In 1968 Karel Ancerl was invited to succeed Seiji Ozawa as Music Director
of the Toronto Symphony Orchestra with effect from the 1969/70
season. When he accepted the appointment
it had been his intention to combine his work in Canada with
his existing responsibilities as Artistic Director of the Czech
Philharmonic. However, the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia caused Ančerl to revise his plans.
He was in America when the invasion occurred and from there he wrote to the Czech orchestra,
resigning his post. He never returned to his native land.
The Toronto orchestra
certainly faced a significant change from Ozawa, the then 33-year-old
Bernstein protégé, who had led them since 1964, to the much
less flamboyant Czech conductor, twenty-seven years his senior.
The pending contrast was not lost on the Toronto Star
newspaper which commented thus: “He [Ančerl]
won’t be another Ozawa, of course … no part of his predecessor’s swinger-image
follows him onto the podium. But maybe Ančerl
is what we need now, maybe after four years of kinaesthetic
excitement it will be time to encounter some mellowness, some
Europeanization, some of the authority of age.” This comment
is included in the very informative notes which accompany these
CDs and, on the evidence of the performances collected here,
the Canadian journalist was most prescient in his remarks.
This Tahra set consists entirely of performances with the Toronto orchestra.
As with other issues in Tahra’s Ančerl
edition, a good deal of interest stems from the fact that it
includes several pieces never recorded commercially by Ančerl.
I suspect that the recording of the Beethoven ‘Pastoral’ Symphony
may be the same one, which has appeared on CBC Records (PSCD
2021, coupled slightly incongruously, with Martinů’s
Fifth Symphony). Otherwise all the performances are, I believe,
new to CD. Though the documentation doesn’t say so I think that,
with the possible exception of the Smetana, all the recordings
were made in Toronto’s Massey Hall
(this is certainly the case with the Beethoven Eighth and the
Mozart.) All the original recordings are the work of Canadian
In fact, although
Ančerl was not due to take up
his Toronto post until
the autumn of 1969, the political developments in Czechoslovakia meant that he was available to the orchestra a year earlier than planned.
The broadcast introduction to the Mozart Serenade (CD1, track
1) makes it clear that the concert of 10 November 1968 was a
(hastily?) arranged early event, a “musical welcome to our community”,
at which in addition to the Mozart and the Beethoven Eighth
Ančerl and the orchestra very
fittingly included Dvořák’s ‘New
It appears that
theirs was a happy and effective partnership from the outset.
The Mozart we have here is a performance with full string band.
Personally I have come to prefer a much smaller ensemble in
such works; the larger band does result in a loss of intimacy,
I feel. That said, the present account
is spruce and well turned. I’m sure that the use of fairly large
forces is the reason why the Minuet sounds rather too beefy
but the trio (CD 1, track 4, 0’46”) is affectionate and graceful.
The main music of this movement is a touch too sturdy, I think,
but this is of a piece with Ančerl’s
way with similar movements in Haydn symphonies as we can hear
in other Tahra sets. The finale is brisk and buoyant though the lower
strings are rather too emphatic for my taste.
The Beethoven Eighth
on the second disc followed the Mozart in this concert and I
felt this was a most successful reading. The interpretation
as a whole is full of energy, albeit well controlled. There
is some good wind playing, the strings are alert and the whole
performance is rhythmically vital. In the first movement (CD
2, track 6) the development is appropriately fiery with all
Beethoven’s pungent accents properly observed and used to give
the music drive and impetus. The second movement ticks along
very nicely and the third movement is ebullient. The performance
is capped by a mercurial and exuberant finale. In summary, this
is a very good and enjoyable performance and as a Beethoven
interpretation it is, I think, to be preferred to the account
of the ‘Pastoral’ which is also included in this set.
The other recordings
in the set were all given after Ančerl
had formally assumed his place at the head of the Toronto orchestra.
The Mendelssohn symphony was given just before Christmas 1969.
I have some reservations about this performance. Is it, I wonder,
the acoustics of the hall, the close balancing by the Canadian
radio engineers or the work of the players themselves which
robs the introduction to the first movement (CD1, track 6) of
a proper sense of anticipation? To my ears the orchestra is
too “present” and forward with a lack of really soft dynamics.
The main allegro of this movement is sturdy and forthright in
Ančerl’s hands and he gets a
spirited response from the players. The playing is not entirely
flawless but the orchestra’s commitment to their new chief is
The second movement
is lively and engaging and features some neat work from the
woodwind. In the finale I like the way the great tune, ‘Ein
Feste Burg’ is introduced almost diffidently
by the principal flute (track 8, 2’59”). It sounds as if the
player was using a wooden instrument, something which, sadly,
one scarcely ever encounters these days in ‘modern’ orchestras.
This movement receives a well-proportioned and robust reading
from Ančerl. This is not Mendelssohn’s finest symphony (I
don’t think it is the equal of its two immediate predecessors
in the canon) but Ančerl makes
a strong, positive case for it, thoroughly justifying the enthusiastic
response from the audience.
The Schumann symphony was recorded
at performances given a few days earlier. Under Ančerl
I find that the introduction to the first movement (CD 1, track
10) does not have quite the pent-up tension imparted by, say
Günter Wand. However, the passage is purposeful and the main
allegro is projected strongly and dramatically. This is a full-blooded,
well-articulated performance. In the Romanza (Track 11)
I thought the playing sounded a shade four-square and matter
of fact. I’ve certainly heard more atmospheric and flexible
accounts of this movement. The performance seems to me to lack
sufficient dynamic contrast (though this may well be because
the microphones had been placed too close). The scherzo is forceful.
It’s a marginal matter of degree but I think I’d have preferred
the tutti passages to have been a little less definite. The
more lightly scored passages come off better. Perhaps a very
slightly faster tempo would have helped?
and “forthright” are words which spring to mind during the finale.
This is not meant in a derogatory way but I couldn’t help wondering
if the Czech Philharmonic would have given Ančerl
a touch more light and shade. Throughout the movement (and,
indeed, throughout the whole work) Ančerl
clarifies the lines and balances his forces very well so that
there’s no trace of the orchestral thickness of which Schumann
is sometimes (unfairly) accused. Overall I’d rate this a good performance, albeit one which would have benefited
from more dynamic contrast.
As I mentioned
earlier, I strongly suspect the recording of the ‘Pastoral’
Symphony is separately available on a rival label. This is the
latest performance in the whole set, stemming from Ančerl’s
third season in charge in Toronto. Again the recording is closely balanced. On other equipment it may
reproduce better but as with the Schumann I thought that the
recording was too close, with the strings too prominent.
Ančerl leads a clear-eyed account
of the first movement. There are no early morning mists here;
Beethoven’s rambler arrives in the countryside in the clear
light of day. There is more evidence of quiet playing and dynamic
contrast than I found in the Schumann (the result of three years
work together?) although the tuttis
are a bit strident (a product of the microphone placings,
I’m sure). I didn’t hear a great deal of evidence of ‘moulding’
the performance though I must say straight away that I don’t
mean to imply that the reading is poorly prepared or less than
fully considered. Actually, I think that Ančerl’s approach to Beethoven is pretty non-interventionist.
I suspect he took the view that all the expression had been
written into the score by Beethoven and it was the conductor’s
responsibility “merely” to lay out the score accurately and
faithfully for the listener, leaving Beethoven to speak for
The slow movement
(CD2, track 2) sounds a bit on the sturdy side. To my ears it
doesn’t quite flow as effortlessly as it might. Some of the
woodwind solos sound a touch reticent (for example the flute
followed by the bassoon at track 2, 2’24”) The ‘Peasant’s Merrymaking’
(Track 3) is well done with much lighter playing than elsewhere
in the performance so far. However, here I am puzzled by a quirk
in the sound. For this movement and the remainder of the symphony
the sound seems more recessed than had been the case in the
first two movements. Repeated listening confirms this impression.
Whether this is due to ageing of the original tapes or a sign
that something has gone awry in Tahra’s transfers I don’t know. Since the transfers are otherwise
fine I’m inclined to think the original source material is to
blame. The lower sound level does rob the performance of some
impact but I found my ears adjusted before too long.
There is a good
dramatic thrust to the storm (track 4) which is not separately
tracked from the following Shepherd’s Hymn (which receives a
dignified, level-headed reading). I like the unaffected way
Ančerl just lets the hymn flow.
Some may find the treatment plain but I thought it typified
the integrity and common sense of his approach to the whole
work. The hymn finally achieves a radiant climax before sinking
back to a natural close. I’d rate this as a decent performance
in which the playing is good if not outstanding. I don’t think
it sheds any new light on Beethoven but, then, I doubt that
was Ančerl’s intention in the first place. One thing I must
mention is that Tahra allow the applause
for this performance more or less to run into the (separately
tracked) radio announcement relating to the Beethoven Eighth
(CD 2, track 5) which comes next on the disc. This may give
the erroneous impression that the two works followed each other
in concert, which is not the case. This is a minor blemish on
Tahra’s otherwise very good presentation.
The whole of the
third CD is devoted to a rehearsal of Smetana’s
Vltava from the Ma Vlast cycle of symphonic poems, followed by what I
take to be a “studio” performance of the piece, without an audience
present. The rehearsal is conducted in (very good) English.
Tahra usefully provide an English
transcript though I doubt Anglophone listeners will need this
for Ančerl’s English is very
clear and his voice is well recorded. A French translation is
are not to everyone’s taste. However, this one is very interesting.
Anyone hoping for Toscanini-style eruptions or examples of Beechamesque
wit will be disappointed. Here instead we have a supremely professional
musician conducting a thorough rehearsal in a good-natured,
courteous manner, emphasising firmly and clearly what he wants.
It’s revealing, and somewhat sobering, to hear just how much
repetitive hard work goes into producing a good performance
of a fairly short, well-known work. Indeed, this sequence is
an excellent illustration of the old “5% inspiration, 95% perspiration”
maxim, I think. Ančerl takes
great trouble to ensure that nothing is taken for granted and
that the players know what he wants and deliver it. It’s instructive
that the rehearsal lasts some four times the length of the actual
playing time of the work itself. Some of the time has to be
used to correct small but significant mistakes, such as misplaced
accents, in the players’ printed copies.
The whole sequence
of some 48 minutes is contained in one track. I think I’d have
welcomed a few more cue points (for example, the section beginning
at 12’28” where the conductor pays special attention to the
horns). There’s a nice touch of humour (at 21’00”) where Ančerl
cautions his players against playing too slowly the episode
containing the Czech national dance, the polka. This, he says,
is a common fault occasioned by people thinking that Czech peasants
are all fat! The laughter this produces and the overall atmosphere
of concentration is evidence of the rapport Ančerl had already established with the Toronto musicians
even before becoming their chief conductor.
What emerges from
this recording is a picture of a courteous, very well prepared
and knowledgeable musician who pays great attention to detail
and who is prepared to put in the hard work necessary to produce
a well shaped, convincing performance of music which is clearly
dear to his heart and which he knows inside out. Not surprisingly,
the performance that follows (track 2) is well played, Detail
is finely observed but the reading has sweep and imagination.
Despite the careful preparation there’s not a trace of pedantry.
One very minor point: though the sound is otherwise good the
last two emphatic chords sound a bit muffled.
This is another
very valuable set from Tahra. It confirms
the impression of Karel Ančerl
as a practical, clear-eyed and dedicated musician. His conducting
is consistently objective, thoroughly musical and draws attention
to the music rather than the executants. Having regard especially
to the rehearsal sequence I’d describe him as a musician’s musician.
included here may not shed a great deal of new light on the
works concerned (but is it necessary for every performance to
do that, anyway?) However, they are in each case well-crafted,
enjoyable, faithful to the composer’s intentions and never less
than enjoyable. In an age when hype seems to be absurdly influential
it is good to be reminded of what can be achieved by a thorough,
sincere musician who has his feet firmly on the ground. It must
be said that at this stage in its history the Toronto ensemble was not exactly world class in standard. However, it gives
Ančerl playing that is consistently
committed and enthusiastic. Interestingly, the notes include
an extract from a review that appeared in the Washington Evening Star following a concert which Ančerl
and the orchestra gave in the US capital in 1972. The reviewer expressed the view that “the change
from Ozawa to Ančerl does not
signify a backward step in the orchestra’s evolution,
it simply represents a humanization of what was previously a
pretty cold and efficient machine.”
Tahra’s transfers are good and, apart
from the specific reservations mentioned above, the sound is
perfectly acceptable. Presentation is good. As I’ve already
mentioned, they provide transcripts of the rehearsal in both
French and English. There is also a substantial booklet in both
these languages and in Italian as well which contains a very
useful and informative note about Ančerl’s
time in Toronto accompanied by some apposite illustrations.
I hope that Tahra will follow up this set with further issues of material
from Ančerl’s Toronto days. In particular,
I should be interested to know if any tapes exist of him conducting
music by indigenous composers such as Healey Willan. For now,
however, this set is a very useful souvenir of the appointment
that turned out to be the coda to Karel Ančerl’s
career. It will be self-recommending to all admirers of this
fine conductor but I recommend it also to other collectors as
an example of quality conducting.