review of another release in this
same series my colleague Christopher Howell
rather provocatively posed the question
whether Karel Ančerl was “quite the
‘great’ conductor it is sometimes
claimed today". He went on to give
what he stressed was a personal definition
of greatness in a conductor as "an
ability to involve the orchestra and listener
in a very special and intense spiritual
experience." Christopher invoked
a number of sacred choral works, none
of which Ančerl
recorded, so far as I know. However, it
seems to me that greatness can and should
be defined more widely than by reference
just to such pillars of high Western art
as the St Matthew Passion.
Indeed in the course of his characteristically
and perceptive review I think Christopher
implicitly answered his own question by
drawing attention to the many fine qualities
in Ančerl’s musicianship that were
displayed in that particular disc.
This present Prokofiev
CD seems to me to satisfy Christopher’s
definition for in the excerpts from Romeo
and Juliet I believe that we do indeed
encounter "a very special and intense
spiritual experience", albeit a secular
one. I recall first hearing these extracts
many years ago on an LP belonging to my
father and it’s been a joy to reacquaint
myself with them now in greatly enhanced
the time that this recording was set down
Ančerl had been at the helm of the
Czech Philharmonic for some nine years.
The understanding and empathy between
conductor and players is everywhere evident
as the CPO turns in performances of great
power and sensitivity.
the very start of ‘Montagues and Capulets’
Ančerl generates enormous tension.
When the music moves on into the lumbering
dance there’s just the right amount of
weight from the strings though later on
and solo flute play with great delicacy.
I had the opportunity of comparing this
performance with a 1961 reading, issued
by Tahra, in which Ančerl conducts
the Leipzig Gewandhaus Orchestra and which
I reviewed enthusiastically a while ago.
This movement is one of four that
is common to both recordings. Well though
the German orchestra plays, there’s no
doubt in my mind that the Czech playing
is better. A comparison between the two
bands in this movement alone shows how
integrated and powerful yet refined the
CPO was under Ančerl.
Tahra Ancerl review is
of the other movements on offer here are
smaller scale dances but Ančerl lavishes
the same care and attention on them. The
portrait of ‘Juliet the young girl’ is
etched in marvellously. The music skips
along impetuously and infectiously, catching
the mood of a young, innocent girl to
perfection. The slightly cheeky ‘Masks’
is extremely well done. Prokofiev’s presentation
of ‘Friar Laurence’ is also done expertly.
At the start Prokofiev portrays the Friar
just as a kindly man but before long a
much deeper vein of melancholy is revealed
and here the CPO strings are gorgeous.
In the aforementioned
review Christopher Howell referred very
rightly to Ančerl’s rhythmic acuity.
This is on display consistently throughout
this disc, whether the music is slow or
fast. The brief ‘Dance’ (track 7) is an
excellent example of the conductor’s expert
way of pointing rhythms.
The last three tracks
confront us with key points in Shakespeare’s
and Prokofiev’s drama. ‘The Death of Tybalt’,
with which Act 2 of the complete ballet
ends is quite stunning here, a real tour-de-force.
At the very start there is wonderful articulation
in the playing and the fight between Romeo
and Tybalt is breathtaking. The rushing
strings in that passage (from 1’14",
track 8) are absolutely unanimous and
vital. By contrast, on the Tahra CD the
Gewandhaus strings are neither as precise
nor as weighty. The CPO also has a decided
edge with their account of the concluding
cortège for Tybalt. This is overwhelming
in its intensity, crowned by a piercing
first trumpet that sounds almost like
a cornet. Some listeners may not like
that sound but I found it riveting.
Moving on, Ančerl
gives us ’Romeo and Juliet before Parting’,
a beautifully bittersweet movement in
which his heartfelt interpretation is
aided by superbly sensitive and rich playing.
The movement has a terrific ambience,
not least because Prokofiev’s unique orchestral
sonorities are so expertly realised.
then we come to the crux of the whole
story, ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Grave’. This
makes a searing conclusion to Ančerl’s
selection. The listener can identify completely
with Romeo’s despair and anguish at the
start. There’s huge power in the
playing, though the drama is never overcooked.
Prokofiev makes strenuous demands on the
violins, taking them up into the stratosphere,
but the CPO players are fearless and their
intonation is flawless. After the emotions
have been drained the hushed, tragic ending
is overwhelmingly poignant and offers
further testimony of the CPO’s peerless
playing for their chief.
This is a classic recording
and its reappearance in splendidly re-mastered
sound is greatly to be welcomed. I admire
very much the very different accounts
of the complete ballet score by Previn
(with the LSO for EMI) and by Maazel and
the Cleveland Orchestra (Decca). However,
this wonderful set of extracts makes me
regret enormously that Ancerl never recorded
the full score. However, this must be
one of the very finest sets of extracts
ever committed to disc and collectors
should hasten to snap it up.
I’m afraid I can’t get
terribly worked up about Peter and
the Wolf. It’s very well played
by Ančerl and his orchestra. Unfortunately,
Eric Shilling narrates in a precise, rather
studied manner that I find stilted and
a bit patronizing. He also sounds to have
been recorded in a separate, very resonant
acoustic. I wish Supraphon had chosen
a different coupling.
As it is, it’s for the
Romeo and Juliet that I unhesitatingly
recommend this CD. It’s great music recorded
by a conductor whose greatness is fully
demonstrated in such a work. With outstandingly
responsive orchestral playing to savour
as well this is a disc to treasure.