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An occasional series by Christopher Howell
4. VICTOR DESARZENS (1908-1986)
A prophet acclaimed at home

Go here and you will find - in French - a lovingly prepared dossier of documents about the life of the conductor Victor Desarzens. Google a little further and you will find that in 2008 the city of Lausanne unveiled a plaque commemorating its illustrious citizen in the centenary of his birth. You will also see that the recording studio in Lausanne is called the “Studio Victor-Desarzens”. You will find numerous references to conductors who studied with him, works by Swiss composers that were premièred by him. You will begin to get the idea that Victor Desarzens, scarcely less than Ernest Ansermet, is a sort of folk-hero in Swiss musical life.
And yet, you may never have heard his name before. At best, you may have come across him as the accompanying conductor on archival retrievals dedicated to famous soloists - Clara Haskil, for example, or Cortot or Gieseking. If you are an enthusiast of Frank Martin, you will know Desarzens as the conductor of the Westminster recording of “Le Vin Herbé”. But that’s about it.
Victor Desarzens was born on 27 October 1908 in Château-d’œx, in the Canton of Vaud. His father was a baker, but Victor’s musical leanings were recognized and encouraged. After taking a diploma in violin at Lausanne Conservatoire he had a few finishing lessons in Paris with Georges Enesco. He then became a member of Ernest Ansermet’s Suisse Romande Orchestra.
In 1941 Desarzens went into conducting himself and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra was officially born in 1942. He remained its conductor till 1973. He also became conductor of the Musikkollegium de Winterthur in 1950 - its principal conductor from 1922 to 1947 had been Hermann Scherchen. He retained this post till 1975. This seems to be the same orchestra as that described on the Concert Hall and Musical Masterpieces Society discs as the “Winterthur Symphony Orchestra”.
With the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, Desarzens concentrated on two areas of the repertoire in particular: the rediscovery of baroque compositions, played with reasonably slimmed-down forces and clean texts - no small deal when he began his venture - and an enlargement of the contemporary repertoire. In this latter role he earned much gratitude from contemporary composers in and out of Switzerland. Notably, from 1945 to 1974 he maintained a regular correspondence with the Swiss composer Frank Martin, touching on the interpretation and many other details of his music. This correspondence has been published. His discs also show that his occasional forays into the romantic repertoire could be highly effective. Desarzens died on 13 February 1986 at Villette (Lavaux) in the Canton of Vaud.
As ever in this series, I am grateful to the indefatigable and altruistic bloggers who post out-of-copyright recordings and often a lot of information as well. Many of the biographical details above were obtained from René Gagnaux’s site “Mon Musée Musical”, which also offers a good number of Desarzens’ pre-1963 discs. Another site with major Desarzens material is David Gideon’s “ReDiscovery”. Various other odds and ends are scattered around, and I also had a couple of CDs from the brief period in which MCA were reissuing Westminster records. As in other articles, I would ask readers to consider this a generalized study of the artist and his work, rather than a review of currently available material.
The principal testimony to Desarzens’ delving into baroque byways is his recording, with his own Lausanne Chamber Orchestra, of two suites from Rameau’s “Platée”. The listing in the WERM catalogue shows that this disc was originally issued - in a limited Concert Hall Society edition - no later than 1952. Compared with the Kaufman/Swoboda Vivaldi “4 Seasons” of only a few years earlier, we are in a different world. It is true that Desarzens’ band consists of modern instruments and his strings have not sworn eternal abstinence to vibrato, but there is no lush wallowing. Textures are light and bright, there’s a harpsichord continuo - though not always very evident - and descant recorders pipe away in several movements. Rhythms are springy and legato is used sparingly, usually as a deliberate contrast to the surrounding staccato phrases. Desarzens appears to have made a real effort to think himself into Rameau’s world. Anyone expecting to listen to a 60-year-old recording of French baroque music with a condescending smirk may be surprised at how convincing most of it is (MMS 86).
With various soloists, Desarzens set down at least three LPs of works by J.S. Bach. The earliest coupled the Fifth Brandenburg Concerto with the Triple Concerto in A minor BWV 1044. For some reason the Oiseau-Lyre company brought the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra to Paris, in January 1950, for the sessions. The soloists were Isabelle Nef (harpsichord), Andrée Wachsmuth-Loew (violin) and Edmond Defrancesco (flute).

Small chamber groups such as this were still feeling their way towards a convincing Bach style in 1950. In the Brandenburg Concerto, high energy levels save the stomping vigour of the outer movements - with a very fast finale - from rigidity, but the central movement is slow and heavy, with some thick registration from the harpsichordist. The balance is surprisingly good in the first movement, with the harpsichord not brought further forward than one would actually hear in concert, but in the cadenza the engineers seem to have brought the level up, and do so gradually towards the end, giving the impression that the harpsichord is barnstorming in the Lisztian manner.

The harpsichord is not made to dominate in the triple concerto, though some over-heavy registrations can be heard just the same. The performance is energetic. But, while Klemperer could base a Bach performance on an un-phrased, separated bass line, yet give an impression of a strapping forward stride, this often just stomps, partly undermining the very good work by the soloists. The middle movement is the best, though sometimes its refusal to linger verges on the obsessive. The finale’s long notes are played completely legato, to somewhat old-fashioned effect (OL LD-3, OL LD-5).
Later in the 1950s, Desarzens made a pairing of two of Bach’s Klavier Concertos - BWV 1052 in D minor and BWV 1055 in A - with the harpsichordist Ruggero Gerlin. This time the somewhat mysterious “Cento Soli Orchestra” was used - no one has really established what this Parisian band was. Though the orchestra is obviously not really 100-strong, these are sturdy performances. The harpsichord is more Landowska-heavy then baroque-lite and, abetted by the fulsome recording, it dominates the orchestra in the best Rachmaninov concerto traditions. It’s difficult not to feel we are closer to the ethos of Sargent conducting Handel, in spite of token obeisance to the “right” instrument, chamber forces and not too much long legato. The stereo recordings still sound well (OSL-13, pub 1957 or 1958).
The Desarzens Bach disc that best withstands the test of time is likely to be his coupling of the Second Orchestral Suite with another version of the Triple Concerto in A minor BWV 1044. Here the soloists are Fernand Caratgé (flute), Georges Ales (violin) and Ruggero Gerlin (harpsichord) and the orchestra is another French mystery, the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra. It seems to have been made in about 1957.
One good reason for hearing Desarzens’ 1950 version of the Triple Concerto is to marvel at how he had so completely rethought it in just seven years. It’s not just a matter of slower tempi, though they certainly are slower (1957: 9:49, 7:07, 8:00; 1950: 9:02, 6:03, 7:13). There is now an extremely detailed response to phrasing and dynamic shading. The result is that, where the opening theme seemed, in 1950, to be one of Bach’s convivial “There was an old woman who ...” sort of tunes, it now takes on a far graver meaning. This is a Bach performance where one can set aside methodological considerations and simply enjoy the majesty and invention of the music. I suppose it does still stomp here and there, but perhaps one would not notice if not forewarned. The second movement benefits from that little extra space - it now plonks along timelessly. One might wish that the harpsichordist had kept his 16-foot stop out of it, though. The long notes of the finale are not so totally separated as they probably would be today but, compared with the completely smooth 1950 rendering, they are at any rate clearly articulated. If you’re not really a HIP person, maybe this will be the right compromise for you. In any case, a performance that shows 1950s Bach-playing at its best.
As for the Suite, if majestic unbroken lines in the first part of the Overture, with minimal separation between the notes, and a songfully flowing sarabande, strike a chord with you, you may find this a performance on the same level. For the rest rhythms are well-sprung with very little stomping, no excess legato and plenty of dynamic shading. There’s real excitement in the playing towards the end of the fugal section of the Overture. In the context of a fairly stately performance, the slightly breathless Badinerie might seem a miscalculation (Le Chant du Monde LDX-SP 1531).
Moving towards the classical world, Desarzens set down a “Piano Concerto” by C.P.E. Bach - Wq 27 in D minor - with the pianist Artur Balsam. Compared with the CPE Bach “Piano Concerto” recorded by Holetschek and Swoboda - see the first article in this series - this is a more developed, forward-looking affair. This is no doubt one reason why it sounds more convincing on the grand piano than the other one. Another is Balsam’s luminous, vital and fluent playing, which makes it all sound as if it were written for the instrument he’s using. Desarzens accompanies vigorously, though the Winterthur Symphony Orchestra is a bit scrappy in some of its entries. A curious aspect is that he has a harpsichord tinkling away at the back, though never, as far as I could hear, while the piano is actually playing, and not in the slow movement. The recording, in M. Gagnaux’s restoration, has come up remarkably well for its date and provenance (CHS 1074, pub. April 1951). 
Like Henry Swoboda, Desarzens can be heard accompanying a fair number of Mozart concertos. Indeed, they can both be heard as partners to Aurèle Nicolet in the Flute Concerto no.2 K.314. While I found the Swoboda version a lovely performance from both artists, I had to conclude that the poor recording, with bad distortion in the orchestral tuttis, meant that it held little interest, given that Nicolet’s interpretation is well documented in later, better, recordings. However, if you wish to hear Nicolet at an early stage in his career, M. Gagnaux offers a broadcast performance from 19 December 1952 with Desarzens and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra. This is a more attractive proposition. The orchestra is dim and the flute is too far forward, and there’s tape print-through in most of the rests, but nothing offends the ears. However, perhaps you should hear each of them at least once, since they are so different. With Desarzens conducting, there’s less sheer loveliness than with Swoboda, but there’s tension, energy, even drama, and Nicolet adapts to the different views.
From February 1959, there’s a Musical Masterpieces Society recording of Piano Concerto no.9 K.271 with Lili Kraus. The Vienna State Opera Orchestra plays. Kraus’s energetic, robust but not awfully poetic pianism is in evidence here, and Desarzens seems to agree with her approach. The two also set down Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto, which I haven’t heard ( MMS 2192).
More likely to detain us is a coupling on Westminster of Piano Concertos no.25 K.503 and no.27 K.595. Here the pianist is Fou Ts’ong and the Vienna State Opera Orchestra is again in attendance. Jeremy Noble began his “Gramophone” review (4/62) by remarking that “Mozart’s piano concertos present almost unique problems both to the performers and the recording engineers, and this recording comes within measurable distance of solving them”. As far as the recording engineers are concerned, we may take it that plenty of recordings from the later stereo and the digital era have come at least as close. All the same, as JN said, “the tricky matter of balance - between strings and wind as well as between piano and orchestra - has also been well handled”. It remains a very good recording with a clear orchestral picture and a balance that allows all elements their just role. JN continued: “The performances too strike me as being within striking distance of ideal ... Fou Ts’ong here achieves a real poise between individual expression and the musical good manners that playing in a concerted work, Mozart’s above all, entails”. One is immediately struck by the majestic flow - without heaviness - with which K.503 opens, and as Fou Ts’ong slipped naturally into the dialogue I was inclined to agree with JN. In some ways K.595 convinced me even more. Tempi are broad in all three movements but all Mozart’s sad slippages into more melancholy undercurrents are allowed to register fully. But who’s leading the performances, the pianist or the conductor? As things proceeded I increasingly found that, while Fou Ts’ong is unfailingly fluent and “nice”, there isn’t a great variety to his tone or his expression and in the end all he has to offer is a decorative veneer to the excellent orchestral backdrop. In which case it may be a pity that Desarzens wasn’t booked to record a couple of late symphonies instead (Westminster WST 14136).
Quite recently the Swiss company Claves issued a pairing of Piano Concerto no.19 K.459 with no.24 K.491 in which Desarzens and the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra partnered Clara Haskil. The performances are dated 14.10.1957 and 25.6.1956. I have heard just K.459, which can be found on you-tube. Uncharacteristically for a Haskil performance, it’s slightly faster than the norm. The opening ritornellos may not be the best played version one has heard but it is among the most pointed and purposeful. I was left wondering whether Haskil quite wanted this. She mostly goes along with it, but, as recorded, she plays in what is, for her, an unusually clattery and humdrum manner, and with occasional tell-tale slowings at ends of phrases (Claves 50-2617).
Just as the highlight of the Swoboda-accompanied Mozart concertos was the one played by Artur Balsam, so Piano Concerto no.16 K451, with Desarzens conducting the Winterthur Symphony Orchestra, brings another wonderful Mozart performance from Balsam. Desarzens is at one with his free-flowing, vital yet sensitive and - in the middle movement - songful playing. More than anyone else, it seems, Balsam can convey a feel-good factor in supposedly “lesser” Mozart concertos, revealing them to be masterpieces (CHS 1045).
On his own, Desarzens set down no Mozart symphonies - or I have traced none. His conducting of three of the Serenades, however, treats them symphonically rather than as entertainment music. His recording of “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, sounds as if it might come from about the same time as the concertos with Fou Ts’ong and the same band. There is the same robust, broad but alert unfolding of the music, never heavy or turgid. All the same, Desarzens takes his pleasures a little seriously.
His Westminster coupling of the Serenade in D K.320 - “Posthorn” and the Serenade in D K.239 - “Serenata notturna” - was made with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra. It has similar qualities of high seriousness and scrupulously prepared phrasing, but Desarzens’ own orchestra has a leaner sound - though they are not always immaculate - and the conductor brings a more urgent approach here, in particular to the outer movements of the “Posthorn”. One of the first records I reviewed for MusicWeb International was a CD reissue (MCD 80105) of these two performances together with Boult’s 1959 Vienna “Eine kleine Nachtmusik”. I rather used Boult as the stick with which to beat Desarzens. Without repeating the comparison, and in the context of getting to know Desarzens’ work, I can only say I much appreciated the good qualities of these performances, which should appeal if you like Mozart’s serenades to be treated as symphonies, rather than played for charm. The posthorn contribution itself, by the way, contains several blips that might have justified another take or two (WST17057 pub.1964).
By his reputation, Desarzens was basically interested in baroque, early classical and moderns. Accordingly, his recorded legacy in the romantic sphere is very much a matter of odds and ends. The frustrating thing is, these bits and pieces seem to give a glimpse of a conductor whose main claim on our memories is precisely here.
Not, perhaps, his uncharacteristically lingering, even sentimental treatment of the third Entr’acte from Schubert’s Rosamunde music. This is one of a group of popular pieces he set down with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra for Readers’ Digest.
Nor, maybe, his performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto with Peter Rybar. Rybar was a Czech violinist who settled in Switzerland and became a major figure in Winterthur, leading not only the local orchestra but chamber groups as well. Tucked away amid the Swiss mountains and lakes he did not achieve great international prominence, but he has since become a cult figure and his LPs fetch high prices. Sooner or later he should deserve an article to himself in this series.
I wondered, though, how much time Rybar and Desarzens had to discuss their interpretation before recording. Rybar is not, at least in this case, the most commanding of players, but uses his small, intimate tone to investigate attractively the more poetic corners of the first movement. Desarzens, though, would evidently have preferred to stride purposefully through without too much languishing. He gives Rybar space when the orchestral part is purely subordinate, but forges ahead when he can. On the other hand, he introduces the second movement with considerable atmosphere, establishing a broad tempo. Now it’s Rybar’s turn to move things on. By about halfway through they’ve settled on a tempo and things go very nicely. For the finale, they are both agreed on an unflappable, nicely articulated, if rather unexciting, tempo.
The record is completed with The Hebrides. Desarzens on his own proves an interesting Mendelssohnian. The continuation of the cello’s opening is not made into an exercise in pre-impressionism, it is kept clear right through. In general, a lot of details emerge with a Mozartian clarity that are generally sacrificed for “atmosphere”. As a result, the music seems more motivated than usual. And ultimately not less atmospheric, though it’s a colder, gaunter atmosphere than we are used to hearing. I could wish, though, this interpretation had been played by a better orchestra than the “Vienna Festival Orchestra”, a mysterious band which may have been the Vienna Symphony Orchestra. By now that institution was in the hands of Herbert von Karajan and was possibly not as universally available - officially - as it had been in the early post-war years. Above all, I wish it had been better recorded - the trumpets blare and distort. But it has something to tell us about the piece (Whitehall WHS 40003, rec. 8 May 1959).
A much more convincing collaboration with Peter Rybar was Schumann’s Violin Concerto. This was the work’s third recording - its predecessors were Menuhin and Kulenkampff. Rybar and Desarzens seem convinced the work is a masterpiece. There’s a flexibility here that we don’t always find in Desarzens. Nor does he always produce the sort of tremendous conviction we hear in the big tutti at the start of the first movement development. By alternating grandeur with tenderness, Rybar and Desarzens make the outer movements convincing. The slow movement - the inspiration of which has always been recognized - is given a wonderful proto-Elgarian wistfulness and inner feeling, though without any wallowing. The recording is dry, and distorts in climaxes towards the ends of the sides, but once I was caught up in the performance this ceased to worry me. It’s a curious thought that, if you could find a music-lover who did not know either the Schumann or the Mendelssohn concertos, and was unaware, too, of how they are generally rated, and if you played him the Rybar/Desarzens versions of the two works, he might well conclude that the Schumann was the finer of the two. The orchestra is described as the “Lausanne Symphony Orchestra” - presumably the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra with a few extras brought in (CHS-1128). 
In another little-known romantic concerto, the Third Piano Concerto by Saint-Saëns, Desarzens again provides an accompaniment of exemplary fluidity and flexibility. The pianist, Pina Pozzi (1914-1966), was born in northern Italy but brought up in Switzerland She was by all accounts a splendid artist. She left a few recordings with the Winterthur Quartet, led by Peter Rybar (Schubert, Dvořák) and played on both sides of the Atlantic in a duo with the violinist Aida Stucki who, under her married name of Piraccini, is remembered as the teacher of Anne Sophie Mutter. Unfortunately the recording here is really dire above mezzo forte and we have to take a lot of it on faith. It would be nice to think this could be cleared up, but maybe it’s beyond even today’s technological wizards. The Winterthur Symphony Orchestra plays (Whitehall 33-5015 - CHS 1179, pub. 1953).
Working on his own, one can only regret the lack of substantial works from Desarzens. The only symphonies I have heard are a useful coupling of the two by Weber. These are strong, purposeful and honest performances, duly appreciative of the often zany scoring and turns of phrase. Desarzens’ honesty may be his undoing though. I wondered if a bit more charm might have disguised the banality of some of the material, especially the march rhythms in the first movement of symphony 1. Where Weber is at his best, Desarzens does him proud, within the limits of the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra itself. Somewhat unrealistically for such modest pieces, Weber seems to expect a gaggle of virtuoso wind soloists on the job. Desarzens’ bassoonist sounds as if he might be in that class, the others just not quite (Westminster WST 17034, pub.1965).
For the rest, it’s bits and pieces. A coupling of Berlioz’s Rakoczy March and Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody no.2 with the “Vienna Festival Orchestra” no doubt provided innocent pleasure to those who bought it, but cannot by its nature tell us much about the conductor. Suffice to say that the Berlioz is buoyant but not hectic while the Liszt gets an unusually musical performance, without excluding helter-skelter excitement in the final stretch (Whitehall WH 20014).
A much more significant Liszt recording was that of the Symphonic PoemTasso, with the Winterthur Symphony Orchestra. Listed in WERM 2, this was preceded by versions under Van Kempen and Ferencsik. Nevertheless, Desarzens proceeds as though he is the sole torchbearer for a forgotten masterpiece. Avoiding histrionic tricks and relying on intensity of orchestral response and Horenstein-like structural control, he proves his point. Despite an inadequately equipped orchestra and a recording that threatens to buckle under several times along the way before actually doing so in the final conflagration - which sounds just that - he is one of the few to demonstrate that, if Liszt is taken at his word and played with the same care for musical values as if he were Beethoven, his stature rises inexorably.
I suppose a stranger coupling still for “Tasso” than Gounod’s Petite Symphonie for wind instruments could have been found, but I can’t think of one for the moment. At least it doesn’t stretch the players or the recording engineers in the same way. Indeed, both orchestra and technicians, if not immaculate, appear in a much more favourable light. The performance is amiable and relaxed (CHF-2).
In a disc of popular and slightly less popular Russian fare, again with the Winterthur Symphony Orchestra, Desarzens shows that he learnt well the lesson of Ansermet in this repertoire. Precise articulation, springy rhythms, steady-as-she-goes tempi and an absence of hysterics are the formula. Much of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Capriccio Espagnol may seem unexciting, yet it is sufficiently infectious to be wholly enjoyable just the same, and Desarzens does whip things up towards the end. Slightly away from the Ansermet model, and perhaps a reminder that Desarzens was a violinist himself, he has the violins - though there seem to be pitifully few of them - invest the more passionate moments with a sort of gypsy vibrancy. The violin solos are very well handled - by Peter Rybar?
The opening of Mussorgsky’s Khovanschina Prelude seems to catch the violist unawares. Maybe he had expected to be given more time to play his lovely tune. Desarzens begins as he intends to continue: forwardly flowing. Thereafter all is fine, though the oboist, or his instrument, is not of the highest class and the paucity of strings again takes its toll.
The “Suite” from Rimsky-Korsakov’s “The Golden Cockerel” is not the usual four-movement affair, but a sort of tone-poem consisting of the first half of the first piece and most of the last. Compared with Hugo Rignold’s version of the full suite - which will be discussed in a later article in this series - Desarzens is short on poetry and atmosphere, but his bright primary colours could be thought more Russian and he brings a touch more zest to the final pages (MMS 57).
In Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, as with Liszt’s “Tasso”, Desarzens ennobles what can sound tawdry. The opening prayer may seem a little subdued but Desarzens proceeds to give a strict-time, unhysterical but fiercely dramatic interpretation that builds up inexorably till the final explosion of joy. Though Desarzens never whips up vulgar excitement with unmarked accelerandos, it must be said that several of the tempi are already pretty fast. It’s emphatically not a staid or cautious performance. The only regret is that we cannot hear musicianship of this order applied to one of the last three symphonies rather than to this minor effusion, though I have found fleeting references to a recording of Tchaikovsky’s Fifth Symphony. Another “Vienna Festival Orchestra” offering (Whitehall 20014).
At the threshold of the 20th century we have a version of Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro set down for Westminster with the Lausanne Chamber Orchestra in September 1961.
The enunciation of the opening motive made me wonder if this wasn’t going to be a more baroque Elgar than usual. But no, the proper ebb and flow immediately establishes itself, the heart-throb, the moments of inner meditation rising to high passion. I couldn’t fault Desarzens anywhere along the line. The only doubt is whether the Lausanne outfit isn’t a size small for the job. In general, this work is most effective when the solo strings can contrast with the strings of a full symphony orchestra. The big moments don’t quite swell out as one would wish, despite the real conviction of the playing. The excellent, clean and clear recording doesn’t entirely help in this sense. All the same, this is a definite collectible among Elgar performances by non-English artists dating from the years when non-English artists didn’t usually play Elgar (WST 17031).
Given Desarzens’ success in this slightly unexpected style, it might be worth noting that he also set down a quite extensive selection from Sibelius’s “Pelléas et Melisande”. I haven’t been able to hear this.
Before taking our leave of the romantics, a few more of Desarzens’ Readers’ Digest recordings can be downloaded from Amazon at a very modest price. All are with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra. Those who like their Viennese schmaltz laid on with a trowel may find his reading of Johann Strauss’s Blue Danube Waltz somewhat underplayed. Those who like this music Klemperer-straight - I seem to be the only one that does - may find even Desarzens too interventionist. This is a waltz for dancing, but Desarzens allows slight adjustments of tempo between one section and another, and a touch of schmaltz as he eases into a new melody. To my ears, he sounds as if he could have been one of the better Strauss conductors on record.
Léhár’s Gold and Silver Waltz confirms this impression. Desarzens points up the more colourful, fin de siècle orchestration and makes a real poem out of it without parodying the style.
In Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel Overture he gives the music all the seriousness it deserves but without heaviness and above all retaining a sense of bright-eyed childlike wonder. How curious that the Readers’ Digest outfit so often showed its conductors to their very best advantage, yet in repertoire they were not associated with.
The Elgar Introduction and Allegro was coupled with Schoenberg’s “Verklärte Nacht”, which I haven’t heard, and Britten’s Prelude and Fugue, which Desarzens plays with a conviction this early work hardly deserves. A pity the Frank Bridge Variations were not chosen instead.
Desarzens also provided a vigorous accompaniment, with the Vienna State Opera Orchestra, to Eugene List’s performance of Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto no.2. List was particularly associated with the Shostakovich piano concertos, having given the American première of the first at extremely short notice in response to a request by Stokowski. Famously, he recorded the two concertos in Russia in 1975, with the composer’s son Maxim conducting. In his first recording of the pair, the present second was coupled with a first conducted by Georg-Ludwig Jochum. Desarzens brings plenty of noisy energy to the fun-of-the-fair outer movements and contributes materially to preventing the middle movement from sounding too pat. List manages to make the beginning of the finale sound magical rather than simply banal - though banality could hardly be avoided later (WST 14141).
Desarzens’ long friendship with Frank Martin was not celebrated in as many discs as one might expect. The composer was an effective conductor himself so it is not altogether surprising that he was engaged by the recording companies when a work of his was to be set down. At René Gagnaux’s site you will find a link whereby you can hear, but not download, Desarzens’ Westminster recording of Le Vin Herbé. This is a compromise agreed with Martin’s heirs since, while the recording as such is out of copyright, the music is not. You can also download, for a modest price, Desarzens’ recording of the Petite Symphonie Concertante at the Naxos Classicsonline site. 
The Desarzens discography, then, is a little frustrating. Among the good things duly noted, there are sporadic hints - particularly in Liszt’s “Tasso” - that he may have been capable of more than we are currently able to hear. Since European radio stations usually conserve their archives, it may be that sufficient material exists to clarify what he could or could not do. In 2006, for example, RAI broadcast the following tribute to Desarzens based on recordings from their own archives:
Honegger: Suite Archaïque, Debussy: 3 Images (Rome 31 May 1958).
Hindemith: Suite of French Dances for small orchestra, Honegger: Symphony no.4 "Deliciae Basilienses", Roussel: Le festin de l'araignée, symphonic fragments (Naples, 1 March 1960).
R. Strauss: Metamorphosen (Naples 2 May 1961)
Martin: Petite Symphonie Concertante (Turin 31 May 1961)
Wagner: Siegfried Idyll (Turin 22 November 1961)
Mozart: Symphony no. 38 “Prague”, Tchaikovsky: Symphony no.2 (Turin 18 September 1962)

The only recording here I have actually heard - but reception was bad that day - is the Honegger 4th Symphony, a vernally fresh and well-structured reading. Frankly, I’d trade at least two-thirds of the recordings I’ve discussed for a chance to hear all these - though they may be disappointing, of course. And surely this is nothing compared with what the Swiss radio stations must hold.

Christopher Howell 

All Forgotten Artists articles