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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874; orch. Maurice Ravel 1922) (1), A Night on the Bare Mountain (1867; arr. and orch. Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov 1886) (2)
Alexander BORODIN (1833-1887)

In the Steppes of Central Asia (1880) (3)
Nikolai RIMSKY-KORSAKOV (1844-1908)

Capriccio Espagnol, op. 34 (1887) (4)
Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/Karel Ančerl
Recorded in the Dvořák Hall of the Rudolfinum, Prague, June 1968 (1, 2), January 1965 (3), December 1964 (4)

SUPRAPHON SU 3664-2 011 [65:14]

 

When I reviewed the first disc allotted to me from this Ančerl Gold Edition I raised the question whether Ančerl, wonderfully gifted musician that he was, was quite the “great” conductor it is sometimes claimed today. It depends what “greatness” in a conductor means to you. To me it means an ability to involve the orchestra and listener in a very special and intense spiritual experience. If this is what it means to you, too, then it must be said that the Ančerl recorded legacy is not especially rich in works such as the St. Matthew Passion, the Beethoven Missa Solemnis or the Brahms German Requiem which might let us judge him alongside Klemperer, Furtwängler or Walter. Or am I proposing a very Teutonic concept of greatness?

Be that as it may, and to return to the disc in hand, I could paraphrase Schumann’s comment on Sterndale Bennett and say that Ančerl had at the very least a great deal of a certain type of greatness. His special quality seems to lie in his perception of rhythm. Not just in the sense of getting everything spick and span and "rhythmically vital" in that sense, though "Night on the Bare Mountain" and many parts of "Pictures" and the "Spanish Caprice" show that his technical control in that sense was excellent. You will also notice, if you listen to the Rimsky-Korsakov , that there is nothing brash about it; it is colourful and exuberant with a vitality that seems to come from within the orchestra rather than being imposed upon it.

But if you go on or if you hear the opening of "In the Steppes of Central Asia" you will hear something deeper at work. This latter piece, apart from a few introductory bars that reappear at the end, has a bass ostinato rhythm which continues throughout (and so does the second section of the Rimsky). So many conductors start these rhythmic ostinatos off well enough, then devote their attention to shaping the romantic themes, often with lavish rubatos that mean the ostinato has to just fend for itself. Gorgeous, maybe, but go back to Ančerl and you will find why other interpretations of this music can sound heavy. Listen through the Borodin concentrating on the bass line only, and you will notice that the rhythmic activity is held undeviatingly, yet it never seems rigid for it has a life and a pulsation all of its own. This is the backdrop against which the romantic melodies are placed, and at times they are very passionately sung indeed, yet somehow an essential purity of expression is always present because the music’s roots are not lost sight of.

If we add to this a strong feeling for orchestral colour and a sense of balance that can lighten the most turgid texture, it is evident that we have here a supreme example of one particular way of playing these pieces – the best way, was my reaction after hearing the disc and putting the Rimsky straight back on for sheer pleasure (but of course there isn’t really a single and “best” way). And I hope I haven’t given the idea that Ančerl delivers pedantic demonstrations, for there is a real sense of delight in the music and a sense of communication – listen to the unhatched chicks in the Pictures prancing and squeaking . Indeed, he seems to thrive on studio conditions, as a comparison with a live performance on tour in Switzerland (available on Aura) shows to the (slight) detriment of the latter.

The sound has come up remarkably well. I suppose it yields points to a modern state-of-the-art version but right now I can’t think of performances of these pieces that I’d rather hear.

Christopher Howell



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