I’d forgotten that Ansermet had recorded so much
Brahms, a composer with whom I don’t normally associate him.
I started by listening to the First Symphony
and immediately realised why I hadn’t made the association; everything
is in place and the playing of the OSR, though there are rough
edges in places, notably from the brass, perfectly acceptable,
yet I never really became emotionally involved in the performance.
Ansermet opens the first movement at a good, steady, pace but
later pulls the tempo about in places in order to try to achieve
an affective response from the listener, yet the whole effect
seems curiously detached. Even the ‘big tune’ in the finale comes
off less well than in most performances, including the roughly
contemporary version by Klemperer: EMI 5 67029 2, with Tragic
Overture and Alto Rhapsody or a 3-CD set, 5 62742 2,
with all the symphonies. I should add, however, that Christopher
Howell was less impressed with Klemperer’s Brahms than I am, though
he agrees with me that the Third Symphony comes off very
well – see review.
It isn’t so much that Ansermet’s tempo in the finale
is too brisk for the ‘big’ tune to have its full effect – he’s
actually half a minute slower overall than Klemperer, not known
for his velocity – so I’m not quite sure why his account just
fails to come off.
I’m not normally a great Klemperer fan but I’m
happy to make an exception for his performance of Beethoven’s
Eroica symphony and for his Brahms, especially the third
and fourth symphonies, where he is unequalled in my opinion in
works which are much more difficult to bring off than is usually
acknowledged. The first should be the least problematic, but
I was recently surprised to find myself liking Marin Alsop’s Naxos
performance of this symphony (8.557428) less than I expected –
see my October, 2008, Download
Roundup. But see Peter Lawson’s review
for a hearty endorsement of this Alsop performance, with links
to three other Musicweb reviews.
Puzzled at my failure to engage with Ansermet’s
performance of the first, I checked with Trevor Harvey’s review
of the LP back in 1964, and found that he had almost exactly the
same reservations, though he praised the quality of the recording,
which still sounds more than respectable, after all these years,
though it’s a bit lacking in top.
The contest in the Third Symphony used to
be between Bruno Walter and Otto Klemperer, with partisans fervently
arguing the case for one or the other. When Ansermet’s account
first appeared, it seemed to many to be an ideal compromise between
the two approaches so, with my clear preference for Klemperer
here, or Karajan’s 1964 and late-1970s recording - distinguished
runners-up - I wondered if the compromise would work for me.
On the whole it did: I found this much more acceptable than the
first though, with slightly faster tempi than Klemperer, I missed
the granite hardness of his performance.
Karajan (1964) polishes off the opening movement
of the third in 9:44 and gets away with it, but Ansermet’s 11:51
and especially Klemperer’s 13:04 seem much more to the point.
Elsewhere Karajan’s tempi are much closer to both Ansermet’s and
To the original coupling of the Second Symphony
and the Tragic Overture, CD2 adds the ‘Haydn’, or St
Anthony, Variations. The symphony receives an effective,
straight performance; you wouldn’t complain if you heard something
of this calibre in a concert, though you might wonder if there
might not be an extra dimension that had been missing, such as
you might find in Beecham’s version of this work. That wonderful
show-stopping early-1960s EMI recording of the only Brahms symphony
that Beecham regularly conducted seems not to be currently available
but there is a good substitute, coupled with Beethoven’s Second
Symphony, on BBC Legends BBCL40992.
At the time of the original issue of the Ansermet,
I remember that I was perfectly content with Pierre Monteux’s
account of this symphony with the Vienna Philharmonic, reissued
on the RCA Victrola label the previous year, so I can’t recall
Ansermet’s version making much of an impact. I’m sure it’s not
just the golden glow of memory, but I recall the VPO strings under
Monteux, even in mono and on the fairly rudimentary system that
I had then, sounding richer than those of the OSR here. Either
the recording or their inherent quality – probably a combination
of the two – makes them sound a little under-nourished throughout.
Nor does Ansermet’s account of the finale, albeit
that it’s lively, bring the house down in the way that Beecham
famously did, but few do. Once more, it’s in the finale that
I feel the greatest disappointment with Ansermet – again, he’s
almost as slow as Klemperer here, without the benefits which Klemperer’s
tempi bring. How Beecham worked such magic with his fairly minimal
rehearsal regime remains one of the great mysteries. EMI really
should bring his version back – but without the photograph of
Beecham in that awful all-purpose suit that he seems to have worn
for all his EMI publicity shots, which ‘graced’ the LP reissue,
Karajan (1964) seems livelier than either Ansermet
or Klemperer in the finale of the second – in fact, he’s only
seconds faster overall, but I prefer his approach. This BPO/Karajan
account of the second and third symphonies used to be excellent
value on the budget Privilege label; with 73 minutes’ playing
time, it’s still good value at mid-price (477 7159). DG’s ADD
sound is as good as the Ansermet and better than the Klemperer.
As well as his recordings of the second, for RCA/Decca
and Philips, Monteux made a famous recording of the St Anthony
Variations, coupled with Elgar’s Enigma, the reissue
of which on SPA121 remained my preferred version until the end
of the LP era. Ansermet’s version is not quite in that league
but it is very acceptable and I didn’t notice the same thinness
in the strings as in the Second Symphony.
On the third CD Eloquence add Nänie to the
original coupling of the Fourth Symphony and the Academic
Festival Overture. The two purely orchestral works receive
some of the best performances in the whole set. In my experience,
the fourth is the most difficult of the symphonies to bring off,
with Klemperer’s version still heading the list for me, closely
followed by James Loughran on Classics for Pleasure, now available
in a box set – see below. There used to be a very decent performance
on the budget-price IMP label with the Hallé Orchestra under Stanislaw
Skrowaczewski (PCD897); second-hand copies would be well worth
looking out for, and someone ought to reissue this recording,
preferably with a more generous coupling than the three Hungarian
Dances which brought the time up to a mere 49 minutes.
Ansermet’s tempo for the second movement is slower
than Klemperer’s and he is not much faster in the other movements;
the use of slowish, steady tempi is what, for me, makes this performance
the most acceptable of the whole set; it didn’t raise even one
serious critical hackle.
In the Academic Festival Overture again,
a fairly steady tempo pays dividends. Neither Ansermet nor Klemperer
is bacchanalian in this music, but their performances are certainly
not joyless, either. Marin Alsop’s Academic Festival Overture,
the coupling for that First Symphony which I’ve mentioned,
is actually slower overall than either.
The comparative rarity Nänie receives a
persuasive performance and the excellence of Helen Watts’ singing
in the Alto Rhapsody is sufficient to quell any small doubts
which I had about the performance – a gloriously work, convincingly
performed. These two performances were reissued earlier by Eloquence,
coupled with John Shirley-Quirk in the Four Serious Songs,
Op.121, and Five Songs, Op.94; Jonathan Woolf thought that
a recital characterised by integrity, musical wisdom and deep
understanding (461 245 2 – see review,
apparently no longer available). Only the Schicksalslied,
or Song of Destiny, of the vocal and choral works, is missing
from both collections; if that is essential for you, you need
Gerd Albrecht on Chandos CHAN10165, which Michael Cookson deemed
an essential purchase for all lovers of classical music – see
The German Requiem, Alto Rhapsody
and Nänie originally took up two premium-price SET LPs.
I have to admit that the Requiem is not my favourite Brahms
work; though I wouldn’t go so far as George Bernard Shaw, who
declared that the work could be borne only by a corpse, my copy
of the 2-CD Philips Duo recording with Sawallisch (438 760-2,
no longer available) rarely gets an outing, even for the orchestral
works on the second CD, so I approached Ansermet’s version, with
its reputation for dullness, even among lovers of the work, with
caution. After all, it’s three minutes longer than Klemperer
(EMI), five minutes longer than Rattle (also EMI 3 65393 2 – see
six minutes longer than Gardiner (Philips), Herreweghe (Harmonia
Mundi), Previn (LSO Live) or Bernius (Carus) and seven longer
than Equilbey (Naïve V4956, chamber version – see review)
or Cleobury (EMI 3 66948 2 – see review;
not currently available). But it’s also a minute shorter than
Hickox (Chandos), four minutes shorter than the classic Kempe
(EMI mono) and five shorter than Karajan (DG, CD and DVD).
In the event, I didn’t find the performance as
dull as I’d expected; in fact, listening on a quiet Sunday morning
I quite enjoyed it. Agnes Giebel and Hermann Prey make fine soloists
and they are well supported. There are moments of real insight,
such as the quiet reverence of the opening and the soaring passages
of Denn alles Fleisch, but it didn’t convert me to like
the work any better than before. It’s at least as good as the
Sawallisch, though it’s four minutes longer, but I need to move
on from Sawallisch to a more inspirational account – I think it
has to be Klemperer again. I’ll also try out some other versions;
keep an eye on future Download Roundups for the results.
If nothing else, the new set is excellent value,
four CDs for less than £11 direct from Australia. When the first
symphony was released on LP in 1964, with no filler, that disc
cost 37/6, which must equate to at least £40 in 2009 terms, making
the equivalent value for the whole set at least £200. The starting
salary that year for a teacher with a good honours degree and
a PGCE was just over £800 and a 2-bedroom house in Outer London
cost around £4,000, so you can check the comparative values yourself.
Even the mid-1970s reissues on Decca’s budget World of
label (SPA) of the orchestral works on four LPs at £1.50 each
represent poor value by comparison, when that £1.50 is converted
to present-day equivalents.
So no-one need feel short-changed in the monetary
sense. You wouldn’t feel short-changed metaphorically, either,
by the quality of the performances; there’s nothing revelatory
here, but there’s little that merits anything like serious criticism.
With recordings which still hold their own and an informative
booklet of notes – but no texts – it deserves a recommendation.
The text of the German Requiem, from Luther’s Bible, is
readily available online; those of Nänie and the Alto
Rhapsody less readily.
The obvious competitor to Ansermet in this price
category comes from James Loughran’s 4-CD set of the four symphonies,
the Violin Concerto, ‘Haydn’ Variations and Overtures
on Classics for Pleasure 5 75753 2, available for around £15,
or even slightly less. Ian Lace was right to ask ‘why pay more?’
– see review.
That CFP set would be my preference, especially in the light of
the fact that Loughran’s version of the Fourth Symphony
is the only one seriously to challenge Klemperer’s, in my opinion.
They’re not strictly comparable because the Ansermet set includes
the German Requiem and Alto Rhapsody which you’re
less likely to have in your collection than the Violin Concerto;
ultimately, coupling may well prove the decisive factor.
There’s an odd typo in the Eloquence booklet: the
opening section of the Requiem is listed as Selig sind,
die da Lied tragen – blessed are those who sing, rather
than those who suffer (Leid tragen). In section
VI, wie haben should be wir haben: no doubt this
error was caused by thinking ahead to the archaic hie for
hier later in the title.
More seriously, the assertion that Brahms was a
reluctant symphonist is open to challenge; he was, in fact, keen
to write his first symphony but delayed doing so until he was
secure enough of his reputation as a composer of large-scale orchestral
works not to be accused of plagiarism from Beethoven – and, even
then, several critics referred to his first symphony as Beethoven’s
Tenth. You just can’t win, but he got his own back by saying
that any donkey could see the similarity.