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Britten: Les Illuminations; War Requiem; Berg: Sieben Fruhe Lieder

Britten / Orch De La Suisse Romande / Ansermet
Release Date: 07/13/2010 
Label:  Cascavelle   Catalog #: 3125   Spars Code: n/a 
Composer:  Benjamin BrittenAlban Berg
Performer:  Heather HarperPeter PearsThomas HemsleySuzanne Danco,   ... 
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande OrchestraSuisse Romande Radio ChorusPro Arte Chorus
Number of Discs: 2 
Recorded in: Stereo 
Length: 1 Hours 55 Mins. 

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Notes and Editorial Reviews

BRITTEN Les illuminations. 1 War Requiem 2. BERG 7 Early Songs 3 Ernest Ansermet, cond; 1 Suzanne Danco, 2 Heather Harper, 3 Chloé Owen (sop); 2 Peter Pears (ten); Read more class="SUPER12">2 Thomas Hemsley (bar); 2 Suisse Romande R Ch; 2 Pro Arte Ch; Suisse Romande O CASCAVELLE 3125, mono (2 CDs: 114:49) Live: Geneva 1 12/17/1953; 2 4/26/1967; 3 11/5/1959

To the best of my knowledge, only three conductors in the last century had orchestras created by either an arts council and/or a radio station expressly for them: Ansermet’s Suisse Romande, Toscanini’s NBC Symphony, and Fricsay’s RIAS Orchestra. (Beecham founded three orchestras, but all eventually had other music directors, and none of them stopped functioning once he left.) Of these, the Suisse Romande was the most phenomenal, as it was the highly trained servant of one of the world’s most distinguished and respected conductors. Growing up, my impression of Ansermet was of a somewhat remote figure who made some excellent recordings of French repertoire, the best stereo version of The Nutcracker until Richard Bonynge’s recording in the early 1970s, and some quirky but fascinating Beethoven symphony performances. I didn’t know at the time that he was once one of Toscanini’s favorite guest conductors at NBC, nor that Toscanini fought NBC when it wanted to drop Ansermet because his style wasn’t like the Maestro’s. Toscanini said that, although Ansermet’s style was different from his, it was musically valid and he respected it. Indeed, in later years he made no secret that he thought Ansermet’s recording of Ravel’s La Valse superior to his own.

Thus I was stunned, and excited, to see this release come along. Ansermet conducting Britten and Berg? This I had to hear. Being signed to the same label as Britten himself (Decca), Ansermet had no opportunity to record anything by the British composer, and I was curious to hear what he did with the music.

I was not disappointed. As I mentioned in my book, Spinning the Record, the subtle and powerful effect recordings have had on the way we listen to music is nowhere more profound or influential than in the War Requiem. All you young conductors who think your performances are hot stuff because they sound just like Britten’s own—listen to what Ansermet does in these two works, the more lilting waltz rhythm in Les Illuminations, the dozens of individual touches in the War Requiem, and you’ll understand why this man was considered one of the great geniuses of the podium. Despite the fact that all three performances are in mono, even the War Requiem from 1967, the sound quality is spacious and Ansermet does his best to recapture the muffled strings and distant, haunting choral singing in Britten’s original recording.

My only small complaint is that I feel the strings in Les Illuminations sound a bit shrill and edgy, but Danco’s voice soars out in the spacious hall sonics to thrilling effect, and of course her French is impeccable. Harper and Pears are in excellent voice for the War Requiem and, although baritone Hemsley doesn’t have the same talent for word-painting as Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, he does an excellent job in his own right. Ansermet contributes to the other-worldliness of this piece by occasionally smearing the string sound and pacing the music very differently in places than Britten did.

Yet perhaps more than the Britten, I was curious to hear how Ansermet conducted the early Berg songs. Again, his imaginative sound-painting makes these pieces even more lyrical than I had remembered them. Chloé Owen, an American soprano who died recently (May 2010) at age 91, had a somewhat odd voice, a bit infirm and fluttery in the midrange, soaring and solid in the upper, yet she sings these pieces with both sensitivity and excitement.

This may be the most interesting and valuable of all Ansermet issues so far. I know it’ll have a permanent place on my shelves.

FANFARE: Lynn René Bayley
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Works on This Recording

Les illuminations, Op. 18 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Heather Harper (), Peter Pears (), Thomas Hemsley (),
Suzanne Danco ()
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1939; USA 
Date of Recording: 12/17/1953 
Venue:  Live  RSR Genève 
Length: 18 Minutes 19 Secs. 
War Requiem, Op. 66 by Benjamin Britten
Performer:  Heather Harper (), Peter Pears (), Thomas Hemsley ()
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra,  Suisse Romande Radio Chorus,  Pro Arte Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1961; England 
Date of Recording: 04/26/1967 
Venue:  Live  RSR Genève 
Length: 74 Minutes 16 Secs. 
Early Songs (7) by Alban Berg
Performer:  Chloe Owen (), Heather Harper (), Peter Pears (),
Thomas Hemsley ()
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1905-1908; Austria 
Date of Recording: 11/05/1959 
Venue:  Live  RSR Genève 
Length: 15 Minutes 17 Secs. 

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