Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
CD 1
Overture: Ruy Blas, Op. 95 (1839) [8:07]
Overture: Die schöne Melusine, Op. 32 (1833) [10:52]
Overture: The Hebrides (Fingal's Cave), Op. 36 (1830-2) [9:39]
Symphony No. 4 in A, Op. 90 (Italian) (1833) [28:32]
CD 2
A Midsummer Night's Dream: Overture, Op. 21 (1826) [11:48]
A Midsummer Night's Dream: Incidental Music, from Op. 61 (1842) [16:14]
Franz SCHUBERT (1797-1828)
Die Zauberharfe, D. 644: Overture (1820) [9:46]
Rosamunde, D. 747: Incidental Music (1823) [24:37]
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, January 1960 (CD 2), November 1964 (CD 1)
DECCA ELOQUENCE 480 0382 [57:31 + 62:33]

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 comes 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 are imposing - 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 tuttis 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. Hebrides, 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.

This Italian 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 suggests 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 Night's Dream 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 Scherzo is rather good, the Nocturne compromised 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 chord of the Rosamunde Entr'acte No 2.

Stephen Francis Vasta

That the recordings carry historic, documentary value is unquestionable; that they might constitute essential consumer acquisitions is another matter entirely, despite their incidental felicities.