Australian Eloquence appears to be taking over the Decca Ansermet
Legacy, the logo of which appears on the rear insert of this recording.
Ansermet’s recordings with his Suisse Romande Orchestra were among
the staples of the Decca catalogue in the 1950s and 1960s; with
the introduction of stereo, collectors often had a choice between
earlier mono versions reissued on the cheaper Ace of Clubs label
and more expensive stereo remakes.
So it was with his version of Pictures from
an Exhibition; unable to afford the stereo version, as an
impecunious undergraduate, the first version of this piece which
I bought was Ansermet’s on ACL, coupled with Ravel’s La Valse.
That ACL recording cost about 25/-, equivalent to around £25-£30
in today’s values, so this Eloquence reissue of the 1960 stereo
version, much better filled than that ACL LP, for around five
pounds in the UK ($8.95 in its native Australia) represents
really good value.
I remember that Ansermet tended to let rip on his
earlier mono version – the cartridge of my turntable showed
an alarming tendency to leap several grooves at the transition
from the opening Promenade to the first picture Gnomus,
prompting a visit to Horns in South Parade, Oxford, where an
avuncular salesman, used to dealing with impecunious students,
recommended fitting a Garrard AT6 turntable with a Decca Deram
cartridge into my existing record player, thereby solving the
jumping cartridge problem.
The stereo remake was a slightly more civilised
affair, not always to the music’s advantage, though the Suisse
Romande play with greater accuracy and refinement here, after
a slightly hesitant and unfocussed start to the initial Promenade.
Never one of the world’s leading orchestras, their success was
due to the fact that they were so well attuned to Ansermet’s
direction. I don’t think my cartridge would have jumped at the
equivalent transition on this recording, though, as Colin Anderson
notes in the booklet, Ansermet still brings plenty of menace
to Gnomus and, I would add, the other more bizarre pictures.
Listen to track 3 for the contrast, well brought out here, between
Tuilleries and Bydlo.
There is still plenty of power and energy in the
remake and the recording, demonstration-class in its day, still
sounds very well. This might not be a first-choice version of
Pictures, but I’d certainly recommend it to the equivalent
of my impecunious self of half a century ago. There’s very little
to criticise and a great deal to like: The Great Gate of
Kiev in particular, which blazes forth to round off a generally
satisfying performance. For years I thought that there really
was a Great Gate at Kiev – it actually existed only as a design
in one of the pictures, but I’m sure the authorities would have
been persuaded to complete the project if they’d heard a performance
as compelling as this – exciting at first, then ending at a
broad tempo which allows the impact to soak in.
There are, of course, plenty of recommendable versions
of Pictures at all prices. Eloquence even have several
in their catalogue, of which the version conducted by Mehta,
with Ashkenazy offering the original piano version, is the most
interesting (467 127-2) and the version conducted by Giulini,
together with other conductors in shorter Russian works, probably
the most recommendable (477 6678). Giulini adopts generally
broader tempi than Ansermet, so his version could usefully be
regarded as a foil to Ansermet’s – it’s more of a version to
live with, in which capacity I have retained its earlier DG
Galleria incarnation in my collection for some time. Giulini’s
equally civilised performances of Ravel’s Ma Mère l’Oye and
Rapsodie Espagnole are additional reasons for my retaining
this CD, so it is a shame that Eloquence have broken up this
Most prospective buyers will probably prefer the
all-Russian coupling on the Giulini reissue and on this new
Ansermet reissue. There’s plenty of excitement in the Night
on a Bare Mountain (in the toned-down Rimsky arrangement)
and plenty of delicacy in the depiction of Dawn on the Moscow
River in the Khovanschina Prelude and the surprisingly
sedate Dance of the Persian Slaves.
Ansermet’s version of Balakirev’s Tamara
is the most important of the three works receiving their CD
premieres on this disc. This is the oldest recording, but it
still sounds well, though a little thin and dry even in comparison
with the Beecham mono recording from about the same vintage,
a CBS recording which EMI made to sound well as the coupling
to their reissue of his First Symphony. That CD, currently absent
from the catalogue, deserves to be restored, though there are
some reasonable substitutes, not least Svetlanov’s recording
of the same two works, plus Russia, on a very inexpensive
Regis CD (RRC1132).
Beecham works his familiar magic on Balakirev,
making the good second-rate sound first-rate. Ansermet doesn’t
quite achieve that but he makes a good case for Tamara,
which rounds off a welcome reissue.
The recording is at least perfectly satisfactory
throughout and mostly very good for its age. I note that Australian
Eloquence recordings now receive the SBS formatting which troubled
some audio enthusiasts – though not me – when it was applied
to the European Eloquence CDs.
Colin Anderson’s notes are very good – much better
than is usually on offer in this price-range – though I could
have preferred more on the music and less about Ansermet. And
when will record companies start to give Pictures from an
Exhibition its correct name? The Germans hedge their bets
nicely by calling the work Bilder einer Ausstellung.
If this reissue has made you value Ansermet more
highly than you thought, have a look at his other recordings
in the Eloquence catalogue: follow the Buywell link on the MusicWeb
home-page. Alternatively, have a look at the earlier Ansermet
recordings which haven’t made it to CD but are available for
£1.99 per album from the Naxos Archive at classicsonline.com
– several classic recordings from the early 1950s. They don’t
include his mono version of Pictures, which I’d have
liked to revisit, but there are reminders that he was an advocate
of the music of Bartók and Prokofiev (one piano concerto from
each, with Peter Katin).
A word of warning: if you’re going to buy this
recording, do so soon – most of the European Eloquence CDs have
already succumbed to the deletions axe and, though some have reappeared
on Australian Eloquence, such as the splendid Janet Baker/Bernard
Haitink Das Lied von der Erde, several of the Australian
Eloquences have also been deleted.