Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La mer (1905) [22:09]
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
La valse (1920) [13:23]*
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874, orch. Ravel, 1922) [32:08]+
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, *Paris Conservatoire Orchestra/Ernest Ansermet
rec. Victoria Hall, Geneva, March 1951, +December 1953; *La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris, June 1953
I was all set to dismiss this release as superfluous. After all, Ansermet re-recorded all this material in excellent stereo - La mer, in fact, twice. The rationale for resuscitating these earlier versions seemed murky. However, the dazzling 1953 Pictures at an Exhibition testifies to what the Decca engineers could do even working in monaural. That said, it has taken Pristine Audio's digital processing to reveal the full extent of their full accomplishment. The reproduction is truthful in timbre, easily encompassing a full range of dynamics. Only a touch of congestion on the full-throated brass chords of Catacombs betrays any limitations.
Ansermet's performance gives the score's pictorial elements full measure, while maintaining an unbroken musical line, both within and between movements. The serious movements at the start - Gnomus, Bydlo, and The Old Castle - are evocative. The saxophone in the last-named is plangent yet contained. By contrast, the scherzando movements - Tuileries, Ballet of the Unhatched Chicks, and Limoges - are perky and alert. Baba-Yaga is vigorous and mobile, yet unpressured. The Great Gate of Kiev begins with dignified restraint and opens out more grandly as it proceeds.
The Suisse Romande orchestra, as usual in its "core" repertoire, plays with commitment - the more so, I suspect, for its not being a sleek virtuoso ensemble. The clear, unified strings muster some impressive dynamic surges and these are captured well. The woodwind is expressive and piquant, with pointed articulation. The principal horn's voicing of the second Promenade is clunky and dispirited, but the solo trumpet is excellent in Samuel Goldberg and Schmuyle. The brass choir, as suggested, is firm and well-balanced.
The other items sound comparatively run-of-the-mill. La mer is surprisingly clear for 1951 but the climaxes don't fill out and expand as they would in stereo - or, for that matter, as they do in the Pictures. The violins sound dry in exposed moments.
Ansermet's lithe, even balletic interpretation sounds more spontaneous than in his remakes. The conductor impulsively pushes the music forward here and marks the rhythms more strongly there. The calmer passages make a good contrast, though the recording militates against "atmosphere". I'm pleased, however, to hear the composer's added brass parts, which most conductors don't use, at 5:59 in the finale; without them, the passage is bare and aimless.
A change of venue doesn't benefit La valse. The Paris Conservatoire Orchestra was officially the "Orchestra of the Concert Society of the Paris Conservatory", a professional group, not the school orchestra. It suffered, according to John Culshaw's memoir Putting the Record Straight, a rampant deputy system that worked against achieving any consistent level of polish. Its recordings stand as testimony. Remarkably, and despite the mushy "placement" of numerous after-beats, Ansermet still projects the piece in a broad, coherent arc, though the introduction and coda are noticeably deliberate.
Veteran discophiles will be curious about this Pictures. For the general collector, however, Ansermet's shimmering, demonstration-quality remake on Decca Eloquence will be the more logical choice; avoid the toppy Weekend Classics issue. Also strong contenders are the higher-octane accounts of Ormandy (RCA), Giulini (DG), or Ozawa (RCA).
Stephen Francis Vasta
Stephen Francis Vasta is a New York-based conductor, coach and journalist.
This dazzling 1953 Pictures testifies to what the Decca engineers could do even working in monaural.

Masterwork Index: La mer ~~ Pictures at an exhibition