Thanks to those enterprising souls at Eloquence a whole new generation will be able to hear why Ernest Ansermet was such an influential figure in 20th
-century music and music-making. He spent five years conducting for Diaghilev's Ballets Russes and formed his own band, L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, in 1918. Together with the OSR he went on to make a slew of fine recordings for Decca in the 1950s and 1960s, among them an exhilarating disc of Borodin - see review
- and the Tchaikovsky ballets.
The premiere of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet
- a Kirov commission - was delayed by intrigue and skulduggery. Frustrated, the composer responded with two orchestral suites, aired in 1936 and 1937; the ballet itself was premiered a year later. There is a third suite, designated Op. 101, which is not represented here. Completists might complain this leaves just a torso but, in keeping with the cover artwork, what a magnificent torso it is!
Ansermet kicks off with a superbly dramatic Montagues and Capulets, rather than the charming Folk Dance. Dramatically this makes a lot of sense, and it certainly gets the recording off to a hair-raising start. Comparing this music with that from Esa-Pekka Salonen's complete Romeo and Juliet
(Sony SBK 89740) and Paavo Järvi's three suites (Telarc CD/SACD 60597), is very instructive indeed; where these two modern versions major on weight and sheer beauty of sound Ansermet opts for raw energy Yes, ensemble isn't beyond reproach, but when the performance is as scarifying as this who could possibly complain?
One can easily forget there is gentle, affecting music in Prokofiev, with Järvi and Salonen shaping these tunes to great effect. For instance, the string playing in Madrigal (tr. 3) is superbly done under Järvi, the Cincinnati band sounding at their silky best. Ansermet is a little rougher, but at least he's alive to the composer's more striking sonorities. And then there's the famous Telarc bass drum in the Minuet (tr. 4), although you'd be surprised at just how far down the Decca sound will go. As for tape hiss that's only noticeable in quieter passages. The appearance of the star-cross'd lovers (tr. 5) confirms that Ansermet and the OSR can sound every bit as ardent as their modern rivals, Järvi especially.
Some listeners will be swayed by the fact that the latter offers all three suites, the first of which ends in dramatic fashion with the death of Tybalt. Rhythmically Järvi is pin sharp here but for sheer frisson
- listen to the snap and crack of those side drums - Ansermet and the OSR are in another league altogether. Not surprising, as he was a man of the theatre and knew how to pace this music and maximise its dramatic effect. I particularly admire his deft way with the music of Masks (tr. 7) and the Dance that follows. As for the sound at this point it's surprisingly light and airy for a recording that's almost 50 years old. Indeed, this Romeo and Juliet
yields little to its modern rivals in terms of overall sonics; and even in the massed strings and anguished bass lines of Romeo at Juliet's Grave (tr: 10) there's little sign of grain or glassiness. A remarkable performance in every respect.
Musically The Prodigal Son
is cut from much plainer cloth. The work - based on the Biblical parable - was written for the Ballets Russes, who premiered it in May 1929. Prokofiev composed the symphonic suite - designated Op 46bis - in the same year. Once again Ansermet goes his own way, eschewing the usual 10 movements in favour of just five. Without a programme - the Decca booklet simply lists the movements as Adagio, Allegro and so on - the music seems less a suite than a symphony. Ansermet takes a robust, no-nonsense view of this score, the recording not as warm and expansive as it is in Romeo and Juliet.
That said, this is still a winning performance, the OSR playing with real precision and bite.
The second disc opens with excerpts from the Cinderella
suite. The complete ballet has been well served on record, not least by the magical Cleveland/Ashkenazy set (Decca 455 349-2). Again, Ansermet presents just the husk of the ballet - 11 movements ending with the fateful midnight chimes - but what he does give us charts the work's drama well enough. And where he's genuinely symphonic in The Prodigal Son
it's Ashkenazy who tends to take that view in Cinderella.
Ansermet is generally more theatrical, but in the slow introduction he sounds a trifle ponderous in places. Make no mistake, though, he brings a wonderful sense of anticipation to those opening bars and that is something Ashkenazy can't quite manage.
However, where Ashkenazy does
score - after all he is blessed with modern digital sound and an orchestra who play like angels - is in his pointing of rhythms and the general sparkle he brings to this music. Ansermet's Pas de Chat (tr. 2) is a case in point; it's nicely done but Ashkenazy finds more lift and charm here. Sonically the early Decca sound is more than adequate; it's full and detailed - listen to the piano in tr. 3 - and the bass is never boomy or diffuse. One marvels anew at the quality of this recording, which hardly shows its age. Just try the Mazurka (tr. 6) for size and you'll be amazed at what you hear.
As far as I'm aware Ansermet never recorded a complete Cinderella;
more's the pity, but at least we have some tantalising titbits. Just listen to the barely contained excitement of tr. 7 as Cinderella goes to that all-important ball. There is real elegance to Ansermet's phrasing here, but in the Bourrée (tr. 9) Ashkenazy adds a dash of wit - parody even - to this stately dance. Ansermet's Galop (tr. 10) is splendid though, and it's only in the final movement - the clock striking midnight - that he and the OSR must yield to the thrill and terror of Ashkenazy's reading. As enjoyable as this suite is, I would urge listeners seek out the complete ballet; the Ashkenazy set, available as a mid-price twofer, is a bargain at any price.
The Scythian Suite,
a relatively early work, is based on Prokofiev's projected ballet, Ala and Lolli.
Unfortunately Diaghilev rejected the score, which was later refashioned into the orchestral showpiece we know today. It's much favoured by conductors and record companies out to make an impact, so there are plenty of recordings to choose from. Among them is Claudio Abbado's reading with the Chicago Symphony (DG Originals 447 419-2) and Neeme Järvi's with the Scottish National Orchestra (Chandos CHAN 8584). Both are made even more desirable by their couplings, top-notch versions of Alexander Nevsky.
Theatrical to the last, Ansermet gives us a rip-snorting Adoration of Veles and Ala (tr. 12). Again I was impressed by the engineering but for the first time there is a hint of hardness in the treble. It's not unwelcome, though, as it simply underlines the abrasive nature of this music. The repeated rhythms that follow have seldom sounded so hypnotic, and there's plenty of instrumental detail to boot. Järvi's recording is even more spectacular at this point, especially in the percussion department, but it's not nearly as dramatic as I remembered. If anything, Abbado and his Chicago band make the most of this atavistic score, the music swinging like a mighty pendulum.
That's pretty much the order of play for the rest of this suite; Ansermet is the more instinctive interpreter, Abbado opting for a tauter, more controlled, approach. Just listen to the latter in the Polovtsian-Dance-like rhythms of The Enemy God and the Dance of the Spirits of Darkness; there's plenty of power there, with a sense of plenty more in reserve. Although marginally less imposing Ansermet stitches this music together with astonishing ease. His reading of Night (tr. 14) is atmospheric and brimming with tiny instrumental details. The final movement, The Glorious Departure of Lolli and the Procession of the Sun (tr. 15), is just as revealing, even if the perspectives don't always sound entirely natural. Järvi and the SNO are simply fabulous here, pipping both Abbado and Ansermet to the post.
The last two items on this disc - the March and Scherzo from Prokofiev's opera The Love for Three Oranges
- are new to CD. They are enjoyable enough, but blink and you could very well miss them.
These Eloquence releases sport the logo 'Decca Ansermet Legacy' - and what a legacy it is. This conductor brings an unmistakable air of authority to these scores; after all, he knew Prokofiev and his contemporaries, and was there when they were at their creative peak. Indeed, it's that sense of 'connection' - usually associated with Walter's Mahler or Beecham's Delius - that makes this set so valuable.