Ernest Ansermet is not a name that one naturally associates with
the music of Bartók, but this CD, his complete Bartók
recordings for Decca leaves an estimable legacy. The collection
includes the first CD release of the Music for Strings, Percussion
and, while it doesn’t make me shed tears
for the Bartók recordings Ansermet never made, it’s
nevertheless a very worthwhile release.
Ansermet appears most at home in the dark, slow episodes of Bartók,
such as the opening of the Concerto for Orchestra
seems to emerge from the undergrowth and slowly uncoil. The sinuous
opening of the third movement does the same and both passages
are very effective, though I wasn’t as convinced by the
faster, fuller sections. The climaxes of the first and last movements
appear to come out of nowhere as if they had barely been prepared,
and to my ears they are abrupt and terse rather than a summing-up.
Likewise, the searching, troubled opening of the Music for
Strings, Percussion and Celesta
is really effective and lives
in the memory much more vividly than the louder moments, particularly
the finale which is rather too calculating.
That said, Ansermet gives every appearance of enjoying himself
in the dance works. He revels in the jaunty fast movements of
the Dance Suite
, especially the jaunty rhythms and crazy
melodies of the first and third movements. The Romanian folk
dances really sparkle too: most of them are less than a minute
long, but each is packed full of character.
The Two Portraits
were new to me: the first (Ideal
is an extended meditation with a solo violin which builds to
a radiant climax, while the second (Distorted
) is jaunty
and brief but virtuosic in its own way. The best thing on the
set is the third piano concerto, though. There is a great sense
of ebb and flow between Katchen and the orchestra, the product,
one suspects, of an extended rehearsal period. The first movement
is lyrical and playful and the slow movement is suggestive and
questioning, while the finale revels in its ebullience without
ever being showy for its own sake. Katchen never seeks to draw
attention to himself and the 1954 (mono) sound comes up surprisingly
clearly. Only here did I wish that this combination of musicians
had collaborated elsewhere in Bartók.
This is a disc that is more for fans of Ansermet than Bartók:
these works have been recorded elsewhere in interpretations that
are frankly better, but no-one can deny that Ansermet’s
interpretations are distinctive and unique and at this super
budget price anyone can afford to experiment. Bartók fans
can expect to be surprised, Ansermet fans can expect to be pleased.