This instalment 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 12).
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’ (track 9).
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
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.
See also review
by Jonathan Woolf