Pinned post* (please keep checking-in for additions, which you’ll find in the first Comments box)
May 19, update for procuring replacement CDs: For UK residents ONLY with faulty Ansermet CDs, numbers 20 & 37, please email email@example.com for replacement copies. For anyone outside of the UK, you are advised to go back to your original point of purchase and request replacements from there.
May 1: The good news, https://www.colinscolumn.com/ansermet-update-release-date-for-deccas-box-of-all-his-stereo-recordings-is-now-april-28/, and there’s no bad…
My conversion to so-called classical music was immediate. Little old me, aged eleven (this was September 1969), in Room 17 (a grand piano dominant) of Erith Grammar School, music-teacher Mr Palmer (the organist at morning Assembly, and singer Felicity Palmer’s father) presiding. He put on an LP of Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of Animals (Decca, Skitch Henderson conducting the LSO) and I was hooked, and never looked back. I bought a few records at the time (okay, my father did) – serendipitous choices – Debussy/Munch, Prokofiev/Reiner, Mahler One/Giulini, Swan Lake/Rozhdestvensky, Schubert 9/Boult. And then, enter Ernest Ansermet, all those reissues on Decca’s World of the Great Classics series (£1.00 less a penny) – Debussy, Mendelssohn, Prokofiev, Ravel, Respighi, Tchaikovsky, et al, all discoveries – and although I had no idea who Ansermet was, those recordings, which sounded wonderful, really made a huge impression. And they hold their own – whether as SXL vinyl (expensive trades), on CD in Japan, or the Eloquence label, and now all of Ansermet’s Decca stereo releases collected in this big box, the eighty-plus CDs adorned with LP livery, and with the promise of the mono tapings also to come, already catalogued as Decca 485 1584.
Swiss-born Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) formed L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1918 and conducted it for fifty years, making numerous recordings along the way in the excellent acoustic of Victoria Hall in Geneva. (Ansermet’s successors have included Paul Kletzki, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Walter Weller, Horst Stein, Marek Janowski, Neeme Järvi, and currently Jonathan Nott.)
The best way to approach this set, I thought, was to ‘lucky dip’; whatever I grabbed I would play. Beethoven’s Overture to Egmont proved a compelling start – weighty, and distinctive, especially in woodwinds and basses, with a thrilling coda; and then Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (Ansermet recorded all Nine, all are here), powerful and exciting, lyrically alluring, flexibly paced; none of your metronomically rigid and vacuously fast renditions. Allowing that I may not have heard this vibrant performance/recording before, it certainly leaves a big impression now, played with blazing commitment. To be honest, I was bowled over – a magnificent start to my Ansermet sessions.
Where next my wandering hand? To Bizet. Music from Carmen, for L’Arlésienne and La Jolie Fille de Perth, as well as the Patrie Overture, Jeux d’enfants, and the always-welcome Symphony in C. The latter is a little plodding, but the rest are vivacious examples of the characterful SRO at-one with its maestro’s individual but not interventionist wishes – tempos that serve the music articulately – and this 2-CD Bizet bundle is completed by Ravel’s Tombeau de Couperin and Tzigane with Ruggiero Ricci relishing the gypsy-style violin writing, and he is also heard in Prokofiev’s two Violin Concertos.
I next strayed to “French Overtures”, a delicious selection of fancies from the original LP supplemented by other works that fit the bill, all brought off with style; add in impassioned for a dramatic example by Lalo. Ansermet didn’t only record with the SRO as an RCA Victor release entitled The Royal Ballet Gala Performances shows, with the Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, a collection of terpsichorean treats, including from Tchaikovsky’s triptych, on two CDs in superb sound. Compare that with the bleak and black world of Sibelius’s Fourth Symphony, which Ansermet views uncompromisingly (using bells rather than glockenspiel in the Finale, rightly so despite the composer’s preference for the latter instrument), pertinently coupled with Rachmaninov’s Isle of the Dead, Paris Conservatoire Orchestra, part of a twofer that also includes SRO tapings of Sibelius’s Second Symphony and Tapiola.
Now, a change of tack … what else did Ansermet record in stereo? Much. Such as J. S. Bach Suites and Cantatas (distinguished singers in the latter), Symphonies by Haydn, including the ‘Paris’ set (82-87), Beethoven’s Nine and Brahms’s Four (including a personable Second, with first-movement exposition repeat) and German Requiem, Chausson, Franck, Magnard (the latter’s Third, Ansermet’s final recording), Honegger and Roussel, Berlioz’s fantastique (plus rehearsal), Liszt’s Faust, Saint-Saëns Third (“avec orgue”), Schumann’s Second…
Also, Tchaikovsky Suites & Ballets, Weber Overtures, Wagner chunks, wonderful collections of Chabrier and Fauré, and not forgetting a complete Delibes Coppélia, Dukas’s Sorcerer, Glazunov’s Seasons, Respighi’s Pines & Fountains, and Falla’s Three-cornered Hat.
There are also the composers that Ansermet is regarded as being among the finest interpreters, such as Debussy – including Pelléas et Mélisande, La mer (twice) – Ravel, including Daphnis complete & Suite II, L’enfant et les sortilèges, Mother Goose (without interludes), Shéhérazade (twice; Crespin; Danco) – and Stravinsky – Firebird complete (twice, Geneva and London, New Philharmonia, plus rehearsal), Petrushka (1911 original), Rite, Pulcinella (complete & Suite), Symphonies (in C; in Three Movements; of Wind Instruments; of Psalms), The Fairy’s Kiss (complete & Divertimento) – and not forgetting Bartók, Prokofiev, and Ansermet’s fellow countryman Frank Martin.
(Anything missing from the above is probably mono and can be expected in that release.)
During Ansermet’s time the SRO was never a super-virtuoso ensemble, but it did consist of accomplished and willing musicians who knew exactly what Ansermet wanted and they delivered it with charisma and distinction, the conductor himself analytical but not antiseptic, with heart and soul, creating music-making the very opposite of slick and homogenous that is unfailingly alive, living and breathing, supple – as moreish now as back then.
This was no teenage infatuation of mine, for, despite exposure to so many other interpretations of so much repertoire at concerts or through other recordings, Ansermet’s artistry is undimmed and is proving to be a lifetime’s association – a great conductor and a series of recordings that in many cases remain touchstones. I was very fortunate back then – and remain so: this is absorbing and illuminating music-making for the duration, with annotation that is excellent.
I would like to dedicate this post to the late Paul Westcott. Paul was an avid Ansermet admirer, and although he no doubt had all these recordings (rarely if ever out of the catalogue one way or another) he would have loved this set, and so do I. Decca 485 1583 (88 CDs) – which became available on April 28 or, according to one mail-order website, is due on May 5, or another, May 26 – does exist, and has so much to offer. I may post occasional updates on listening activities*.
Choeur de la Radio Suisse Romande
Choeur Pro Arte de Lausanne
Regarding the Debussy La mer, Mr Hurwitz doesn’t say if it’s Ansermet’s 1957 or 1964 recording. Both excellent.