Recordings of Haydn’s Symphonies are far more common today than in the 1960s, when these performances first appeared. Many more recent recordings benefit from modern editions, while the historically aware movement - “authentic” is an extremely unhelpful description - has exerted a powerful influence. Therefore, the value of reissues of such relatively old performances as Ansermet’s might be questioned. Nevertheless, it is obviously true that great performances, imbued with love, vitality and perception, exist irrespective of such issues as the selective use of vibrato and other informed performance practices.
In the minds of today’s CD collectors, Ansermet is most closely associated with 20th
-century music, especially Stravinsky
. However, he did record much else from previous centuries, including the Beethoven
symphonies. These Haydn performances are generally acceptable, a set which would serve as a fair introduction to anyone unfamiliar with these works. However, there is much more character and individuality in Haydn’s ever-inventive symphonies – and these are obviously some of his greatest – than Ansermet finds. The first of the group, The Bear
, begins quite well, with robust, incisive trumpet-drum rhythm. However, as the movement progresses one notices a lack of contrast, of real characterisation. It’s all rather one-dimensional. This impression of rather generalised music-making persists throughout.
may not be the fairest comparison, as – whether one likes him or not - he tends to make everyone else seem bland and ordinary. However, one needs to listen to Harnoncourt in these works to realise what can be made of them when a conductor digs more deeply. Harnoncourt is sometimes criticised as being “interventionist”, but in my view he reveals the essence of Haydn, emphasising what is already there rather than superimposing interpretative quirks. Unfortunately, Ansermet seems particularly ordinary by comparison.
Symphony 86 provides a good general illustration of Ansermet’s shortcomings. The Largo is an extraordinary, almost improvisatory movement with the rare title of Capriccio. Here Ansermet is short on mystery and imagination in music that surely demands a more searching interpretation. Listen to Harnoncourt for a realisation of the true depth, strangeness and modernity of Haydn. In the following minuet Ansermet is rather flat-footed, lacking rhythmic point. Harnoncourt is a revelation here – startlingly rhythmic in the first repeated section, then contrastingly expressive in the subsequent passage of suspensions. These different passages truly inhabit distinct emotional worlds – such is Haydn’s expressive range – and the bland, matter-of-fact Ansermet does the composer a disservice. To return to the Largo, I find Bernstein – only slightly later vintage than Ansermet – both more affectionate and more probing. Bernstein’s set as a whole is clearly more involved and rewarding, if not always what we nowadays regard as stylistically ideal.
No. 83 (i) in Ansermet’s hands initially comes across as suitably rugged, but as the movement continues there is simply no sense of arrival at a totally different kind of articulation – for instance at bar 33. Ansermet does nothing to point up this change in character. In the second movement of this same symphony Ansermet really is irritatingly matter-of-fact. Here Harnoncourt may be just too unsettling for some tastes, but at the very least he never fails to make one think afresh about the music. Listen to Brüggen for a less extreme reading which is still far more expressive than Ansermet’s.
Rather than continue in the same vein, I will summarise by saying that there are several other conductors who find so much more in these wonderfully diverse symphonies. I suggest that any listener who loves these works will find Ansermet too monochrome when compared with any of the other conductors I have mentioned. It is simply not enough to play through these marvellous works as though they are strips of the same cloth.