The Ernest Ansermet Collection from Cascavelle
(only available separately)
Benjamin BRITTEN (1913-1976)
Les Illuminations *[20:19]
War Requiem [78:00]
Alban BERG (1885-1935)
Sieben frühe Lieder ** [15:57]
Suzanne Danco (soprano)/** Chloé Owen (soprano)/Heather Harper (soprano)/Peter Pears (tenor)/Thomas Hemsley (baritone)/Chœurs de la Radio Suisse Romande/ Chœur Pro Arte/ Petit Chœur du Collège Villamont/Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
Rec. *17 December 1953; 26 April 1967 (Cathédrale Saint-Pierre, Geneva); **5 November 1959
CASCAVELLE VEL 3125 [2 CDs 64:12 + 50:14]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Vier letzte Lieder [20:59]
Teresa Stich-Randall (soprano)/*Gérard Souzay (baritone)/*Union Chorale de la Tour-de-Peilz/ Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
Rec. *20 February 1957; 17 May 1961, Victoria Hall, Geneva
CASCAVELLE VEL 3135 [60:56]
In recent months there has been quite a revival of interest in the recorded legacy of Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969). The reissues of many Decca studio recordings on the Australian Eloquence label has made a major contribution to this Ansermet renaissance. However, the Swiss label, Cascavelle, has been playing a significant part too. My colleague, Jonathan Woolf has already appraised five volumes of live recordings taken from radio broadcasts by Radio Suisse Romande and the two sets under discussion here form part of the same series. Collectors should also note another Cascavelle set, also reviewed by Jonathan, which contained studio recordings made between 1916 and 1955.
The disc containing works by Fauré and Strauss looks attractive but, sadly, need not detain us long. The performance of the Fauré benefits from the presence of Gérard Souzay, who is in fine voice. However, it’s hobbled by some turgid tempi set by Ansermet - only in the ‘Agnus Dei’ does he choose a speed that imparts any real movement into the music. For the rest I’m afraid the music sounds ponderous and excessively religious. The orchestral playing is reasonably satisfactory, though if the full orchestral scoring must be used then a far lighter hand is needed on the tiller, but the choir is, frankly, sub standard. It’s a large body of singers. They sound ponderous and produce a tone that is consistently dull. The sound produced by the tenors is particularly unpleasant, I find (and I speak as a tenor myself, so that’s particularly disappointing.) Teresa Stich-Randall’s delivery of the ‘Pie Jesu’ is marred by a tendency to approach some notes from underneath, though elsewhere in the movement her tone falls very pleasingly on the ear.
I’ve lost count of the number of recordings I possess of Strauss’s radiant envoi to the soprano voice and the interpretations of many distinguished Strauss sopranos are on my shelves. But I had not previously come across a recording by Teresa Stich-Randall. Recalling her excellent Sophie in Karajan’s 1956 Rosenkavalier recording I approached this disc with high hopes but, alas, expectations were not fully met. There are many good things in this performance but the orchestra sounds thin - though this may be due to the age of the radio recording. As for Miss Stich-Randall, as in the Fauré, she produces some lovely sounds, especially in the last three songs, but the tendency to approach notes from below occasionally mars one’s enjoyment, which is a great pity. The booklet refers to another broadcast by the same artists; I wonder if that’s a better representation of their partnership in this work?
But if the Fauré/Strauss disc has limited claims on the attentions of collectors the same is far from true of the companion set. In particular it contains a far from inconsiderable performance of War Requiem, which I’ll come to in a minute. The American soprano, Chloé Owen (1919-2010), is featured in a performance of Berg’s Sieben frühe Lieder. So far as I can tell - it’s not a work I know very well - Miss Owen gives a fine performance. I enjoyed listening to her voice and Ansermet appears to be an attentive accompanist. He’s an equally effective partner to the great Suzanne Danco (1911-2000) in Les Illuminations. Mlle. Danco sings the songs marvellously and what a joy it is to hear them sung by a Francophone singer!
But the chief interest in this set lies in the inclusion of War Requiem. Ansermet was quite an exponent of Britten’s music - he led the premières of The Rape of Lucretia and of Cantata Misericordium - but since he recorded for Decca, the same label as Britten himself, there was no opportunity for him to make recordings of Britten’s music. The performance captured here was at least Ansermet’s second traversal of War Requiem - he had given the Swiss première in 1965 - and from first to last it’s abundantly evident that he has the full measure of the score. His direction of the whole ensemble - he conducts the chamber orchestra also - is sure-footed at all times. That’s all the more commendable since the work was only four years old at this time and so the performance tradition was still being established.
Ansermet benefits from having a distinguished solo team. Heather Harper and Peter Pears had both taken part in the first performance of the work, Miss Harper deputising for Galina Vishknevskaya. When Britten made his recording, the great Russian soprano was able to take part but though that was emotionally right her histrionic style and very Slavic timbre is not to all tastes. It was not until 1991 that Heather Harper was invited to record the work and she made a very distinguished contribution to Richard Hickox’s splendid Chandos recording but this present vrsion gives us, surely, a more accurate representation of how she must have sounded in that first performance. In a word, she’s superb. In the ‘Liber scriptus’ she’s commanding - and far more certain in pitch than was Vishknevskaya on the Decca recording. Later, in the ‘Lacrymosa’, she’s moving in expression and clean in tone. She’s utterly authoritative - and accurate - in the ‘Sanctus’ and absolutely searing at ‘Tremens sum factus’ in the ‘Libera me’.
I’m not going to comment in any detail on Peter Pears’s performance, which is on a par with the studio recording in my view. Those, like me, who admire him in this role - at least at this stage in his career - will know what to expect. However, the contribution of Thomas Hemsley (b. 1927) calls for more comment since, to the best of my knowledge, there is no other recording of him in this role. He sings extremely well. He may lack some of the histrionic power of Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau but he’s still very impressive at ‘Be slowly lifted up’. His timbre is lighter than that of Fischer-Dieskau and that brings its own rewards in passages such as ‘Bugles sang’ or ‘After the blast of lightening’, where he’s very eloquent. He combines well with Pears in the duet in the Offertorium and makes as strong a mark as does Pears in the harrowing, intense ‘It seemed that out of battle I escaped’. It’s very good news indeed that his artistry in this work has been preserved through this recording.
The choral contributions are very good. At a couple of crucial moments the choir is insufficiently quiet and distant - I’m thinking, for example, of the very start of the work and also at ‘Pleni sunt coeli’ in the ‘Sanctus’. However, it may be that this is due to close placement of the microphones in a resonant acoustic. Elsewhere the singing, including that of the trebles, is accurate and committed. The orchestra does well; there are a few brass fluffs and not all the detail comes through but one can forgive such small blemishes when the performance as a whole is one of such stature.
This set of Britten and Berg performances constitutes a very important addition to the Ansermet discography. The documentation accompanying both sets is a bit disappointing. There are no texts and each volume contains two brief, rather fulsome essays, which could be more informative - neither Berg nor his music merits so much as a mention! The recorded sound for all the performances is pretty good bearing in mind the age of the recordings and their provenance as radio tapes. The transfers are good.
Valuable archive material showing the artistry of Ansermet, including a very fine War Requiem.
Britten review index & discography: War requiem ~~ Les Illuminations
Masterwork Index: Vier letzte Lieder
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