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Haydn Ansermet 4700622
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Joseph Haydn (1732-1809)
The “Paris” Symphonies, nos. 82-87 (1785-6)
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
rec. 1962, Victoria Hall, Geneva
Presto CD
DECCA 470 062-2 [2 CDs: 140]

My MusicWeb colleague Philip Borg-Wheeler reviewed these recordings back in 2010 when they were issued on the Eloquence label and did not think very highly of them, describing them as “generalised” and “monochrome”.

Given their age and provenance, I think it fair to compare them only with other recordings on conventional, not “period”, instruments played in “traditional” rather than supposedly “authentic” style. My own points of comparison, therefore, are Bernstein’s mid-60s set, Karajan’s 1980 set and Adam Fischer in 1990 – who made a point of using the modern instruments of the Austro-Hungarian Haydn Orchestra, even though he is also a conductor of period bands. PBW also referred to Bernstein, remarking, “I find Bernstein – only slightly later vintage than Ansermet – both more affectionate and more probing. Bernstein’s set as a whole is clearly more involved and rewarding, if not always what we nowadays regard as stylistically ideal” – a verdict with which I concur. It would seem that Ansermet, for all his gifts - especially in 20C music - had no special affinity with, or insight into, Haydn’s music.

It can of course happen that recordings which served their purpose when there was less competition and which were made before HIP theories made inroads into mainstream practice, pale when compared to more innovative or imaginative interpreters – and that, I think, is what has happened here. It is not always a question of timings or pace – Ansermet is often sprightly - but more of dynamic and tonal variety. I follow my colleague’s example by considering different recordings of the unusually entitled “Capriccio: Largo” slow movement of Symphony No. 86, as it does indeed best illustrate the diversity among them. Both Karajan and Bernstein find so much more mystery and modernity in the music, especially Bernstein, who probes the strangeness of its long, drawn-out phrases and makes much more of carefully graded dynamic contrasts. Ansermet takes it much too fast and sells us short on mystique. It has to be said, that Karajan and Bernstein have better orchestras, too. The opening of La Reine must be regally imposing and if there is more depth of sound and grandeur in Fischer’s account, it is hardly surprising that that is even more the case with Karajan and Bernstein. There is marginally more lightness and wit about the clucking in La Poule with all three of the other conductors; Ansermet is a tad plodding. Having said that, I don’t want to exaggerate Ansermet’s deficiencies; these are still pleasing, pleasant performances, and there are symphonies here, such as No. 87, which trot along nicely – but even there, Karajan brings more verve to the tumultuous opening. There is little point my identifying and enumerating every instance where these generalisations hold true; it’s just that cumulatively little flaws amount to disqualifying this set from being among the most recommendable.

Ralph Moore

Previous review (Eloquence release): Philip Borg-Wheeler



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