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Ernest Ansermet: Decca Recordings 1953-1967 [Box Set]
Johann Sebastian Bach, Franz Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven
Ernest Ansermet: Decca Recordings 1953-1967 [Box Set]
Genres: Special Interest, Classical


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A memento of a conductor lost in the golden age
Larry VanDeSande | Mason, Michigan United States | 06/20/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)

"This 6-CD set gives uninitiated listeners a fair introduction to a conductor they never knew while he was alive or in his heyday. Ernest Anserment (1883-1969) was born in Switzerland and was a contemporary of both Furtwängler and Klemperer, although he was of a far different school of music than either German. Originally a mathematician, Ansermet founded Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Swiss Radio Orchestra) during World War I, toured with them worldwide after the war, and rose to prominence after World War II when he and the orchestra developed a recording contract with Decca Records.

Ansermet was most at home in coolorful scores, 20th century French music, in the works of his countrymen Honegger (born French but spent time in Zurich) and Frank Martin, and in the Russians Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. But, as represented here, his expertise began with Bach and went well into the 20th century.

Ansermet's strengths were clarity in execution and delivery, strict adherence to original scoring (he opposed Stravinsky's tendency to revise his own works), and a romantic bent that was in vogue in the postwar years. Stated another way, Anserment's work captured the essence of what today might be characterized as a "romantic period performance" style whose chief proponent may be Martin Perlman in Boston.

For me, Ansermet's conducting in the mainstream German classics was equally engaging. He was expert in capturing the full blown romance of Brahms, Beethoven and other romantics through the rigors of exposing every instrument in the orchestra and ensuring all contrapuntal lines could be heard. His Beethoven set included a dazzling performance of the Symphony No. 2 and a draft of the "Choral" symphony most collectors would enjoy today (it's still avaiable in Japan).

While recordings of Ansermet's Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky have rightly stayed in the catalog and been hailed by critics for decades, his greatest recording of romantic repertoire, in my opinion, is neither included in this box nor avaialable anywhere worldwide. That is his pairing of the Franck D Minor Symphony and the St. Saens "Organ" Symphony which Decca paired early in the CD era on a Weekends Classic recording. It has been out of print everywhere for some time and is a great loss for all of us.

Still today, I treasure Ansermet's box of Beethoven symphonies (also out of print everywehere; No. 4, is represented here) for its clarity, romance and elocution. I will never forget buying this box at my local LP store about 1972; what a revelation it was after exposure to the Beethoven of all the high cholesterol German romantics! Ansermet's combination of score adherence, clarity in orchestral detail, and blooming romance in interpretation led to my most satisfying performances of the most recorded symphonies in history during the period when the greatest conductors of the recording era were all represented in this repertoire.

The latter point is, I believe, the linchpin to Ansermet's career. I don't think there's any question that, if a conductor came along today with his combination of skills, sensitivity and technique, he or she would be regarded as a wunderkind combining the best traits of the current and bygone eras. In his lifetime, however, Ansermet was never regarded in this way. I think that's because he existed on a plane or two below all the acknowledged giants of the podium that were active or in their prime in his day.

While Ansermet was making the recordings in this box, Wilhelm Furtwangler was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, dying, and being replaced by an up and coming German named Karajan that would go on the become the most recorded conductor in history. Klemperer was one of the giants in Germany with Bohm, Jochum and others sharing the spotlight. Among Europe's rising stars of the day were Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink, who had recently taken over for Beinum in Holland. Elsewhere, Leonard Bernstein was in the midst of his titanic career on the other side of the Atlantic and other American orchestral posts were manned by Ormandy, Szell, Solti, Mehta, Monteaux and another young, up and coming condcutor, Lorin Mazzel. Stokowski was in his prime making stereo recordings in this era, too.

This was the epoch of Ansermet's maturity. He was in the same position as a number of great conductors of his era such as Rudolf Kempe -- great men at the podium cast in the shadow of giants. While Ansermet was a member of the Decca stable, he nonetheless was cast in a secondary role as Decca also had new recordings by Solti and Maazel that were outselling anything Ansermet put forth. Simultanously, collectors could also find all the recordings of legendary conductors including Toscanini, Bruno Walter and Beecham. It was surely a crowded time in the record business and the most difficult time in history for a conductor to make his name.

In baseball terms, Ansermet had some of the affect of Sammy Sosa, whose 600 home runs came in the shadow of Mark McGwire's record-breaking season in 1998 and while Barry Bonds would first break the all-time single season record and, second, chase Hank Aaron's home run record. The metaphor may not be competely satisfactory for Ansermet was probably not the third greatest conducting home run hitter of his day.

But he was one of the great conductors with his own orchestra, a unique style, a broad repertoire, and a delivery mechanism underrated due to the shadow cast on him by other greats of the day. We are fortunate, living in the late digital era, to have this testament of his work before us. Now a new generation of listeners can hear what many did a half-century ago with new ears developed in the period performance practice era.

Of the contents of this set, my favorites are the Haydn Symphony 22, Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite, the orchestrated Schumann Carnaval (which I had never heard before), both Resphigi suites -- Pines of Rome and Rossiniana -- Honneger's Pacific 231 and Frank Martin's Concerto for 7 Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra, an interesting, powerful and lively 20th century concerto. I agree with an earlier reviewer that said this set cherry picks certain pieces, teasing you with portions such as the Borodin Polovtsian Dances and Dukas La Peri selections. Still, there's enough here to satisfy both Ansermet enthusiasts and newcomers to the conductor."
Ansermet is Awesome, and...
Michael B. Richman | Portland, Maine USA | 02/21/2007
(3 out of 5 stars)

"Generally I am a big fan of the Original Masters box sets, but with this latest collection Decca/UNI has gone too far. Don't get me wrong there are some wonderful rare recordings on "Ernest Ansermet: Decca Recordings 1953-1967" -- Haydn's 22nd Symphony, Beethoven's 4th, Sibelius' 4th, Respighi's Fountains of Rome, an entire CD of Honegger performances, and even Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, a different version from the full account contained on Ansermet's Stravinsky box (Stravinsky: Ballets; Stage Works; Orchestral Works -- see my review). But way too much of the rest of this set is just repackaged previously available material. In fairness much of it has been out of print, or only available in Japan, but that won't do much to satisfy the serious collectors to whom this series is aimed, and who have gone to great lengths to track down those previous CD incarnations. What makes matters worse is the sampling is so far and wide that not only is the sequencing haphazard, but it is infuriating for those of us that have purchased other Ansermet titles in the past.

For example, reprised from his "Double Decca" Rimsky-Korsakov title (Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade for orchestra Op35; Russian Easter Festival Overture Op36), we get one lousy four minute selection, "Dubinushka." Why bother to include it? Just go buy the two-fer!!! They mention Ansermet's pioneering stereo recording of "Antar" in the liner notes, so why not include that here instead. The only other way to currently get the "Antar" is with an often reissued account of Scheherazade as a Decca Legend import (Rimsky-Korsakov: Scheherazade; Antar [Australia]), which no one buys because it duplicates their collections. Another example is the Debussy Six Epigraphes, which was recently reissued on Ernest Ansermet conducts Debussy, Dukas, Saint-Saëns (Orchestral Works) on the Testament label -- why include it? For that matter why tack on Borodin's Polovtsian Dances when they are already on his great CD Borodin: Polovtsian Dances/Symphony Nos.2 & 3? Why include another four minute track -- Stravinsky's Scherzo a la Russe -- when it is on the aforementioned Stravinsky box?

I could go on and on, but suffice it to say that the Delibes, Franck, Faure, Ravel, Martin and other Debussy selections have all been available elsewhere. Of course, since Decca/UNI has only picked a couple of tracks at most from those original titles, it's not like you can just discard or sell the old CDs you own, or burn the remaining selections you need. With so many other rare Ansermet recordings lingering in the vaults or only on expensive imports -- Beethoven, Berlioz, Bizet, Brahms, Lalo, Roussel, Schumann, etc. -- surely a more cohesive reissue strategy could have been applied by Decca/UNI. If you plan on eventually giving us the "Complete" Decca Ansermet recordings over time, through various OM volumes, all of my fussing is moot, however I seriously doubt that is in their marketing plans. Next time, instead of making us an expanded "Great Conductors of the Century" title or some sort of awkward "Greatest Hits" collection, concentrate on the rare performances that a connoisseur would want, and stick them all on one limited edition box, with fewer discs if necessary."
Remembering Ansermet in style
Santa Fe Listener | Santa Fe, NM USA | 02/28/2007
(4 out of 5 stars)

"Ernest Ansermet was one of Decca's most prolific artists, to whom they consigned dozens of Stravinsky works, the standard Russian repertoire, and all French music. We've been steadily getting reissues of this output, and here's the latest batch. Newcomers may be surprised at how good even the earliest sound is, but they should also expect less than virtuosic playing from the Suisse Romande orchestra; the lack in execution is made up for by the special tang of French winds and brass, a constant pleasure throughout.

CD 1: Ansermet conducted very good Bach and Brahms but is little known for that. Here we get a sampling of his skill in German music. The snippet of orchestral music from Bach's Cantata #31 is a prelude to a fresh, lively Haydn Sym. #22 "The Philosopher" (named for its sober opening Adagio) that's performed in the same gentle, loving style as Bruno Walter's Haydn. The same soft-grained approach applies to the Beethoven 4th Sym., but in this case the scrawniness of the string section compares badly with great German and American orchestras, and one also feels that Ansermet really should dig in more. But if you want a feminine reading of a symphony often called feminine by older critics, this is a fine one. This generous disc ends with three overtures many listeners won't already own: Weber's Ruler of the Spheres and Preciosa Over., plus the more familiar Mendelssohn Ruy Blas. The performances are lively to the point of brashness, and very enjoyable.

CD 2: This disc is Russian and Finnish. For many French conductors Russian music comes as second nature, and this is true for Ansermet. His suite of Polovtsian Dances from Borodin's Prince Igor is light, fast, and pointed. Rendering a pops staple with such detailed delicacy really refreshes it; Ansermet's version is worthy to stand beside Beecham's minor classic. In the same vein is Stravinsky's Pulcinella Suite, which as Mr. Richman points out, is different from the complete score performed by Ansermet on Decca's box set of his Stravinsky recordings. The stereo sound is rather narrow and thin, but this Pulcinella is a model of how to avoid heaviness and over-emphasis in this music. Nobody would expect the Sibelius Fourth to follow, nor is Ansermet noted for being a Sibelian. His reading is super-clear, lean, and light-textured. It works very well in this pastoral music, although for intensity and better execution one has to look elsewhere.

CD 3: From here on out the music is primarily French, the area of Ansermet's greatest renown. Decca has kindly provided some rarities to everybody but committed collectors. This disc starts out with pops chestnuts, however, including one excerpt each from Coppelia and Sylvia (why bother?) and then the more unusual Saint-Saens Chasseur Maudit tone poem. Given that the ballet snippets are sparkling, as always from this conductor, while the Saint-Saens lacks atmosphere and panache, the choice is dubious. After bits of Chabrier and Faure we arrive at a curiostiy, an orchestration under the title of Coquette (for ballet) of Schumann's Carnaval. Nobody plays these transcriptions anymore, but I msut confess to being delighted with this one, which is full of vivacity and sounds like Offenbach--you'd swear a can-can or two has been thrown in.

CD 4: When Faure's orchestral music gained a flurry of popularity in the Sixties, Ansermet led the way. This version of Masques et Bergamesques is all that anyone could desire. The mock-classic idiom isn't that far removed from Ravel's Tombeau de Couperin, music I usualy don't have much patience with--it sounds dainty and precious--but Ansermet's reading is winning in its directness. I was quite ready to leave wispy Gallic nostalgia behind, but next comes more of the same--Debussy's Petite Suite and other atmospheric bits from him. This disc was the first to lose my atention, even though on its own terms the musicmaking is expert, if not as charismatic as Beecham's way with trifles. The disc ends with a light, bright reading of Respighi's Fountains of Rome blessedly free of vulgarity.

CD 5: Honegger gained wide popularity with two religious oratorios, Joan of Arc at the Stake and this King David, even though both works have slipped out of the repertoire outside France. King David uses cinematic Orientalism and modal harmonies to describe ancient Jerusalem, a style that seems a bit cheap and slithery nowadays. But the combination of spoken narration, vocal soloists, and choruses, all in highly accessible music that never challenges the first-time listener, has its appeal. Ansermet's was one of the classic versions in stereo, and here it is, elegantly displaying Honegger's dramatic intentions. However, for me the total effect was like kindergarten Stravinsky.

CD 6: Dukas' admireres point to his opera La Peri as a minor masterpiece, and here we get a hint via the Fanfare and one dance, followed by a pops march from Rimsky's Dubinushka, a rare item for certain. More familiar is the suite of Rossini excerpts known as Rossiniana (antoher ballet), and I can't imagine anyone doing it with quite the same elegant polish of Ansermet. The recorded sound is extremely detailed in its transparency, which made it an early audiophile classic. Back to Stravinsky for a colorful but fairly leaden Scherzo a la russe, not a striking effort. But what follows is striking and perhaps the best thing in the set, Frank Martin's Concerto for 7 Wind Instruments, Percussion, and Strings, a nod to the orchestra's Swiss-ness. The playing is pointed and eager, and Ansermet conducts so well that the work is jsutified as being a minor masterpiece of Poulenc-inspired whimsical elegance.

What to say overall? This box set has no bad performances and many striking ones. I think judgment comes down to one's tastes in music. Mine don't tend toward ballet and French pops, or to Honegger's religious crossover style, so I'm not the best one to recommend what is in any case a very enjoyable listen from beginning to end.