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Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century - volume 1

Karel ANČERL (1908-1973)
Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)

Festive Overture (1954) [5.59]
Vitezslav NOVÁK (1870-1949)

In the Tatra Mountains (1902-1907) [16.49]
Iša KREJZÍ (1904-1968)

Serenade for Orchestra (1950) [17.58]
Leoš JANÁČEK (1854-1928)

Taras Bulba (1928) [22.14]
Otmar MÁCHA (b.1922)

Variations on a Theme by and on the Death of Jan Rychlík (1966) [12.59]
Bedrich SMETANA (1824-1884)

Vltava (1888) [11.50]
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Symphony No. 8 (1889) [35.32]
Slavonic Dance Op. 46 No. 8 [4.08]
Bohuslav MARTINŮ (1890-1959)

Symphony No. 5 (1947) [26.55]
Czech PO (Shostakovich, Novák, Krejcí, Janáček, Mácha)
Vienna SO (Smetana, Dvořák dance)
Concertgebouw Orchestra (Dvořák Symphony)

Toronto SO (Martinů)
rec Rudolfinum, Prague, 10 Apr 1964 (Shostakovich) 2 Oct 1957 (Krejzí), 22-24 May 1961 (Janáček), 10 June 1968 (Mácha); 12 Dec 1950, Domovina, Prague (Novák); 8-10 Feb 1958, Nov 1958, Grosser Saal, Musikverein, Vienna (Smetana and Dvořák Dance); 28 Jan 1970, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam (Dvořák 8); Massey Hall, Toronto, Nov 1971 (Martinů); Stereo/Mono ADD
Live recordings: Dvořák and Martinů Symphonies

EMI CLASSICS CZS5 75091 2[2CDs: 76.37+78.58] Midprice

Ančerl was something of a hero to any students on a strangulated budget in the 1970s. Many of us were more than happy to explore Bartók, Janáček, Martinů, Stravinsky and others via the cheapish range of Supraphon LPs. Ančerl was our guide through the Glagolytic Mass, Taras Bulba, the Concerto for Orchestra, Petrushka and the Rite. Later I encountered Ančerl in the flamboyant Second Symphony of Balham-born Canadian, Healy Willan - a noble Elgarian work by the way! In that case he conducted the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. The TSO are represented in this set by the Martinů Fifth.

Supraphon are one of many companies who have licensed material to this series. The negotiations with so many companies must have been heavy going. It was worth it to EMI Classics? On CD1 Ančerl's Taras Bulba, is there with hardly any hiss. The sweet-slender tone of the various instrumental solos makes this a superb recording - stereo too. Listen also to the abrasively gripping and bass barking brass. I hanker for the Ančerl Sinfonietta rather than Taras which is the weaker work. Listen out for the wonderfully clean icy-sharp etching of the violins and the harp ostinato in The Death of Ostap (tr.7). Was this work known to Britten before he started on the morning music from Peter Grimes? Ančerl presents the work shorn of Talich's Beecham-like retouchings. The end results show Ančerl's enthusiasm to exploit the best of the new recording techniques and the sturdy illusion of stereo spread. We are talking about 1962 here!

Novak's Slovak Suite was also recorded by Ančerl but I am pleased that the exalted and transcendent In the Tatras was preferred by producers Stephen Wright and John Pattrick. Ančerl was audacious in his choice. Novák was generally taken to be Talich territory (it was a work Talich recorded in the 1940s). While Ančerl had learnt from Talich, as Handley learnt from Boult, it was still a brave step.

This Novak is the oldest recording in this set and is in mono. It was made in the cramped Domovina Studio. In this it differs from the other Czech PO items on CD1 which were made in the famed Rudolfinum. Ančerl had only just taken over the country's premier orchestra and, as mentioned later, there were tensions between conductor and player. There are no telltales of disharmony in the playing. I would place it in a similar league with the mid-1960s stereo Sejna Novák recording on Supraphon (SU 1922-2 911) although Ančerl's strings are sleeker and better nourished. The celesta and harp notes cut intimately towards the listener. It is such a pity that there was no-one to push Ančerl into recording Novák's two late symphonies including the Autumn Symphony.

The Krejcí Serenade is for full orchestra. This three movement 1950 composition brims with solo detailing and the irreverent activity in the outer movements make it a Czech analogue of Milhaud (Boeuf sur le Toit), Shostakovich (Piano Concerto No. 1), Khachaturian (Masquerade), updated Rossini and even Bernstein. The middle movement andante is a touching and quiet interlude. Ančerl also recorded Krejzí's Second Symphony.

Ančerl's Martinů 5 was captured in Toronto two years after he had moved there in 1968. He had just left Czechoslovakia confirmed in his decision by the Soviet invasion and the ending of the Dubček experiment. Ančerl succeeded Ozawa (who recorded Messiaen with them for RCA) and preceded Andrew Davis (who recorded some fine Borodin there for CBS). He had signed on the dotted line with Toronto in January that year. The invasion was not until August. He had intended holding dual principal positions at Toronto and Prague. The invasion put paid to that. It is a privilege to have a good stereo version of Ančerl's Martinů 5 which has all the usual virtues - joyous surging élan and split-second rhythmically alive music. Martinů's exit to North America left the way clear for his successor, Vačlav Neumann, to record the Martinů Six. I wonder whether Ančerl conducted all six. There are Ančerl recordings of all the symphonies (save only 2 and 4) courtesy of Multisonic and Supraphon.

The Fifth always seems to me to be Martinů's answer to Beethoven's Fourth and Seventh Symphonies, with the usual faint neo-classical tinge and a much stronger neo-romantic tendency. It was recorded by Ančerl in the fifties in mono. That Supraphon recording is still available. This CBC recording sounds more translucent (and light is a prime factor in Martinů). It is not as iridescently airy as Neumann's Fifth with Ančerl's one-time orchestra but that was made eight years after this one. It certainly trounces the Robert Whitney/Louisville version you used to be able to get on an RCA Gold Seal LP. Neumann times in at 29.48 against Ančerl's 26.55. The Neumann is on Supraphon 11 0382-2 1013 as part of a boxed set of the complete Martinů symphonies (reviewed elsewhere on this site).

Vltava is recorded close-up with every minute detail gracefully relished, rounded and accented. Ančerl's is not a quick performance. The approach is highly poetic and patient. Vienna's 'second' orchestra find Straussian overtones in the Peasant Wedding episode.

Ančerl's Dvořák 8 was taken down from a live performance with the Concertgebouw. It is jaunty, lively and autumnal-toned like Brahms Third. The warmly regretful allegretto grazioso smiles and sings developing a mood familiar from the Slavonic Dances. The finale has some fruitily beautiful woodwind contributions (e.g. the flute at 2.39). It ends in the roaring and whirling updraft of the Furiant. The last of the Op. 46 set of Slavonic Dances resumes the giddy Furiant mood at the end of CD2. This brings the disc to almost 79 minutes.

Patrick Lambert's notes provide what comes to an extended encyclopedia entry for Ančerl. I have magpied them shamelessly for this review. Lambert reminds us that twenty years after Ančerl's death in Toronto in July 1973 his ashes and those of his widow were returned to his homeland. They were reinterred at Vyšehrad on the first day of the 1993 Prague Spring Festival.

Nikolai Golovanov (vol. 8 of the series) had cause for bitterness because of his summary dismissal from the Bolshoi. Ančerl however owed communist government his appointment in 1950 to head the Czech Phil. He had to struggle for some years against the resentment of orchestra members who were used to being consulted over who was to be their principal conductor. Ančerl is reported as having strong communist leanings during the 1950s. He did his duties which extended to premiering and recording communist cantatas such as Vačlav Dobias's Build Your Country and Jan Kapr's In the Soviet Land. The Festive Overture is hardly prime Shostakovich but its rumbustious bustle and flashiness make it a very suitable, if superficial, opener - a Soviet 'answer' to Bernstein's Candide Overture?

Before the war he had immersed himself in new music. It is forgotten that he was a pupil of Aloys Haba and was associated with Scherchen and the ISCM movement. German occupation and his association with the 'music of degeneracy' resulted in his consignment to Terezin. He was the only member of his family to survive the concentration camps. Macha's 1966 Variations on a theme by the composer Jan Rychlík reminds us that Ančerl was not averse to 'modernism'. The Variations are not exactly thorny but they are noticeably the chilliest and most tonally challenging of the scores in this set. The eerie solo woodwind cries seem to have taken the nightmare episodes from Josef Suk's Asrael Symphony as their point of departure. This is Macha's tribute - a funeral oration almost - to Rychlík. The African Cycle by Rychlík is for eight wind instruments and piano and anticipates minimalism by a decade or so. Be warned - there is little of comfort in this work and more of horror, protest and suspense.

You may well already have Taras Bulba on Supraphon although that label is not that often seen on record shop shelves. The Martinů is on a CBC disc but those are even rarer - except perhaps in Canada. As for the rest, these are collectors' items from a conductor with a natural leaning towards the poetry in music. The Ančerl-bund will snap this up. Others will find much to reward them in Ančerl's caring approach.

This the first volume in the 'Great Conductors of the 20th Century' series. The series has a far better claim to the spanning ambition of the word 'Great' than the other EMI series: Great Recordings of the Century.

The presentation in this series is perfect. Black and charcoal grey predominates. Design is practical and shows none of the usual signs of designer insecurity and neurotic pursuit of originality at the expense of utility. Sadly the clever clever norm has turned many a classical CD into a design disaster area with practical issues such as legibility coming under the sacrificial knife.

Each double CD set in this series is housed in a cardboard sleeve holding a single width double CD jewel-case. The leaflets are trilingual and very fully detailed.

Highly recommended.
Rob Barnett

 


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