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Karel Ancerl Edition: Toronto Symphony Orchestra Vol. 1
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART
(1756-1791)
Serenade No 13 ‘Eine kleine Nachtmusik’, K525 (1797) [16’33”]*
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op. 107, ‘Reformation’ (1832) [27’50”]****
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op. 120 (1841, rev. 1851) [25’56”]***
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 6 in F major, Op. 68, ‘Pastoral’ [39’16”]*****
Symphony No 8 in F major, Op. 93 (1812) [26’18”]*
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
Vltava’ from Ma Vlast (1874-9)
Rehearsal [48’25”]
Performance [12’16”]**
Toronto Symphony Orchestra/Karel Ancerl
Recorded: 10 November 1968; **5 February 1968; *** 9/10 December 1969; **** 16/17 December 1969; ***** 19 January 1972
TAHRA TAH 121-123 [3CDs: 205’10”]

Experience Classicsonline

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 Radio.

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 World’ Symphony.

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 obvious.

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?

Again, “robust” 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 himself.

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 also included.

Rehearsal sequences 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.

The performances 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.

John Quinn




 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



 


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