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Ernest Ansermet and the Ballets Russes
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé (complete ballet, M57) (1912) [55:10]
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
Prélude a l’après-midi d’un Faune (1912) [9:02]
Jeux (Poème dansé, 1913) [17:01]
Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
Pulcinella (1920) [38:52]
Les Noces (1923) [25:00]
Maurice RAVEL
La Valse (1920) [12:58]
Les Chœurs de la Radio Suisse Romande (Daphnis)
Carlo Franzini (tenor), Marilyn Tyler (soprano), Boris Carmeli (bass) (Pulcinella)
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. 1958-66. ADD stereo.
ELOQUENCE 4824989 [81:29 + 77:11]

This is another very valuable release in Decca’s Ansermet Legacy series – in many respects the best of the recent reissues in that series, especially in the case of CD1. While many of the recent releases in this series have been from material first issued in mono on 78s or LP, including Ansermet’s Debussy (4800127 – review) and Ravel (4428321) and a new release of both composers from late-1940s 78s, some of them recorded with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra (4825007), these are stereo recordings from the late 1950s and 1960s that have stood the test of time remarkably well.

The mono releases were available when reviewed direct from Buywell in Australia at astoundingly low prices and they remain available there for Australian and US buyers very inexpensively. In the UK single-CD releases now sell for around £7.50 and double-CDs for around £11, still very good value, especially the twofers like the new release. They are rarely worth downloading: lossless downloads, as in this case, are more expensive than the CDs – one download provider asking £15.49, another £14.99 – and come sans booklet.  On CD too prices vary, even among the suppliers to whom we give purchase links.

4800127 includes the 1951 recording of L’après-midi d’un faune and the 1954 mono recording of Jeux. Bob Briggs thought that the 1951 Faune sounded more than acceptable at a reasonable volume and the 1954 Jeux, ‘full and warm with a rich bloom’ (link above). The few years that separate those recordings from those on the new release, however, saw not only the development of stereo but further improvements in the Decca sound and everything here sounds fine even at higher volume levels.

Decca begin and end this release with 1966 recordings. For me Daphnis et Chloé always means Pierre Monteux with the LSO for the performance (Decca Originals E4757525, with Rapsodie Espagnole and Pavane pour une Infante défunte, on offer as I write for £6.37) and Charles Dutoit in Montréal for the DDD recording quality (Double Decca 4602142, budget price, with la Valse, Boléro, Pavane, Rapsodie, Ma Mère l’Oye, etc.). The Dutoit has been my reference recording when trying out new equipment, especially speakers, but the Monteux is my reference performance. Having newly heard the Ansermet, however, I’m as hard put to choose between him and Monteux as I see that Felix Aprahamian was in Gramophone in March 1966.

Ansermet’s OSR are not the equal of the LSO or Montréal orchestras, the latter dubbed by Edward Greenfield at that time the best French orchestra in the world, and neither of the older recordings opens out like the Dutoit in Lever du jour, the daybreak opening of part 3, but all three were Decca’s best at the time and the older ADD recordings have both come up sounding very well.

I first played this Daphnis in the late evening in the lounge and had to turn up the volume for the Introduction, only to have to turn it down later for fear of offending the neighbours. Listening again in my study on the other side of the house, with the wick turned up – no close neighbours that side – I was surprised at what a dynamic range those engineers achieved in 1966. Most of all, Ansermet reminds us almost as effectively as Monteux what a wonderful score this is. The earlier release on a budget twofer of Ravel conducted by Ansermet, including Daphnis, remains available at an atttactive price, but as a download only (4685642, around £10 in lossless sound).

These recordings of Faune (1957) and Jeux (1958)1 were reissued on CD with Ansermet’s second recording of La mer and Khamma on Decca Legends 4702552 in 2002 and Newton revisited the same coupling. Rob Barnett’s acclaim of the latter release – review – applies equally well to the new Eloquence, with the oddball ballet Jeux responding especially well to Ansermet’s touch. Full marks all round – and look at the playing time of over 80 minutes. The Newton release, not available from all dealers in any case, is now eclipsed. The 1957 La mer is available on Eloquence 4824975, with the 1954 (mono) Jeux, Dukas la Péri and (stereo) L’apprenti sorcier.

CD2 is devoted largely to Stravinsky. Ansermet’s mono and stereo recordings of the orchestral suite from Pulcinella acquired near-classic status, but this recording of the complete 'ballet with song' never quite matched it, largely because Stravinsky’s own version on CBS outshone it as a performance, though not as a recording.  I still find myself hearing that LP in my mind’s ear, with sharper, more polished, playing and better singing (Sony G010003472094N, download only). Even so, I enjoyed the Ansermet enough for it not to downgrade my appreciation of this release overall.

I bought the LP of Ansermet’s Les Noces, with the Symphony of Psalms, in a sale but never came to terms with it: it’s a little deadpan by comparison with other versions such as that sung in Russian on Hyperion Helios, though I’m on record as not finding the work, even in that recording, exactly my ideal Stravinsky – DL News 2014/1.

With its bitter-sweet ending, I don’t suppose it’s possible to love La Valse or that Ravel intended us to love it. It's both the apotheosis of the waltz and a lament for the destruction in World War I of the Vienna which produced it.  Diaghilev deemed it unsuitable for a ballet, though later choreographers proved him wrong. Ansermet’s mono recording was the coupling on his Mussorgsky Pictures from an Exhibition which I owned on Ace of Clubs (ACL48); I remember usually stopping the LP after the main work. (That recording of Pictures has just been reissued on 4825003, Ansermet in Russia).

On the odd occasions when I want to hear La Valse, however, Ansermet is the man: Ravel himself is on record as having praised the flexibility of rhythm in Geneva as beyond anything achieved in Paris which is why, perhaps, the stereo remake on the new release is more enticing than the mono, recorded, unusually, with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra.

Incidentally, as a reminder how lucky we are today, that Ace of Clubs reissue cost 21/5, the equivalent of £30 now, with full-price LPs costing more than half as much again and containing half the music on either CD of this Eloquence set.

We’re used to CD booklets telling us more about the latest whizz kid than about the music. The practice is spreading: here there is more about Ansermet’s career, with special reference to the Ballets Russes, and very little about the music.

If all the performances had been of the quality of CD1, this would have been a candidate for Recording of the Month. If CD2 is not quite that good, the whole is still well worth a recommendation; after all, Eloquence 2-CD sets costs little more than singles. For all my reservations about the Stravinsky, this is well worth having, especially for Daphnis et Chloé.

1 Here and throughout, Decca are a little creative with the dates, giving release rather than recording years, usually one year out.

Brian Wilson

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