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Stravinsky - Ansermet: First Decca Recordings

Ansermet,Ernest
Release Date: 03/27/2012 
Label:  Eloquence   Catalog #: 4803775  
Composer:  Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Hugues CuénodMichel SénéchalHeinz RehfussXavier Depraz,   ... 
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande OrchestraBrassus ChoraleLondon Philharmonic Orchestra,   ... 
Number of Discs: 4 
Recorded in: Mono & Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews



STRAVINSKY—ANSERMET: THE FIRST DECCA RECORDINGS Ernest Ansermet, cond; Suisse Romande O; London PO; 1 London PCh 1 ELOQUENCE 480 3775 (4 CDs: 286:24)


CD 1: Petrushka (rec. 1949). Le Sacre du printemps. Circus Polka


CD 2: The Firebird: Read more class="ARIAL12">Suite (rec. 1950). Le Baiser de la fée: Divertimento (rec. 1951). Renard


CD 3: Oedipus Rex. Le Baiser de la fée: Divertimento (rec. 1962)


1 CD 4: Petrushka (rec.1946). The Firebird: Suite (rec. 1946). Symphony of Psalms


Ernest Ansermet and Igor Stravinsky were close friends for many years, before a slight disagreement drove a wedge between the two egotistical, high-strung artists. Fanfare ’s Richard A. Kaplan details the ups and downs of their relationship in his extensive notes to this set. Ansermet was the most faithful and consistent proponent of Stravinsky’s early music, with more premieres, performances, and recordings than even Pierre Monteux. The composer was most appreciative, but he did not like Ansermet’s soft, romantic way with his music. Yet their beauty increased Stravinsky’s popularity, whereas his own recordings—hard-driven and scrappy—pleased neither the critics nor the public. Only in 1940, with his classic New York Philharmonic recording of Le Sacre du printemps , did the composer finally succeed as conductor and interpreter of his own works. Ansermet and Stravinsky remain at opposite poles of (high-quality) performances of all his music. Decca has previously released most of Ansermet’s stereo Stravinsky, most notably in an eight-CD box, Stravinsky: Ballets, Stage Works, Orchestral Works , in 2002. Leave it to the enterprising Australian label Eloquence to bring us these earlier recordings, most of them in fine monaural sound.


In the spring of 1950, I was still learning the classical repertoire; “the moderns” to me meant, as we spelled them then, Prokofieff, Shostakovich, and Khatchaturian. In my local record store, I saw a new LP, London LL-130, with a spectacularly beautiful red cover. I bought it just for that cover, and was thus introduced to Stravinsky and to Petrushka , which soon became, and remains, my second-favorite piece. (The “Eroica,” since you ask.) The music was fascinating, the recorded sound better than any I had ever heard. When some critics claimed that the 78s of the 1946 recording were even better, I put it down to the “old favorites are the best” syndrome, and—in my youthful arrogance—never listened to the earlier recording. Until now, that is; those critics were right! Not only was the London Philharmonic a more solid ensemble than the Suisse Romande Orchestra (henceforth OSR), but the acoustics of Kingsway Hall were even lovelier than those of Geneva’s overly bright Victoria Hall. Sixty years too late, I hereby nominate that 1946 Petrushka as the most beautiful recording on 78s. Both are of the full 1911 score. While the performances are similar, there are a few rushed moments in 1946—noticeable, perhaps, only to one who grew up with the 1949—which bring it a bit closer to the composer’s views. Eloquence seems to have access to the best sources, including Decca masters, and the transfers here are excellent. A most knowledgeable friend thinks that the 1946 Petrushka was taken from shellac 78s; it sounds ideal to me. The 1949 recording has a slightly glassy string sound typical of early Decca ffrr recordings, but my near-mint LL-130 (an English-pressed replacement copy) has more realistic strings.


In 1951, I eagerly snapped up Ansermet’s new London LP of Le Sacre , and was much disappointed. By then I knew Stravinsky’s New York recording, and the OSR was not up to the task, failing to realize the power of the score; perhaps it was lack of experience (the Philharmonic had played Le Sacre 13 times, under four conductors, before they recorded it) rather than pure chops, as the OSR’s later stereo recording was much better played. Nevertheless, it is welcome here for its historical value. As is a humorless and sloppily played Circus Polka , which is thoroughly outshone by Stravinsky’s 1945 recording, again with the New Yorkers.


The Firebird was always Ansermet’s baby (and Stokowski’s, who recorded the suite seven or eight times). Both performances of the suite (the first a conglomerate of 1910 and 1919, the second pure 1919) are marvelous, and his 1955 stereo recording of the complete ballet with the OSR and his 1968 one with the New Philharmonia (neither in this set) remain many listeners’ preferred recordings. In the suite, the relaxed warmth of the OSR is preferable to the crisp playing of the London Philharmonic (in the notes, Kaplan disagrees). The earlier version does include an extra number, The Princesses’ Game with the Golden Apples , tacked on as sixth-side filler of the 78-rpm album. It sounds out of place coming after the finale; Eloquence might have inserted it in its proper place in the ballet, but I suppose preserving the original recordings was deemed more important. This time it is clear that the transfer came from 78s; one can hear both surface noise and a small scratch, but neither is intrusive.


The two recordings of the Divertimento from Le Baiser de la fée have complementing problems: The 1951 mono recording has some off-pitch trombone playing; the 1962 stereo is an improvement, and its gossamer recorded sound is just perfect for the piece, but the playing is less focused, and distant miking leaves many details submerged in the ambience. There are occasional brass clams in both performances. Nevertheless, Ansermet’s airy touch with this lovely score is eminently right , making Stravinsky’s own performances seem pedestrian by comparison. The monaural recording sounds a bit harsher in this excellent digital transfer than on the smooth original LP, but one certainly hears more of the orchestra; one’s preference may be influenced by past experience. The Swiss conductor’s complete Le Baiser is in the aforementioned eight-CD set.


Ansermet’s Renard , recorded in October 1955, is wonderfully bright and witty. Singing in French, the tenors are Michel Sénéchal and Hugues Cuenod, the baritone Heinz Rehfuss, and the bass Xavier Depraz; Istvan Arato plays the solo cimbalom. The OSR has never been more incisive or more colorful. The transfer comes from a rare stereo London LP—Decca seems to have lost its stereo masters—and is a marvel of clarity.


Oedipus Rex , recorded only three months earlier, is monaural, although Kaplan tells us that it was recorded in stereo. Apparently the monaural LP did not sell, so no stereo one was issued, and the multichannel masters have been lost. The playing and the singing are in no way comparable to that in Renard , and the recording is far from Decca’s best. For the record, the cast is Ernest Haefliger (Oedipus), Hélène Bouvier (Jocasta), James Loomis (Créon and the Messenger), André Vessières (Tiresias), and Hugues Cuénod (the Shepherd). Paul Pasquier is the narrator, joined by the Brassus Choral Society. Haefliger sings decently, but Bouvier is very weak, and little drama emerges from the disc. Track 14, Trivium , is a mess of confused ensemble. I never knew the LP, so I cannot evaluate the transfer, but the final verdict is: a disaster. Judging from the Stravinsky works that Ansermet conducted—and those that he did not— Oedipus would seem to have been outside his sphere.


Symphony of Psalms rounds out the set. Even though he conducted the 1930 premiere, it is another instance of Ansermet not getting the late Stravinsky—or at least of his not realizing the full power of this masterpiece. Slow tempos, soft attacks, and a lazy chorus weaken this performance; I can’t remember if Ansermet’s stereo remake (in the eight-CD Box) was any better.


The 28-page booklet has no texts, which is OK because these won’t be your only recordings (unfortunately, the current 22-CD edition of Stravinsky’s recordings doesn’t have them, either). In addition to Kaplan’s excellent notes, seven album covers get full-page presentations, some from English Decca LPs, others from London, Decca’s American label. Unfortunately, LL-130 is not pictured, and the cover of English LXT 5425 lacks equal panache. A photo of an elderly Ansermet faces one of a young Stravinsky. A few tracks in Oedipus Rex have wildly incorrect timing listings. Despite being an import from Australia, this four-CD set is currently selling for $27.88 on Amazon, a bargain if ever there was one.


A wonderful set, with enough goodies to earn a hearty recommendation, for happy listening as well as for its contributions to the historical record.


FANFARE: James H. North
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Works on This Recording

1.
Pétrouchka by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: Switzerland 
Date of Recording: 11/1949 
Notes: 1911 version. 
2.
Le sacre du printemps by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1911-1913 
Date of Recording: 10/1950 
3.
Circus Polka by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1942; USA 
Date of Recording: 03/1951 
4.
Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1919/1945;   
Date of Recording: 10/1950 
5.
Le baiser de la fée: Divertimento for Orchestra by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; France 
Date of Recording: 03/1951 
6.
Renard by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Hugues Cuénod (Tenor), Michel Sénéchal (Tenor), Heinz Rehfuss (Bass Baritone),
Xavier Depraz (Bass), Istvan Arato (Cimbalom)
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1915-1916; Switzerland 
Date of Recording: 10/1955 
7.
Oedipus rex by Igor Stravinsky
Performer:  Hugues Cuénod (Tenor), James Loomis (Bass), Ernst Haefliger (Tenor),
Hélène Bouvier (Alto), André Vessieres (Bass), Paul Pasquier (Spoken Vocals)
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra,  Brassus Chorale
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1926-1927; France 
Date of Recording: 05/1955 
8.
Le baiser de la fée: Divertimento for Orchestra by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1934; France 
Date of Recording: 05/1962 
9.
Pétrouchka by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: Switzerland 
Date of Recording: 02/1946 
Notes: 1911 version. 
10.
Firebird Suite by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1919/1945;   
Date of Recording: 12/10/1946 
11.
Symphony of Psalms by Igor Stravinsky
Conductor:  Ernest Ansermet
Orchestra/Ensemble:  London Philharmonic Orchestra,  London Philharmonic Chorus
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1930/1948; France 
Date of Recording: 10/1947 

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