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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Complete Symphonies
Volume 1
CD 1
Symphony No.1 in C, op.21 (1800) [26:54]
Symphony No.3 in E flat, Eroica, op.55 (1803) [48:05]
CD 2
Symphony No.2 in D, op.36 (1803) [33:21]
Symphony No.4 in B flat, op.60 (1806) [33:26]
Coriolan Overture, op.62 (1807) [7:06]
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, November 1958 (Symphony B flat and Coriolan), January 1960 (Symphony 2), April 1960 (Symphony 3) and November 1963 (Symphony 4) ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0391 [75:09 + 76:12]

Volume 2
CD 1
Symphony No.5 in C minor, op.67 (1807) [31:07]
Symphony No.6 in F, Pastoral, op.68 (1808) [40:25]
CD 2
Symphony No.7 in A, op.92 (1812) [38:52]
Symphony No.8 in F, op.93 (1812) [27:31]
Egmont Overture, op.84 (1810) [8:27]
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, May 1958 (Symphony 5 and Egmont), October 1959 (Symphony 6), January 1960 (Symphony 7) and November 1963 (Symphony 8) ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0394 [71:42 + 75:08]

Volume 3
CD 1
Symphony No.9 in D minor, op.125 (1822/1824) [67:12]
CD 2
The Creatures of Prometheus Overture, op.43 (c 1801) [5:12]
Fidelio Overture, op.72c (1805 rev 1806) [5:51]
Leonora No.2 Overture, op.72a (1805 rev 1806) [13:44]
Leonora No.3 Overture, op.72b (1805 rev 1806) [13:47]
Grosse Fuge in B flat, op.133 (orch. Felix WEINGARTNER (1863 - 1942)) (1825/1826) [17:05]
Joan Sutherland (soprano); Norma Proctor (mezzo); Anton Dermota (tenor); Arnold van Mill (bass); Choeur du Brassus/André Charlet; Choeur des Jeunes de l’Église National de Vandoise; L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, May 1958 (Leonora No.3), April 1959 (Symphony 9), May 1959 (Grosse Fuge) and January 1960 (Prometheus, Fidelio and Leonora No.2) ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0397 [67:12 + 56:11]  
Experience Classicsonline

When I started buying LPs in the mid-1960s I was often told that if I wanted to hear the best Debussy and Ravel I could do no better than to get hold of the Ansermet recordings. This suited me because I was severely limited in the folding matter department - you don’t get very far when all you have is 12/- (60p) a week from your newspaper round. Ansermet’s early, mono only, recordings were re-issued on the Decca Ace of Clubs label - a snip at 20/- (£1.00p) - and his later stereo remakes were available on Decca’s Ace of Diamonds label - an extravagance at £28/6d (£1.42p). However, despite the prices of these essential LPs, I was told that good though the interpretations were - I don’t think I need go into that statement for we all, now, know the quality Ansermet achieved in the French repertoire, amongst other things - the orchestra was not of the first rank. In fact, James Reel, of the All Music Guide, recently wrote that the orchestra “… was second-rate in tone and technique.” A tad harsh perhaps, but it must be said that L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande was never going to be placed alongside the London Symphony, nor the New York or Berlin Philharmonics as one of the major bands of the world. But yet, under Ansermet’s 50 tenure as their chief conductor, it produced a long series of satisfactory recordings of very varied repertoire, but I wonder how many would think of Beethoven as a composer Ansermet would have committed to disc? There’s a difference between what you perform in public and what you record.

Here we have the complete Beethoven Symphonies on 6 CDs with various Overtures as fillers and recorded between 1958 and 1963. The sound is excellent, crisp and clear, showing a very good balance within the orchestra, but also highlighting an occasional seediness in the strings and souring the higher register of the oboe. On the plus side the rest of the woodwind and the brass have a fine bloom.

When I started listening I hadn’t realized that these recordings were made at a time before the early instrument/period performance brigade came on the scene, so what we have here is a set of performances based on the received understanding from years and years of Beethoven performances, played on instruments which may not have existed in the composer’s time, and which are played as music for their own sake, not as museum pieces to be treated with kid-gloves. What I am saying is that there is little scholarship to these performances but there is a lot of heart.

The introduction to the 1st Symphony shows exactly what I mean about a lack of scholarship, it’s a bit thick and treacly, but the ensuing allegro is bright and sparkling; superbly energetic, if a touch heavy-handed. There’s a verve to this performance and the exposition is repeated! The slow movement is straightforward, the minuet has a very strict tempo which is adhered to throughout, but the finale is rather too heavy and never gets off the ground, good though it is, this needs a lighter touch.

The 2nd Symphony starts with a very weighty slow introduction which leads into a somewhat hard-driven, but very persuasive, performance of the allegro. It’s a solid performance throughout, but the finale is on the heavy side and a trifle rushed, but Ansermet has such a vision that he makes it work.

The Eroica, by contrast, is rather too lightly textured, but there is a gravity, and even a nobility, to the funeral march, however, there is a speeding up of the tempo when the double fugue starts. This is exciting but all funereal thoughts are banished at this point, and afterwards we never really get back to where the music was before the fugue. It’s all quite exciting, though, despite the piercing trumpet sounds. The scherzo has some lovely wind playing, but the horns, in the trio, are too backwardly balanced and the finale comes off very well because Ansermet chooses a brisk tempo which this movement needs for it to hold together satisfactorily.

A wonderfully paced slow introduction to No.4 bodes well and the allegro is a gem of a performance, light and airy, the music smiling and being as genial as it can be. The slow movement is good but it never really relaxes for any length of time. The scherzo is fantastic, playful and buoyant and the finale races along, smiling away but still somewhat ponderous.

The Coriolan Overture which ends this first set, starts off very well, then Ansermet puts his foot on the accelerator and it’s non-stop high excitement almost all the way to the end.

The second set begins with a storming performance of the 5th Symphony. The first movement is all drama and fire. The second limpid and songlike, the third starts with the most exquisite pianissimo and the finale is all confrontation and animation. The very things which marred the first four Symphonies are all brought to bear here and they really work. There’s a slight mannerism in the first movement in the use of rubato when the famous theme re-appears but I can forgive Ansermet that. After all, most conductors do something along these lines and, in Ansermet’s favour, he does repeat the first movement exposition.

The Pastoral begins so quietly, compared to the end of the Fifth which is very loud, that you’ve got to turn the volume up to be able to hear it. This is a slightly brash performance but with good playing and a nice sense of the peaceful; the scene by the brook is especially lovely. Unfortunately, towards the end the high strings have a rather unpleasant glassy sound when playing loudly, but the coda, gentle and held back, is excellent.

The 7th Symphony is perfect in every way. The first movement is very pleasingly dance-like, the slow movement monolithic, with a strict adherence to tempo to match this. The scherzo is fast and precise, the second repeat is taken, and the trio is not held back - the tempo is perfect. The finale is straightforward and includes the exposition repeat, as does the first movement of No.8! The 8th is Beethoven’s little child; it’s light and frothy, has no pretensions to be a world-breaker, like some of its predecessors, and is a delight. Ansermet pushes the first movement a bit too much, and the humour is lacking. The second movement is a study in strict playing and the third, minuet, are just about spot-on. The finale is far too hard-driven for such a light-weight work. However, the recording is very forward and the sound may have something to do with what I perceive to be the severity of the performance.

The Egmont Overture, which ends this disk, is very exciting, even if Ansermet pulls the tempo around to suit his vision of the piece.

The third set contains the 9th Symphony and a handful of overtures. Perhaps surprisingly, this 9th is the highlight of the set. Ansermet certainly understands how this music works much better than the other works in the canon. Starting with a brisk, but not too fast, allegro, he charts the progress of the music clearly and precisely, allowing the argument to unfold gradually before us, and if the opening of the recapitulation doesn’t have the fire and passion one is used to it works in Ansermet’s scheme of things. The only problem in this movement is a very sour oboe tone. The scherzo is never rushed and the transition into the trio is masterfully handled. The slow movement, if not filled with the rapture it deserves, is good, if somewhat obvious. The solo quartet in the finale is very good, and I was amazed at how well Joan Sutherland allowed herself to simply be part of an ensemble so well does she feel part of it, not the prima donna at the top at all. Perhaps Dermota doesn’t have the full Helden power to really bring off Froh, wie seine Sonnen fliegen Durch des Himmels prächt'gen Plan, Laufet, Brüder, eure Bahn, Freudig, wie ein Held zum Siegen (Glad, as His suns fly Through the Heaven's glorious design, Run, brothers, your race, Joyful, as a hero to victory) being too obviously lyrical, but that was his way and it is beautiful to hear. Apart from a little strain at the very top of the soprano part the choruses are good and very full-voiced. The recording, overall, apart from the oboes in the first movement, is very well balanced and contains the huge sound very well.  

Finally, a handful of overtures and the Grosse Fuge; quite a mixture. The Creatures of Prometheus Overture is bright and breezy and the three overtures for Beethoven’s opera Fidelio are forthright and exciting. The Grosse Fuge suffers from rather scrappy string playing and a lack of wild forward momentum.

It has been interesting to hear these performances for Beethoven isn’t a composer one would readily associate with Ansermet. Much as one would love to say that this is a major re-discovery it is impossible to do so for several reasons. First of all, the playing which, although better than perceived thought would lead one to believe, is not of the first rank. The interpretations, although obviously well thought out, are, in general, too relentless too often, and lack the give and take so necessary in all musical performance. Ansermet can certainly build up the tension when it is required but he seems unable to relax and allow the music to breathe. Then there’s the recorded sound which, although fabulously clear and bright, does no favours to the high violins, which can, at times, sound wiry. The poor oboe occasionally comes across with a sour tone. Overall, it cannot really compare to two contemporary cycles by Cluytens, with the Berlin Philharmonic, for EMI (094636753027) and René Leibowitz, with the Royal Philharmonic, for Reader’s Digest (currently available on Chesky Records - CD074 (Symphonies 1 and 3), CD017 (nos.2 and 5), CD069 (nos. 6 and 8), CD 081 (nos. 4 and 7) and CD066 (no.9)) Although each has its faults, these are preferable to Ansermet. If you want modern sound you’ll have to shop around but at the very top of your wants list you must put Carlos Kleiber and the Vienna Philharmonic in the 5th and 7th Symphonies (Deutsche Grammophon 447 400-2) for it is unbeatable.

Bob Briggs  


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