Ernest Ansermet's recording with his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande of Chabrier's Joyeuse Marche s a desert island track of mine: the precise brio instantly puts one in a jolly mood, the perfect curtainraiser to any concert of recorded music. His complete Delibes Coppélia was my top choice on BBC Radio 3's Building a Library. But I hadn't listened widely to the non-French repertoire in his 314 Decca recordings. Preparing for a Proms Plus homage on Thursday afternoon, I found myself constantly taken aback by the freshness, the combination of firm rhythmic definition and freedom, in classical and romantic works. Not what one would expect from a Professor of Mathematics, but Ansermet was anything but rigid in his logic as an interpreter.
In the end a brief digression on that subject got edited out for the interval broadcast, which you can hear about 58 minutes into the Prom as available for a while on the BBC iPlayer (and I recommend it all). Listeners had just heard Debussy and Ravel, and were about to hear Stravinsky's Petrushka, so that remained the brief. But how I would love to have illustrated the perfect gait and spareness of the first movement in Ansermet's recording of Haydn's Symphony No. 22, 'The Philosopher'. In a fascinating documentary made during a rehearsal you can see here,
Ansermet says every Haydn symphony should be respected for its unique character, that there is so much more beyond the basic classical forms. The focused power of his Beethoven Fifth, Seventh and Ninth is also surprising. The studio performance of the Seventh's finale is one of the glories of the recording world; I haven't had time yet to watch the whole of the below film, but it's another of those unanticipated pleasures that YouTube constantly gives us.
Many sound files only reached me from Universal - which holds the Decca legacy but can't, it seems, get hold of it so easily - just as I was about to set out for Imperial College on Thursday afternoon, but the listening will go on. One of the tracks I did get to excerpt especially impressed our players - the second of the Valses Nobles et Sentimentales, silky but clear, with the necessary acidic jabs of pain. Here, also wonder of wonders, is a film of him conducting the OSR in La Valse.
The players weren't so fond of the Petrushka excerpt I chose - from the later, 1957 stereo version rather than the feted 1949 recording. A bit messy, yes, but so spirited.
I'd like to have included the white heat of Tchaikovsky's Pathétique Finale - like the Beethoven, one of the best interpretations I've ever heard of a very familiar work - and more of Ansermet's perfect sympathy with dance music.
The relationship with Stravinsky (Ansermet pictured below with him and Prokofiev) is fascinating. It ran smoothly from the early days of the Ballets Russes - Ansermet took over from Monteux, called up for active service in 1915 - until 1938, when they fell out over a cut Ansermet insisted upon in the ballet Jeu de cartes. Much of the correspondence in Craft's Volume One selection is businesslike, but there's a touching commendation from Stravinky in 1919, after an OSR rehearsal of the new Firebird Suite, of how well Ansermet understands contemporary music, in that he doesn't approach it differently from 'music of the past'.
Schoenberg and his system Ansermet did not, would not, understand, and it's shocking to read in his huge study of musical aesthetics how he links the aridity with the 'Jewish question'. And that was in 1961! Still, I found that the Hannah Arendt Institute was promoting a conference on the holistic approach to music we find in Ansermet's magnum opus. A nicer way to end is to quote his fundamental tenet:
It is easy for a conductor to fill a musical phrase with feeling, because one can do more or less what one wants with a musical phrase. In any case, it is easier to do than to find the correct feeling, the one that puts the phrase in its context and takes account of its contribution to the piece as a whole...It is the interpreter's job to assimilate as much as possible the feeling which the composer turned into music, and to express it in such a way that the listener can hear it in terms of melody, harmony, rhythm and tempo. I have made my choice. First I imagine the musically sensitive listener. Thus I have faith in the listener, just as I have faith in the music, and the two things hang together. My idea is that the listener is able to understand and so all I need to do, in so far as I am able, is to let the music speak, without recourse to the sort of effects that one can always produce, but at the expense of the truth.