Notes and Editorial Reviews
MOZART Symphony No. 41 in C, K 551. FALLA Nights in the Gardens of Spain.1 STRAVINSKY Capriccio2 • Ernest Ansermet, cond; Jacqueline Blancard, (pn);1 Igor Stravinsky, (pn);2 L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande; Walter Staram O2 • PROFIL PH04048 (67:11)
Everyone remembers the musician under the spotlight; but when the spotlight passes elsewhere, the details fade. Forty years ago, you would have been hard pressed to find a classical enthusiast who didn’t own or at least hear on radio performances regularly featuring the conductor, Ernest Ansermet, thanks to his extensive Decca recording contract. Today, mention Ansermet at a concert, and you’ll likely be met with a blank stare possibly followed by the question, “Didn’t he lead
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande?”
The Swiss conductor Ernest Ansermet (1883–1969) studied mathematics at the Sorbonne, while taking courses in music at the Paris Conservatory. He did become a professor of mathematics at Lausanne University, but continued his composition lessons with Ernest Bloch. Eventually, he decided to switch careers, and spent a year in Berlin, where he sought the advice of both Nikisch and Weingartner. Largely self-taught as a conductor, his success at the podium was such that within a few years he was offered the directorship of the Geneva Symphony. This in turn led to a personal friendship with Stravinsky, who was living in Switzerland at the time; and on Stravinsky’s recommendation, he became principal conductor for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. He led many premieres at that time: Falla’s El sombrero de tres picos, Satie’s Parade, Prokofiev’s Chout, and Stravinsky’s L’histoire du soldat among them.
In 1918, he formed L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva. This was to be Ansermet’s orchestra for nearly 50 years, until his retirement in 1966. From its podium, he conducted another series of premieres, including Britten’s Cantata misericordium and many compositions by his compatriots Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger. It’s fair to say that Ansermet was L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, for the ensemble has never recaptured the international luster it possessed during his period of leadership, despite a variety of recording opportunities.
The Mozart was recorded in 1942, at a time when the symphonies were still seen as part of a later, romantic period tradition, with slower tempos and monumentality in mind. This “Jupiter” Symphony, by contrast, is taken at a moderate clip: expansive without losing momentum in the opening allegro vivace, fast but not hectic in the ultimate molto allegro. The infectious swing of the minuet recalls Weingartner in the seeming inevitability of its tempo. The surprise here is the faster-than-average andante cantabile, clearly chosen to emphasize the architecture of the movement. This reissue spotlights Ansermet’s ability to display inner lines despite vintage sound, notably in the Michael Haydn-like finale. Walter Gellert’s liner notes perceptively point to the fact that Ansermet in Mozart sometimes sounds like Böhm; but I find this recording achieves a more refined, less massive approach, due in large part to an ability to create sharply differentiated levels of dynamics abruptly and without any transition. Böhm, as a rule, prefers gradated transitions—indeed, he was a master of this, as his version of the same symphony in 1941 (with the Staatskapelle Dresden; last on TIM 220822) shows.
Ansermet’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, also recorded in 1942, receives a wonderfully precise reading. He allows the work’s character to make its effect without intrusive dramatics or overly lush textures. This performance creates a vivid impression by the clarity of its detail, supple rhythms, and judiciously chosen tempos. The superficial glitter and velvet that typically draw attention away from the music are eschewed in favor of restrained gestures in “En el Generalife,” and a darkly brilliant palette in “Danza lejana.”
Though it’s not mentioned in the jewel box or liner notes, this is the premiere recording of the Capriccio, issued the year after its first performances in 1929. The Walter Staram Orchestra recorded and performed frequently in Paris during the 1930s, but presumably Ansermet secured a significant block of rehearsal time for this piece. He couldn’t have achieved the level of rhythmic discipline and textural balance demonstrated here with anything less, not in such a complex, newly composed piece. The conductor also achieves a near-miracle in getting the French classical musicians of the period to perform the final movement’s jazz syncopations with a degree of looseness. Stravinsky is cool and detached, and a bit under-miked.
There are no matrix numbers provided, but these three recordings with Ansermet give every evidence of commercial rather than private origins. The orchestras are generally forward and well recorded for the period, although the Stravinsky is boxy and lacking in resonance. Sound is understandably muddy, even by analog LP standards, but the sides sound relatively clean and lacking in the ticks, pops, and scratches that often pass for standard 78-rpm fare. A discreet measure of equalization has been applied to minimize hiss and tubbiness, but it also results in a slight dulling of the orchestral textures. Speeds have been corrected at side joins. All in all, this is a very enjoyable disc, and a reminder of one of the more distinctive conductors of the last century.
-- Barry Brenesal, Fanfare
Works on This Recording
Nights in the gardens of Spain by Manuel de Falla
Jacqueline Blancard (Piano)
Suisse Romande Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1911-1915; Spain
Capriccio for Piano and Orchestra by Igor Stravinsky
Igor Stravinsky (Piano)
Walter Staram Orchestra
Period: 20th Century
Written: 1928-1929; France
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