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Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures from an Exhibition (1874) (arr. Maurice Ravel) (1922) [31:28]
Night on a Bare Mountain (1868) (arr. Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov) [11:04]
Khovanshchina Prelude [5:08]
Dance of the Persian Slaves (completed and orchestrated by Rimsky-Korsakov) [7:15]
Sorochintsy Fair: Gopak (orch. Anatol Liadov) [1:57]
Mili Alexeyevich BALAKIREV (1837-1910)
Tamara - Symphonic Poem (1882) [20:39]
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, June 1954 (Tamara), October 1955 (Gopak), November 1959 (Pictures) and April 1964 (Bare Mountain). ADD.
DECCA ELOQUENCE 4800047
[78:08] 

 

Experience Classicsonline


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 all-Giulini coupling. 

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.

Brian Wilson
 





 


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