Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
CD 1
Symphony No. 1 in B flat major, Op. 38, ‘Spring’ (1841) [31:21]
Symphony No. 2 in C major, Op. 61 (1845-46) [36:41]
CD 2
Piano Concerto in A minor Op. 54 (1841 rev. 1845) [31:56]
Cello Concerto in A minor Op. 129 (1850) [22:00]
Adagio and Allegro for horn and orchestra in A flat, Op. 70 (1849) [7:50]
Manfred Overture Op.115 (1849) [11.59]
Dinu Lipatti (piano); Maurice Gendron (cello); Edmund Leloir (horn)
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. 1950 (Piano Concerto, live), 1951 (Symphony No.1), 1954 (Cello Concerto), 1958 (Adagio and Allegro), 1966 (Symphony No.2, Manfred).
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0078 [69:26 + 74:08]

This is a substantial Schumann collection, covering as stated on the rear of the box, the “First integral release on CD of Ansermet’s post-1950 Schumann Recordings for Decca.” The rear of the box also announces the recording date of the Piano Concerto as 1970, which will no doubt gave a brief frisson of hope to Dinu Lipatti fans, but this is alas a typo, not a resurrection. The booklet notes go into some detail on the music and provide some commentary on the recordings, and as one might expect there is also a history of Ansermet’s career.

The intrinsic quality of the recordings of the Symphony No.1 is fairly thin. There has clearly been a fair bit of attention to making the best of things during remastering, but while there is admirably little surface noise or hiss, the treble can be rather sharp on the ears during loud passages. As a performance this does have a good deal to commend it, albeit possibly more as a study of how things were done in the middle of the last century rather than as a treat for repeated listening. The brass of the Suisse Romande is good, through the trumpets cut through the recording with all the aural comfort of takeoff and landing. It is intriguing to hear how Ansermet reinforces the Beethovenian feel in some of this music through the warm vibrato in the strings in passages throughout the symphony, but particularly in the Larghetto, where the textures must have felt gorgeous in the live concert hall, remnants of that feeling surviving through the somewhat generalised recording quality. The Scherzo lacks somewhat in the molto vivace stakes – having a molto of a more stolid kind, but possessing its own energy however, and lacking more in pace rather than inner drive. The orchestra shows its virtuoso potential in the final Allegro, a positive statement which has a suitably triumphant feel, if also a sense of slightly runaway accelerando and a few rough edges in places. The booklet notes put a positive spin on the playing, Ansermet’s “chamber music-like clarity – sometimes exposing the endearing idiosyncrasies of tone among the... wind players.” This is more a recording for the completist, but is worth it to make up the set in this collection.

The Symphony No.2 is in rather more appealing stereo, and has an altogether more sophisticated feel as a performance. This is possibly a perceived side-effect of the more satisfactory sound, but recorded near the end of Ansermet’s fifty year association with the Suisse Romande orchestra does show the closeness of synergy between the performers and their director. This is a tightly controlled performance which, as Raymond Tuttle states in his notes, has a lightness of touch which reminds one of Mendelssohn. This is certainly true of the busy strings and classical phrasing of the Scherzo, the wind accents snatched away to prevent cloying weight from the accented chords. The Adagio espressivo moves along with unsentimental pace and elegant shaping of the melodic lines and orchestral colour, and a few brushes with marginal intonation issues aside the entire performance is a genuinely involving experience. Having become rather more used to the chamber orchestra lightness of something like the Swedish Chamber Orchestra this symphony does reveal it’s somewhat overblown tendencies towards the end in this performance, but this was how things were in 1966. For a grand and muscular full symphony orchestra finale this is still pretty good, and the recording carries its years very well indeed.

Thanks to the early 1980s WJEC ‘O’ level curriculum, Schumann’s Piano Concerto in A minor will always be a favourite of mine, and the chance to hear Dinu Lipatti perform it was one of the main reasons for acquiring this release as far as I was concerned. In terms of performance this does not disappoint. Just listening to the way Lipatti moulds even Schumann’s pianistic filling-in is a treat, let alone the expressive qualities in the melodic phrasing. Yes, there are one or two split notes, but this is live music making, and hearing something raw and unedited is in fact a refreshing alternative to the more usual post-performance airbrushing we have these days. The orchestra is good enough here, but has to concede to sounding a little wooden against Lipatti’s expressive capabilities and athletic virtuosity – all the more remarkable when you realise he had less than ten months to go before his all too tragic and premature death at 33 from Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The recording is inevitably rather foggy, and with some fairly innocuous surface noise peeking through from time to time, but the qualities in the performance soon make one forget such trivialities, and having this performance available on CD is a terrific boost to Op.54 collectors.

Sour orchestral intonation mars the opening of the Cello Concerto, but Maurice Gendron’s resonant tones soon take control in what turns out to be a passionate performance. I’ve always rather liked Gendron’s 1964 solo Bach Suites recordings on Philips, and the same tight vibrato, secure intonation and elegantly expressive phrasing have me praising this recording of the Schumann concerto. The sound quality here is better than in the Piano Concerto, but with the cello coming off better than the orchestra, which is frequently rather hidden behind Gendron’s firm and often emphatic playing. The colour and detail in the cello is that much more refined than the orchestra, which all too often remains somewhat amorphous in the background, but this is still a decent enough result given the vintage of the recording.

One of the less familiar extras on this already substantial programme is Ansermet’s own orchestration of the Adagio and Allegro for Horn and Orchestra in A flat major Op.70. The soloist here is Edmund Laloir, principal horn of the Orchestra de la Suisse Romande from 1939 to 1977. Rather more accurate in terms of intonation when pushing notes in mid to high register and at rather more than piano dynamic, a few of the extreme low phrases in the piece are a little on the tart side. Laloir’s distinctive sound is healthy and full of character however, and this is another one of those mildly flawed but genuinely memorable recordings against which others will inevitably be judged.

The Manfred Overture is from the same session as the Symphony No.2 and possesses similarly fine qualities. Almost identical in timing to Rafael Kubelik in his 1960s Berlin Philharmonic recordings, this is a well paced and decently executed performance, though sounding marginally less well disciplined than the symphony. With this noble conclusion it is easier to look back on this listening experience with gratitude than in terms of critical nit-picking. It is a good thing to have all of these performances and recordings in one convenient package, and with both the piano and cello concerto recordings making their first international appearance on CD this has to be seen as a welcome addition to the Decca Ansermet Legacy.

Dominy Clements