of oneness between composer, conductor and orchestra that I would say only a very great conductor can produce.

So what has happened? There are three possible explanations. One relates to the fact that, somewhere between these two sets of Dances, Dvořák himself had become a really great composer for, enchanting as the op.46 set is, it can be argued that it is high-quality light music whereas by the time of op.72 the composer had become able, as was Schubert or Chopin, to make the dance forms into a true poetic statement, into something universal. So one possibility is that Ančerl deliberately held back in op.46 in order to let us hear the difference.

Possibility no.2 is that Ančerl gave great performances of a small core of works to which he possessed a special insight, and resolved a wide range of others with fine musicianship and technical ability, while possibility no.3 is that the great conductor that was in him might come to the surface at any time, in almost any work, but that he might equally turn in a well-prepared, musicianly but ultimately unremarkable performance. If we were to assemble other recordings of him conducting these Slavonic Dances (I don’t know how many might survive in various radio archives), would he always be great in op.72 and just very good in op.46 (= possibility no.2), or would he sometimes be great all through, or not at all, or in op.46 but not op.72 (= possibility no.3)?

For the moment this question remains unanswered, but the set yields at least one other really great performance – that of the Schubert C major. British listeners may be disturbed at the outset by the horn’s vibrato and, even if this were to your taste, his wobbly tone surely proclaims him less than a prime specimen of his kind. You will also notice that the ensuing string phrases are generously sung rather than magically hushed. But you will also notice, I hope, that this introduction sets up an inexorable sense of striding forward, so firm and powerful as to seem unstoppable. At the end of the introduction Ančerl allows only a slight accelerando – much less than most conductors – so he still needs to leap forward into the Allegro proper. This is sufficiently steady to accommodate the second subject without a change of pulse, yet by digging into detail the playing is frequently incandescent. Again it is the sheer inexorability which is so impressive, and a sense of almost raw exposure to the music which I don’t think I’ve ever felt so strongly. Just to show that even Jove can nod, after a truly remarkable development and beginning to the recapitulation, the tempo momentarily races in the ensuing bridge passage, settling down again at the second subject. Here we have to regret that Ančerl did not have the opportunity to return to the work in the studio with his own Czech Philharmonic – it would surely have been a record to treasure.

Never mind, this is exceptional enough as it is. Pace is again the key to the second movement which sets up a sort of inexorable (I keep coming back to that word) trudge, a winter’s journey against which the different melodies are sung dolefully or passionately. And in spite of the undeviating rhythmic pulse, these melodies are sung with real expressive freedom – and how impressive, indeed terrifying, is the central climax without a trace of acceleration.

Ančerl’s sense of the dance could be taken for granted in the scherzo, but not in the sense of Viennese schmaltz, for the dance proves to be only the backdrop. Though the pulse has quickened the performance is still moving steadily, inexorably (sorry!) towards its ultimate goal. The finale, too, is not especially swift but absolutely incandescent as a result of really getting into every note. As the movement proceeds, though, the pace just slightly quickens, resulting in a more conventional incandescence. Again, we have to regret the studio recording that never was. Ironically, at about the time of this Berlin radio recording, Supraphon’s "horses for courses" policy resulted in their inviting the Music Director of the Leipzig Gewandhaus, Franz Konwitschny, to record this symphony with the Czech Philharmonic.

I don’t want to make too much of these two very minor miscalculations in the course of a long and problematical symphony. This performance remains one of the most powerful in the catalogue and it has changed my mental image of Ančerl overnight. It is the sort of performance we are told Klemperer gave, though in this particular symphony I have yet to hear any evidence that he actually did so.

The Haydn, however, is the work of Ančerl the expert musician. Tempi are well-chosen, the phrasing is well-prepared and always musical, but it has left me with no particular memory.

The remaining disc is mostly the work of the expert musician, with occasional hints of more. The first movement of Scheherazade is quite broad. This does not prevent some exciting brass contributions but the performance seems to hang fire in its quieter moments. Basically, I feel that Ančerl’s concentration on purely musical values does not do quite enough for a work which needs all the wizardry and sense of story-telling of a Beecham to bring it to life. In particular, and especially in view of Ančerl’s enthralling recording of Rimsky’s Spanish Caprice, I thought the finale somewhat lacking in “go”.

The Prokofiev has power, passion and an almost Mravinsky-like electricity towards the end. Ančerl’s Supraphon recording of a slightly shorter selection was long a prime bargain recommendation but unfortunately I do not have it to hand for comparison. The recordings (which all seem to have been made in the studio, without an audience) are remarkably good for what they are. For the imperishable performances of the op.72 Slavonic Dances and the unique vision of the Schubert Great C major this set is worth its price many times over.

Christopher Howell

see also review by Jonathan Woolf


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