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Ernest Ansermet
Franz Joseph HAYDN
Symphony No. 85 in B flat, Hob I:85 (1785-6) [22:29]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Nocturnes (1897-9) [23:19]*
Images pour orchestre: Ibéria (1905-8) [18:34]+
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60 (1806-7) [35:29]+
Béla BARTÓK (1881-1945)
Concerto for Orchestra, Sz 116 (1943/5) [36:48]+
BBC Symphony Orchestra, *BBC Ladies Chorus; +Philharmonia Orchestra/Ernest Ansermet
rec. BBC Studios, London, February 1964; +Usher Hall, Edinburgh, August 1958
BBC LEGENDS BBCL42022 [79:00 + 73:44] 
Experience Classicsonline

While the level of these performances isn't uniformly high, they hold considerable discographic interest. Ernest Ansermet had the good fortune to record extensively for Decca from the immediate postwar period well into the 1960s, thus assuring that his name and his work would become well-known. Less fortunately, most of those recordings featured L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Geneva radio ensemble which Ansermet essentially built - they could sound sparkling and stylish in French and Russian music, but they were hardly a world-class ensemble. The present release allows us to appreciate his work, as rendered by top-of-the-line London-based orchestras.

Thus, this performance of the Haydn symphony immediately scores over Ansermet's studio recording, because of the more solid orchestral sound. This is big-orchestra Haydn, with a large string body dominating the sonority, but Ansermet mostly keeps the textures clear, so the winds aren't obscured in their supporting role. The first movement is lively and buoyant, with the conductor stressing the cantabile aspect of the themes. The Romanze, after an awkward opening, settles into a relaxed, flowing account. I enjoyed the minuet's stately bearing - there are some lovely, delicate passages, particularly when the solo oboe is involved - and the touch of exuberance in the finale, though a few bits briefly turn opaque. 

One had high hopes for the Debussy performances - Ansermet's studio recordings of these scores weren't the best - but they leave a mixed impression. Once past an awkward start, Nuages, the first of the Nocturnes, has all the vibrant tone and the surging ebb and flow missing from the strangely chilly Decca account; even in monaural sonics, this sounds gorgeous. Fętes suffers from tempo misjudgments, but not the customary ones. Many conductors begin at a rollicking pace, clumsily shifting gears for the "distant procession"; Ansermet sensibly sets a more restrained tempo at the start, maintaining it smoothly through the procession episode, but then keeps braking during the recapitulation! After yet another stiff beginning - were the signals confusing? - Sirčnes is persuasively shaped, but the close perspective on the women's chorus militates against the needed atmosphere. 

Ibéria begins crisply, but coördination is uncomfortable amid the second theme's rhythmic intricacies. The phrasing in the rest of the performance is just as stiff as in the complete studio Images, but the full-throated orchestral playing - here by the Philharmonia - once again trumps that of the rickety Suisse Romande forces. 

The slow introduction to the Beethoven symphony has a nice hushed mystery, along with a soggy landing at 0:34. After the slashing vigor of the main Allegro, Ansermet's slowing for the second theme-group sounds old-fashioned, though the woodwind soli evoke a searching disquiet. The slow movement is well-proportioned and sings expansively, but curiously disappoints - and what on earth is the snare drum doing tagging along with the bassoon at 5:30? The Scherzo goes with the requisite bounding energy, the Trio sections relax, and, as sometimes happens, the whole movement sounds one go-round too long. No complaints, however, about the volatile finale, which achieves the desired moto perpetuo effect at a tempo that keeps the running figures clear. 

Ansermet's performances of Stravinsky's music were noted for their emphasis on its lyrical aspects - there's an eight-CD bargain box on Decca, for those who wish to investigate - and he plays Bartók in a similar manner, finding and drawing out the music's singing line while underplaying its angularity, which, Lord knows, is going to come through anyhow. 

In this Concerto for Orchestra, such an approach particularly benefits the third and fourth movements. The slow movement can seem discursive and episodic, the stepchild of overtly virtuosic performances; Ansermet shapes it in a single broad line. And the conductor draws unusual expression out of the Intermezzo interrotto: the oboe's opening theme is shapely; the clarinet and then the horn probe for deeper expression, which intensifies further with the broad string melody. The theme from Shostakovich's Leningrad makes a lively contrast, and the trombone's "interruption" is taken at face value, without overplaying. 

The other movements are less distinctive, though unfailingly musical. Comparatively relaxed pacing in the first movement allows the oboe's sinuous second theme a measure of plaintiveness, at least. Ansermet plays the Giuoco delle coppie ("game of pairs") well, though with rather a serious demeanour; there's a small trumpet glitch at 3:21, if that sort of thing bothers you. Conductor and orchestra play the finale for expressiveness, color, and rhythmic point, rather than for sheer kinetic drive. And, once again, the Philharmonia responds with a technical security that eluded the Suisse Romande players, who found this sort of writing a struggle. 

Robert Chesterman's 1969 radio interview with Ansermet fills out the first CD, with the Haydn and Debussy performances. Their discussion of Debussy holds some interest, more for the conductor's glimpses of the composer's personality than for any insights into his own interpretive manner. 

Veteran collectors will want this set for the view it offers of the conductor's artistry, in both its strengths and its occasional weaknesses, unhindered by the shortcomings of his home ensemble. I'll probably only return to the Haydn and the Bartók for sheer pleasure, but all the performances will reward study. The monaural sonics, by the way, sound grainy at the start of each CD, but the ear quickly adjusts, and the winds register vividly.

Stephen Francis Vasta


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