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Édouard LALO (1823-1892)
CD 1
Symphonie espagnole, Op. 21 (1873) [33:04]
Namouna (excerpts) (1881-1882) [34:46]
Andantino from Divertissment (1872) [3:53]
Scherzo for orchestra (1884) [4:46]
CD 2
Rapsodie norvégienne (1879) [11:46]
Le roi d’Ys – overture (1875-1888) [11:52]
Emmanuel CHABRIER (1841-1894)
Habañera (1888) [3:35]
España – Rhapsody for orchestra (1883) [6:56]
Suite pastorale (1888) [21:18]
Joyeuse marche (1888) [3:56]
Le roi malgré lui – excerpts (1884-1887) [13:37]
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. October 1955 (Habañera), March 1959 (Symphonie espagnole), May 1960 (Le roi d’Ys), December 1964 (España, Suite pastorale, Marche joyeuse, Le roi malgré lui), October 1966 (Namouna, Andantino, Rapsodie norvégienne), September 1968 (Scherzo), Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland. ADD
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0049 [76:46 + 73:41]

Experience Classicsonline

This Ansermet edition is valuable in so many ways; chiefly, these recordings remind of what can be achieved through a solid artistic and technical partnership, in this case between Decca on the one hand and Ansermet and the OSR on the other. As a collaboration it spanned two decades and produced a raft of genuine classics along the way. But the series is also valuable because, as François Hudry observes in his liner-notes, it offers a snapshot of the kind of repertoire popular at the time. Indeed, I’d wager most concertgoers won’t have heard any of the pieces on this set, with the possible exception of Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole and Chabrier’s España.
So fashions do change, but Ansermet’s musical virtues certainly don’t. In particular I have been impressed by the sheer musicality of the man, especially his ability to imbue even the most ordinary music with a special kind of magic. Rhythms are wonderfully supple, phrases seductively shaped, the music conveyed with an all-too-rare sense of enjoyment and theatrical flair. It’s a winning combination, even if it seems passé in this age of sleek, turbocharged orchestras and mega-buck maestros. Yes, these vintage recordings can sound a little rough at times – raw even – but they seldom fail to entertain.
Lalo’s Symphonie espagnole is a case in point. Written for the violinist Pablo de Sarasate, it’s a colourful, virtuoso piece of writing. Right from the stern, rather Beethovenian start, Ruggiero Ricci takes centre-stage. And while we’re on the subject of fashion, his playing may seem a little too fulsome for modern ears; that said, his skill is simply astonishing, Ansermet and the OSR offering alert, full-bodied support throughout. Not surprisingly, Decca’s sound is pretty good for the period – late 1950s – although higher frequencies are prone to a touch of glare. Tape hiss, evident from the outset, is soon forgotten and is absolutely no bar to enjoyment.
Namouna, slave to dissolute aristocrats Adriano and Ottavio, is the subject of Lalo’s exotic ballet of the same name. As was customary at the time, the composer produced a set of excerpts, from which Ansermet has cherry-picked the most alluring. The sumptuous, yearning ‘Prélude’ is thrilling, the OSR as weighty as one could wish for. The scurrying strings of ‘Sérénade’ are well caught, Ansermet finding a sparkle in the music that’s hard to resist. Yes, it’s all rather bitty, and ‘La Valse de la Cigarette’ much too soupy for my tastes. In mitigation the wind playing in ‘Parade de foire’ is very deft, the strings silky smooth in ‘La Sieste’. As for ‘Thème varié’ Ansermet ensures there’s a discreet, rather elegant, bounce to the rhythms, the piece building to a splendid close, topped and tailed with cymbals and timps.
There’s only a short pause before the Andantino, part of a divertissement based on the ballet music from Lalo’s opera Fiesque. Although it’s a charming little number it’s not terribly memorable; ditto the Scherzo for orchestra, no doubt included more for completeness than for musical substance. Surprisingly the latter, recorded in 1968, lacks the warmth and general ambience of the earlier tracks. That said, the Rapsodie norvégienne is much more atmospheric, Ansermet phrasing the dance-like rhythms very well indeed. Brass and percussion are splendid too. As for the overture to Le roi d’Ys, there’s a breadth and amplitude here that we haven’t heard thus far. And what this music lacks in colour and refinement it more than makes up for in dramatic thrust and energy.
Moving on to Chabrier, his take on the rhythms of Spain is represented by Habañera – a witty and sophisticated little gem – and the more extrovert España. The latter really sparkles, the Stygian bass drum, cymbals and perky brass caught to perfection. But it’s the sheer joy and vivacity of the performance that will have you reaching for the repeat button. Vintage Ansermet and vintage Decca, this is my pick of all the items in this delectable set. By contrast Chabrier’s Suite pastorale – a four-movement work based on his Dix Pièces Pittoresques of 1881 – is more lightly scored. ‘Idylle’ is diaphanous, almost chamber-like, the bubbly ‘Dance villageoise’ nicely aerated. Indeed, I can’t imagine a more suave performance of these pieces; the undulating lower strings and evanescent air of ‘Sous bois’ are beautifully realised, the ‘Scherzo-Valse’ bold without being garishly so.
The Joyeuse marche – originally written for piano, four hands – finds the composer in a more unbuttoned mood, the music despatched with the kind of good-natured brio one associates with the New Year’s Day Concert from Vienna. The excerpts from his comic opera Le roi malgré lui are no less entertaining, the dance tunes impeccably turned and played. The ‘Danse slave’ deserves to be heard once in a while, and would certainly make a change from Borodin’s ubiquitous Polovtsian Dances, to which it bears a passing resemblance. As for the ‘Fête polonaise’, Ansermet and his band make it all sound so genial, the rhythms pointed with the utmost elegance. This is music-making of rare, old-fashioned enchantment, and very well recorded to boot.
Ansermet fans and lovers of late Romantic French repertoire will want to add this set to their shelves. The Lalo items are generally fine, and are persuasively done, but it’s the Chabrier that makes this collection rather special. Don’t miss!
Dan Morgan


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