Notes and Editorial Reviews
We owe the huge number of Ansermet recordings to the days when Decca was headquartered in Geneva and run by Maurice Rosengarten, who was passionately dedicated both to this conductor and this orchestra, which was never anything special. Neither, to be frank, were most European orchestras in the 1950s, including the flagship ensembles in Vienna, Berlin, and London. All were rebuilding after the depredations of the war, and none held a candle to the major American orchestras, with their star conductors (Szell, Reiner, Walter, Toscanini) during the same period.
There were local exceptions: the Paris Conservatory Orchestra, the Czech Philharmonic (under Ancerl), and the Leningrad Philharmonic (under Mravinsky) all maintained
reasonably high standards throughout the immediate post-War period. That situation would soon change and the big name European ensembles would quickly rebound, but those who criticize the Suisse Romande Orchestra for its palpable failings should understand that it was by no means unusually poor by the standards of the day. And of course, Ansermet himself was a splendid conductor; there are no poor interpretations here, just some rough and ready playing.
Decca Japan issued a fourteen disc set of Ansermet’s French music discs some time ago, but this Italian Universal box contains thirty-two very full CDs, including two performance of Debussy’s Pelléas et Mélisande, but otherwise none of his Decca mono recordings, which is a pity. It would have been nice to have a truly complete set of Ansermet’s French music recordings, or even a truly complete Ansermet edition more generally, but there’s still an astonishingly rich range of music on offer and I doubt many collectors will be disappointed.
The principal value in Ansermet’s recordings, then as now, was the unusual breadth of repertoire on offer. In Debussy and Ravel, he dug more deeply into their catalogues than did other conductors. This means recordings of the late Debussy ballets (such as Khamma), and Ansermet’s own orchestration of the Six épigraphes antiques. You get the Ravel operas and other song cycles, including the benchmark recording of Shéhérazade, with Régine Crespin. Until very recently, Ansermet’s recording of Magnard’s Third Symphony was the only representation we had of that composer’s symphonic output, and it’s an excellent performance. Other rarities of the period, such as an entire disc of Lalo orchestral works, and Roussel’s Third and Fourth Symphonies and The Spider’s Feast, made this series of discs unusually interesting and appealing.
Ansermet was also a compelling advocate of Swiss music, and his pioneering recordings of Frank Martin and Arthur Honegger remain valuable today. His version of Honegger’s delicious Fourth Symphony was a revelatory moment for me as a young collector. No slouch in the standard French repertoire beyond Debussy and Ravel, his versions of the Symphonie fantastique, Saint-Saëns Organ Symphony, Frank Symphony in D minor, and the standard Fauré, Chabrier and Bizet chestnuts are all very respectable.
The sonics range from boxy/sceechy (Roussel), to very good in most of the material from the 60s. Yes, you can do better now in most of this music, but the interpretive value of Ansermet’s work hasn’t dimmed. In some ways he epitomized the French school: neat, precise, tasteful, but also colorful, rhythmically incisive, and uninhibited. This set will bring back some sweet memories to older collectors, and create some new ones in those unfamiliar with Ansermet’s work.
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