Isaac ALBÉNIZ (1860–1909)
Iberia – excerpts (orch. Enrique Fernández Arbós) (1906-1908)
I. Evocación [5:35]
II. El Corpus en Sevilla [8:12]
III. Triana [4:30]
IV. El Puerto [4:18]
V. el Albaicin [6:47]
Navarra (cptd. Déodat de Séverac, orch. Enrique Fernández Arbós) (1906-1908) [5:05]
Heitor VILLA-LOBOS (1887–1959)
Piano Concerto No. 1 (1946) [30:17]
Ellen Ballon (piano)
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland May 1960 (Albéniz); June 1949 (Villa-Lobos). ADD stereo/mono.
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0456 [65:21]

Regular readers will know how much I admire these Ansermet reissues, the Prokofiev ballet suites – review – and Bizet miscellany– review – in particular. Many of these were demonstration discs in the 1960s, and it’s a tribute to Decca’s fine engineering that they still sound pretty good today. True, some of the early stereo recordings are boxy and congested, but even then one can’t fail to be impressed by the rapport between Ansermet and ‘his’ Geneva band. Indeed, their version of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake must surely be one of the finest ever committed to disc, as must their winning take on Bizet’s Symphony in C.

Inevitably though, complete editions such as this are bound to include some less than interesting items, but so far Eloquence have managed to strike a good balance with their compilations. That said, I wondered whether this review disc was more chaff than wheat, concentrating as it does on orchestrations of Albéniz works for solo piano and a fairly primitive mono recording of the first Villa-Lobos concerto taped in 1949. Ansermet has already demonstrated his flair for Spanish rhythms in the Bizet/Guiraud Carmen Suite, so it comes as no surprise that this selection from Iberia – orchestrated by the Madrid-born violinist-conductor Enrique Fernández Arbós – is just as assured in that department.

First impressions are that this is a spacious, wide-ranging recording, ‘Evocación’ despatched with all the shimmer and haze of a hot summer’s afternoon. There is some fine playing – just listen to the evanescent loveliness of the closing bars – although some may find the massed violins too bright at times. As for the Corpus Christi Day celebrations in Seville, this is a wonderfully gaudy piece, mixing majesty with mayhem. Thankfully Ansermet resists the urge to overdrive the music, highlighting instead its discreet flamenco rhythms and muted colours.

Ansermet catches the Carmen-like sway and swivel of ‘Triana’ very well indeed, the combination of crisp timps and rippling harp most beguiling. Perhaps one might be forgiven for thinking the orchestration is a little soupy at times, in the manner of a Hollywood Western. That said, there’s no denying the rhythmic verve and complexity of ‘El Puerto’; sparkling stuff this, and played with a natural lilt that will have you reaching for the repeat button. As for ‘El Albaicin’, there’s some fine solo woodwind playing, the percussion especially well rendered. But it’s the rhythms that tease the mind and ear, particularly in Navarra, an unfinished piece completed by the French composer Déodat de Séverac. As Raymond Tuttle points out in his liner-notes, there’s an irresistible elasticity to the playing, and that gives an otherwise anodyne piece real shape and elegance.

After all that Mediterranean warmth the early mono recording of Villa-Lobos’s first piano concerto – played here by the Canadian pianist Ellen Ballon, who also commissioned it – will come as a shock. I’m not a fan of these vintage performances, but Ballon certainly gets the opening Allegro off to a commanding start; indeed, the piano sound isn’t that bad, it’s just the tuttis that sound emaciated. As always, the ear adjusts, and these technical shortcomings matter less and less as the work unfolds. There’s more than a hint of Rachmaninov in the coruscating music of the first two movements, but in the third the orchestral sound – not the piano – is surprisingly muffled. That said, the final Allegro certainly has plenty of fire and fizz.

Listeners who know Iberia in its original form may find this orchestration less than satisfying, but those looking to complete their Ansermet collection will want this on their shelves. As for the Villa-Lobos, it’s a very worthwhile piece that deserves to be better known. And if sound is an issue, Cristina Ortiz has recorded all five concertos, now available on a bargain twofer (Decca 452 617).

Not the best of the Ansermet Edition, perhaps, but worth hearing for this maestro’s unfailing musicality and Decca’s pioneering studio skills.

Dan Morgan

Ansermet’s unfailing musicality and Decca’s pioneering studio skills… see Full Review