Carl Maria von WEBER (1786-1826)
Der Freischütz: Overture (1821) [9:03]
Preciosa: Overture (1820) [7:03]
Overture Der Beherrscher der Geister, Op. 27 (1811) [5:48]
Oberon: Overture (1826) [8:21]
Euryanthe: Overture (1823) [8:23]
Abu Hassan: Overture (1811) [3:16]
Jubel-Ouvertüre, Op. 59 (1818) [7:19]
Bassoon Concerto in F, Op. 75 (1811/1822) [18:47]*
*Henri Helaerts (bassoon)
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, November 1958, *March 1968
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0123 [68:35]
The Weber overtures - which, for whatever reason, have never received the same recorded attention as those of, say, Mendelssohn - may have seemed unlikely territory for Ernest Ansermet. After all he was more readily associated with French and Russian music. But, like any good orchestral director with decades of service, Ansermet was also custodian of the mainstream Central European classics. As his life and career continued, or persisted, into the stereo era, he was given the opportunity to record large swathes of Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms and the like.
The performances are a pleasant surprise. Ansermet plays the music with a directness of line and clarity of purpose that allow it to accumulate impact gradually, without, say, overplaying the big crescendos in a melodramatic manner. The conductor's approach not only purges the music of its vestigial aura of Teutonic legend, but plays to the strengths of his enthusiastic but middle-of-the-road ensemble. Other string sections have produced a more imposing sonority, or attacked the running passages more assertively, and with spiffier articulations; the Geneva strings have some scrambled moments in Oberon, for example. However, the violins phrase their lyrical themes in Euryanthe and Oberon tenderly. Their triplets in Preciosa are shapely. Their deft rendering of the running figures later on could, with a little more tonal purity, have been called "feathery". The string playing in tutti is energetic and musical. The horn principal's tone in the Oberon and Freischütz is clean, if not quite velvety. Woodwinds don't always quite agree on tuning - there's a sour would-be unison or two - but they play well as a section. The articulations in the Jubel-Ouverture are pointed, and the rich reediness of the chorale in Der Beherrscher der Geister suggests "exotic" wind-band scoring. If Ansermet's moderation occasionally leaves a restrained impression in the "big" overtures, the blazing climaxes of Euryanthe and Oberon are as thrilling as ever. The orchestra sounds particularly good when massed in homophonic textures.
The Bassoon Concerto was originally part of a program showcasing concertos for bassoon and for trumpet. Atypically, the score prizes lyrical expressiveness over sheer virtuoso display. The full, saxophone-like sounds Henri Helaerts produces, especially in the upper range, and his sensitive phrasing give Weber's melodic lines a plaintive, mournful cast. Only occasional bits - the finale's downward scales, for example - recall the bassoon's traditional role as "the clown of the orchestra." Ansermet and the orchestra provide capable, stylish support.
I remembered the U.S. London Stereo Treasury LP of the overtures as sounding a bit dry and tight, so I was pleased to hear that digital processing has not only brightened the sound, but added a greater sense of space. The tape hiss does begin abruptly at the start of Oberon. The bassoon concerto, recorded a decade later, has fuller, richer sound in Decca's familiar analog style.
I've somehow missed various digital Weber overture collections - from Sawallisch (EMI), Wit (Naxos), and Neeme Järvi (Chandos), just for starters. However, Ansermet's winning performances, despite their orchestral limitations, are more immediately pleasing than either Karajan's fussy, Karajanized accounts or Kubelik's affectionate but rough-edged ones (both DG). Nor is the Bassoon Concerto all that easy to come by. The Eloquence disc, at least for now, merits a firm recommendation.
Stephen Francis Vasta