of Tahra’s celebration of Karel Ančerl concentrates on
work he did as a guest with two Eastern European orchestras.
All are studio recordings. Apart from the intrinsic interest
of the music itself and of the performances the set is valuable
because, once again, it supplements the conductor’s commercial
discography. As far as I am aware Ančerl did not otherwise
record either of the symphonies included here nor did he record
the Slavonic Danses in their entirety.
The earliest of the recordings is that of Scheherazade.
Generally this is a well thought out reading. The important
solo violin part is well taken by the unnamed leader. His playing
is good but I have to say that I thought he did not characterise
his role to quite the same extent as do either his peer on Fritz
Reiner’s February 1960 version with the Chicago Symphony (RCA)
or Steven Staryk on Beecham’s March
1957 account with the RPO (EMI). To my ears both these rivals
bring even more fantasy and better suggest a beguiling young
woman. The Berlin orchestra plays with commitment for Ančerl
(though the flipside of this is that the brass do tend to be
a bit too enthusiastic and overblow when called upon
to play loudly). However, it has to be said that on points of
detail they do yield to more prestigious ensembles - sample
the ‘placing’ and weighting of the final chords at the end of
the first movement (CD 3, track 1, 9’08") which are satisfactory
but which both Beecham’s and Reiner’s players manage better.
The beginning of the second movement, ‘The
Tale of Prince Kalandar’ is instructive, I think. At the very
start both Reiner and Beecham encourage their
violinists to be even more languorous and seductive than the
Berlin player achieves for Ančerl. The bassoon and oboe
solos, which follow immediately, are decently played by the
Berlin musicians. However, turn to either of the rivals I’ve
mentioned and you’ll hear
so much more. Both Reiner and Beecham bring out countless subtle
nuances and inflections in just a few bars. Suffice to say that
this whole passage takes 1’49” under Ančerl but 2’00” under
Reiner and 2’03” with Beecham. As they say, the devil’s in
the detail! Of course, it must be acknowledged straight away
that both Beecham and Reiner were working with virtuoso bands
and, perhaps more relevantly, with players whom they knew very
well. Nonetheless, these contrasts do matter, I think.
Once the main
allegro of this second movement is launched Ančerl’s reading
has drive and is played with commitment. The next movement,
‘The Young Prince and the Young Princess’ is affectionately
and tenderly played. There’s some good work from both the strings
(who phrase warmly) and from the winds. The finale’s
‘Festival at Baghdad’ is suitably exciting. It’s played with
verve and dash, even if the performance does lack the last degree
of swagger and panache (cf Beecham here in particular). When
the music which depicts the sea is reprised (track 4, 7’39")
the brass do get a little carried away and the familiar, vibrato-laden
East European brass tone is very evident (I know some collectors
have an aversion to this feature while others, myself included,
are more tolerant provided the vibrato is not excessive). However,
if anyone feels that the brass make heavy weather (sorry!) of
the climax, they will surely be soothed by the Conclusion (track
4, 9’00" onwards) which is most atmospherically done.
If I seem to have been a bit harsh in comparing
this performance with others I would say in my defence that
I’ve paid Ančerl the compliment
of getting down from the shelf only the two versions which,
in my opinion, are among the very finest ever committed to disc
(and which, coincidentally, happen to be roughly contemporaneous
with this present performance). In isolation, and in
the context of this retrospective set, the performance is enjoyable
and has much to commend it. Certainly, it is admirably free
from gratuitous histrionics, as one would expect from this conductor.
The next two performances in chronological
order both occupy the first CD in the set. I recently reviewed
Ančerl’s performance of Haydn’s
Symphony No 92 with the Concertgebouw. This present set includes
the very next symphony in Haydn’s canon. As might be expected
from such a consistent conductor, the performance shares many
of the characteristics of his Amsterdam performance.
It is neat, alert and incisive. Interestingly, I felt that in
this Berlin performance the Minuet tripped along a little more
lightly than was the case in the ‘live’ reading of No. 92, and
that’s all to the good, I think. It’s followed by a finale which
is full of boisterous gaiety. I enjoyed my previous encounter
with Ančerl’s Haydn and I
welcomed this opportunity to repeat the experience.
The performance of the Schubert perplexed me
somewhat. The introduction to the first movement, though strongly
projected, struck me as being rather forbidding. The main allegro
I found robust and forthright. Doubts began to surface during
the slow movement. To my ears the basic tempo seemed too abrupt
and martial and the music lacked grace. As the movement unfolded
it all seemed too unrelieved and there was certainly insufficient
dynamic contrast (this may have been partially the fault of
the rather blatant recorded sound). I never seemed to hear a
true piano, still less a pianissimo and, indeed,
this proved to be characteristic of the performance as a whole.
Similarly, the scherzo seemed reluctant to
smile. The playing was efficient but didn’t get my toes tapping.
The trio did swing quite nicely but even here the playing was
rather too emphatic for my taste. The finale was strong and
positive, but really rather too much so. The brass sounded too
hefty, even aggressive in tuttis and by the end my ears were
weary. The performance of this movement and, indeed, that of
the whole symphony never really relaxed.
All in all this performance was a disappointment.
I wonder if Ančerl would have
lightened up more with his Czech Philharmonic players? Partly
I think the somewhat aggressive recording is to blame but I’m
afraid that isn’t the whole story. This was really a reading
short on charm and humour, rather dour, in fact. One has
only to turn to Böhm, Boult or Wand to hear what is really
possible in this symphony.
Less than three
years later Ančerl was back in Berlin to play Dvořák.
Compared with the Schubert we could be listening to a different
conductor and orchestra. Here all is light and shade
and buoyant joie de vivre. Arguably, these dances are
light music but like Brahms’s Hungarian Dances
they are light music of the most superior kind. Here Ančerl
treats us to a complete performance of the eight dances of each
set. It is instructive to see how well he has imparted
to his players the sense of rubato so necessary in this music.
The characteristic Czech rhythms and cross rhythms are very
well done. The Berlin orchestra rewards their Czech guest with
lively, often ebullient playing but there is a great deal of
sensitive shading also. Where in the Schubert they often seemed
incapable of playing below mezzo forte here there is
plenty of dynamic contrast. Perhaps the key to it is that it
sounds as if everyone is enjoying themselves.
A few examples of the good things on offer
will have to suffice. The first dance of the Op. 46 set (CD
2, track 1) gets things off to an exuberant start. By contrast
the fourth dance of this set (track 4) is much gentler and receives
a charming performance. The following dance (track 5) is a quicksilver
piece, which features scampering string and scurrying winds,
and I also enjoyed the perky winds at the start of the seventh
dance (track 7). The set concludes with an exhilarating furiant
(track 8) but there are several
contrasting moments of delicacy in this dance and Ančerl
ensures his players do full justice to the delicate passages
without ever losing momentum.
The Op. 72 set is not as extrovert in character
and there is more of a mood of nostalgia.
Ančerl is perhaps even more impressive in these dances.
The wistfulness of the second dance, for example, seems to me
to be caught to perfection (track 10). This was one place where
the Berlin strings sounded a bit under pressure in
alt but their playing is still perfectly acceptable even
if lacking in the last degree of sheen. In this dance I relished
the burbling wind accompaniment (track 10, 2’06" to 2’
34"). All concerned convey very successfully the moments
of introspection, such as in the fourth dance in this set (track
This CD is a delight from start to finish.
The music is consistently engaging and it is performed beautifully.
If for no other reason the set would be worth acquiring for
these magical performances. The sound offers a significant improvement
on the 1957 Schubert. It is well balanced and faithful.
To complete the
set we have what is believed to be Ančerl’s only extant
recording with the illustrious Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra.
These extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet
suites were recorded in Berlin
during an afternoon immediately before they were performed in
concert. Tahra say the recording includes three numbers which
were not part of Ančerl’s Supraphon recording of extracts
from the suites but since I don’t have access to that
recording I can’t say which these items are.
I must confess
that I don’t much like Ančerl’s way with the very opening
of ‘Montagues and Capulets’. As each tier of the brass discord
is added the players produce a distinct accent (in all other
recording in my collection the tiers are added more smoothly).
More seriously, he makes a distinct break as the discord changes
so that there are two quite separate chords (CD 3, track 5 0’20").
However, I’m happy to report that thereafter there are no other
things with which one could take issue.
The main music of the ‘Montagues and Capulets’
movement is menacingly jaunty, as it should be. The pacing and
gait seem just right to me. The slower flute-led variant (track
5, 3’32") is a most delicate interlude here. There’s some
very supple string and wind playing in ‘Madrigal’ (track 7)
and a couple of delightfully tipsy brass and wind solos in ‘Masques’
The Leipzig violins cope very well with Prokofiev’s
cruelly exposed lines in ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (track 10). In this
performance the searing emotion is built up and sustained very
well, though not all listeners will like the piercing first
trumpet (e.g. at 3’09"). This is music of shattering intensity
(even more so in the complete ballet, which surely is
Prokofiev’s masterpiece) and Ančerl has the measure of
it (did he ever conduct the ballet in the theatre, I wonder?).
The concluding ‘Death of Tybalt’ is as scorching as it should
be. The animal excitement of the fight between Romeo and Tybalt
comes across and the Capulet’s cortège is superbly
dramatic. I’d have preferred a slightly broader tempo to convey
to the full the dreadful nature of what has just occurred but
even so this performance is still pretty potent stuff.
This is now the third volume of Tahra’s Karel
Ančerl edition to come my
way. I think it’s a little more uneven than the others but there
is still a great deal to enjoy in it, not least the sparkling
Dvořák disc. What this set does do is reinforce the image
of Karel Ančerl as a first-rate conductor. He was
a scrupulous musician, always well prepared and though undoubtedly
possessed of a strong personality (how else would he have survived
the concentration camps?) he never sought to impose that personality
to the detriment of the music. He was, in short, an artist one
could respect and admire and Tahra have put us in their debt
by making available so much rare and interesting material.
A substantial, well-illustrated booklet containing
comprehensive essays in French and Italian accompanies this
set. As I’ve indicated, the sound quality varies somewhat due,
no doubt, to the age and provenance of some of the source material.
However, the sound is never less than acceptable and Tahra’s
transfers are very good. Devotees of this fine conductor will
be keen to acquire this set. For the more general collector
some judicious sampling prior to purchase might be prudent.
However, make no mistake this is a significant set and, despite
my reservations about the Schubert (which others may well not
share) I am happy to recommend it.
review by Jonathan Woolf