Your reaction to these performances will depend on whether you can accept the matching of orchestra and repertoire on aesthetic and technical grounds.
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, the Geneva radio orchestra, was a mainstay of the Decca catalogues, featuring in many of the company's "FFSS" early-stereo productions. They served up a French sound, bright and clear, rather than a deep, weighty Germanic one; their "horizontal" phrasing, based in melody rather than harmony, similarly exemplified the Gallic manner. Nor were these players the most polished or technically adept. Blend and tuning within the woodwind choir were erratic, the otherwise solid brass offered limited lung power. The strings were challenged by busy passages, and extreme high lines in the violins could be dodgy.
It was Ernest Ansermet, the orchestra's longtime music director, who brought distinction to the enterprise. An expert interpreter of the French and Russian repertoire, he was hardly an exponent of Wagner style, but his leadership was expressive and musically informed. The present performances mostly maintain a dignified tread and capture the music's impassioned surge and sweep. In Siegfried's Funeral March and the Parsifal prelude, the comparatively lightweight sonority produces clear textures, while firm, directional phrasing and a measure of rhetorical emphasis compensate for the lack of sheer mass.
At the start of the Lohengrin Prelude, the supporting high strings don't always move precisely with the topmost line, but Ansermet's purposeful manner subsumes such ensemble blemishes into the general flow. As the winds enter and the textures fill out, the sound is full and glowing. The climactic statement, beginning at 6:00, grows organically from the broad musical line. The second cymbal crash (6:32) is noticeably early, however, and tuning discrepancies between high strings and high reeds in the coda leave a sour effect.
Ansermet's forthright, spirited manner in the Meistersinger Prelude is refreshing. Some performances of the piece underline its pomp, but the conductor, without sacrificing grandeur, reminds us that the opera is, after all, a comedy, though an unusually reflective one. The mastersingers' entry theme strides proudly; the woodwinds are rhythmically alert in the apprentices' music; and the recap, bringing back the three main subjects in counterpoint, lands gracefully. Ansermet guides the first violins surely in the Prize Song (4:02), but I'd have liked less tentative supporting parts. In the bar before the tempo kicks up, at 1:26, co-ordination is insecure; some rushing at 5:56 produces a brief mess shortly thereafter; and the upper strings pull ahead of the brass in the triumphant coda.
Ansermet Parsifal selections are characterful and persuasive, though he didn't persuade me that the so-called "Good Friday music" really works; shorn of its vocal parts, it seems to wander. In the prelude, the string phrases at the start are searching, despite nasal tone; the brass chorale at 4:43 blazes; and the woodwind chorales aren't the smoothest, but convey the appropriate uplift. The woodwinds at 4:12 in the Good Friday music are very reedy, in the French manner; and the Tristan-ish progression at 9:46 is striking.
The reliable reproduction of Decca's analogue "house sound" will cheer veterans of vinyl days; its characteristic bass pre-emphasis obviously doesn't hurt in this "vertically" conceived music, and there's a nice depth and texture to the winds. I was surprised, however, to hear congestion in some of the tuttis of the Götterdämmerung and Meistersinger selections. The digital processing also exposes a number of false almost-entries in the soft sustained passages that begin the Parsifal and Lohengrin preludes; in the latter, one hears odd bits of what sounds like surreptitious pizzicato tuning as well.
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach, and journalist.