Commercial discographies, geared as they are
towards marketing a performer or conductor's specialties, can
inadvertently leave a skewed impression of said performers' active
repertoire. The casual listener could be forgiven for thinking
that Sir Adrian Boult, for example, conducted mostly the music
of British composers and fellow-travelers - with a liberal interpretation
of the latter category to include Brahms! - or that Wilhelm Furtwängler
only excelled at central Austro-German standards. A Music and
Arts CD documenting some first-class Debussy and Honegger should
disabuse anyone of that latter notion. In fact, the music director
of a major orchestra is usually at least conversant with all the
standard repertoire: even that one-time enfant terrible
Pierre Boulez, regularly programmed such non-"innovators"
as Handel, Haydn, Mendelssohn, and Schumann with the New York
Philharmonic in the 1970s, though not necessarily successfully.
So it went with Ernest Ansermet, who became famous through his
recordings of colourful French and Russian scores which, not coincidentally,
constituted an ideal vehicle for Decca's stereophonic recording
techniques. In the course of fifty years as music director of
the Suisse Romande Orchestra, however, he played the standard
Germanic classics, and survived long enough to record quite a
few of them in stereo, including complete cycles of Beethoven
and Brahms symphonies and Haydn's Paris
set, as well as
the Mendelssohn and Schubert collected here. That the recordings
carry historic, documentary value is unquestionable; that they
might constitute essential consumer acquisitions is another matter
entirely, despite their incidental felicities.
Of the overtures on the first disc, only Hebrides
off well. To be sure, there are passages in both the others that
demonstrate the conductor's musical and stylistic understanding.
The brass chorales at the start of Ruy Blas
- though they lack the full-throated tenuto
sound of German-trained
players - and the liquid clarinets are lovely whenever they intone
the principal theme of The Fair Melusine
. But the tutti
sound unkempt, partly because the shallow-bright sonority is out
of place in music that wants to sound firm and grounded, partly
because the players aren't executing the rhythms precisely together.
, on the other hand, builds its textures from the
interplay of diverse musical strands, in a manner similar to that
of the French and Russian works that this ensemble played so well,
and, once past the nervous 'cellos accompanying the opening theme,
Ansermet delivers an evocative account.
Symphony, while competent and musical, never
quite takes off; yet it misses the rhythmic sturdiness and translucent
tone of Colin Davis's similarly earthbound Boston Symphony account
(Philips). Only the third movement Con moto moderato
some of the requisite elegance.
The recordings on the second disc display a surer sense of style,
despite the basses' occasional tendency to lumber. The Midsummer
overture succeeds at "bringing fairies
into the orchestra," though Ansermet has to drive the strings
a bit to get them to keep things going. There are some passing
misco-ordinations - nothing major - but the unmarked ritard for
the false ending, at 9:46 is a bad idea: it seems a logical bait-and-switch
for the listener, but merely renders the coda anticlimactic. The
is rather good, the Nocturne
by increasingly sour horn entries; they're fine at the start.
The Wedding March
is festive, but a horn bobble in the
middle of the brass chord at 4:37 mars the coda.
The sprightly, infectious account of the overture -- really that
for Die Zauberharfe
-- is the best thing in this Rosamunde
sequence. The Ballet Music No 1, not included on the original
LP - presumably for reasons of space - has a hearty swing, though
the wind chording sounds wheezy from time to time. The awkward
reading of Entr'acte No 2 is no great shakes, while an oozy, lumbering
travversal of Entr'acte No 3 undercuts the tenderly phrased theme.
The Ballet Music No 2 recovers with its bouncy theme, even if
the reeds sound a bit whiny.
The sound is recognizably Decca's analog "house sound";
the bass pre-emphasis is more obvious on CD than it was on vinyl
- which doesn't do anything for those string basses - and I was
surprised to hear some distortion in the first tutti
of the Rosamunde
Entr'acte No 2.
Stephen Francis Vasta