Saturday, 18 August 2018

Ansermania



Ernest Ansermet's recording with his Orchestre de la Suisse Romande of Chabrier's Joyeuse Marche is 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! I won't sully the entry with quotations (and there's a still worse one in an earlier article on how Schnabel played like a Jewish banker). 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.

22 comments:

JohnG said...

Glad that you mentioned Ansermet's Haydn, David; my first contact with the 'Paris' symphonies was via the Decca Australian Eloquence reissue - great series, usually great covers (very striking bear from the original LP of Symphony 82 on the cover here!). Good Tchaikovsky ballets, I seem to remember, too, and useful forays into what must have been pretty niche Russian repertoire in the day - Glazunov, Lyadov, Balakirev, etc. Have you had much contact with Ansermet's Brahms? (I have the set of symphonies but haven't actually listened to it). Likewise, must revisit the Sibelius 4th... Thanks for reminding us.

David said...

I must mine the Eloquence series (which, all too typically, Universal didn't have to hand). Just re-listening to the Coppelia, which for lively articulation may be THE best complete recording of a ballet score. Before that, a very clear if not quite white-heat Symphonie Fantastique, demonstration-quality Fountains of Rome (the power of the Trevi!). Have Brahms Three and Sibelius Four on file to listen to soon. Though I have a dim memory that the Sibelius was among my Building a Library speciments when I did the programme on the Fourth, and that it didn't do too well. I'll avoid looking back and listen to it again.

Eloquence has just reissued two CDs of Frank Martin works recorded by Ansermet. That collection should yield some treasures.

JohnG said...

If you'll forgive a plug - I hasten to add I've no financial interest - Buywell in Australia has in the past been pretty wonderful (I've found good value, efficient) in supplying these Decca Australian Eloquence issues. They even have a 'Decca Ansermet Legacy' section, so that's very apposite to your post, David. Worth exploring.

David said...

I shall, though with some trepidation, for there may be a murder here if more CDs are admitted to the flat. Even when I go to the CD and Record Exchange to flog some off, I still come back with some in part-exchange. And now I shall be on the lookout for first-edition Ansermet LPs - there are some wacky covers...

JohnG said...

We are in a not dissimilar fix, I think, David... And is it cruel of me to point out that a fair few Decca Australian Eloquence reissues feature, either on the cover or within the liner notes, reproductions of the original LP covers? The recorded classical music industry, such as it is, has gone for the Achilles' heel with all these original jacket reissues...

David said...

Yes, your fellow anorak certainly has an Achilles' heel when it comes to nostalgia packaging (though I should hasten to add that most of the Ansermet originals came out well before my collecting mania started). Though we agree that reproduction CD size is nothing compared to the joy of finding near-mint LPs in second-hand shops. And my relatively new turntable reproduces such warm and beautiful analogue sound - when the cracks and pops and jumps don't get in the way (I need to remember the frustrations I used to have with imperfect pressings...)

Can I confess my prized purchase recently? A not at all expensive box of the Solti Rosenkavalier in perfect condition with what has to be the best LP opera booklet of all time (all those original Roller designs in colour...)? No CD presentation can come close.

JohnG said...

Sounds wonderful, David... Not sure that the Solti Salome, with its Nilsson cover, might not though be a bit frightening on LP!

There's definitely something about recorded music as physical artefact which has an appeal over the download (at any rate to me and others I know). Over to the psychologists on that one perhaps...

David said...

More comical than frightening, that one, JG. When Decca reissued the Salome on CD, Birgit was replaced with the usual Moreau. I saw a priceless cover the other day (though I resisted buying the LP, good though I'm sure it is): Geraint Evans masticating unpleasantly as (I presume) Leporello.

Of course as one dependent for some of his income on 'liner notes', I shall always prefer the physical object. And there are still companies producing beautiful products, like Alpha for instance.

David Damant said...

Adolf Hitler had an introduction to Roller ( before WW1). But each time he tried to call on the great man he ( Hitler) panicked and ran away before a meeting. Had he managed to see Roller and been taken on, who knows how history would have evolved ?

David said...

Lord, though, do you have to bring Hitler into it? Very tangential, that one. But don't let Ansermet's anti-semitism put you off listening to his art. I always live in hope that someone will react to the clips...

Paul Cannon said...

That 'Rosenkavalier' set-cor! lucky you!

David Damant said...

OK then, I will make a remark on the music. You write " ....the freshness, the combination of firm, rhythmic definition and freedom.....not what one would expect from a professor of mathematics, but Ansermet was anything but rigid in his logic as an interpreter." In fact this is exactly what one would expect from a professor of mathematics. The closeness - even the unity - of mathematical thinking to music ( Bach especially) is constantly mentioned by mathematicians ( especially the greatest ones). And mathematics is uncertain, not rigid, as shown by Goedel ( but to explain Goedel really would be tangential)

David said...

Well, purely mathematical thinking in composition is fatal, IMO. Let's just say that you can certainly be feeling as a mathematician, but the emotion that has to come into composing and conducting is far removed from mathematics. In my musical studies, I was full of feeling but lousy at the maths (had to take my O-level three times, eventually passed) and hence hated the theory.

And Paul - yes, indeed, I think I was lucky: good second-hand-but-as-new vinyl is available on Discogs. In the Music Exchange I saw the box going cheap but then I read - no booklet. Like gold dust? I don't know. Decca must have made and sold quite a few copies.

David Damant said...

I will persist in my point..........The feelings in at least the higher reaches of mathematics ( probably a bit higher than O levels ) are frequently compared with Bach ( especially). I will see if I can dig out some references.

David said...

What I'm talking about is the fusion of personal feeling with the higher mathematics. That you find in Bach also - subjective personality especially in some of the cantatas.

Jan said...

Mathematical thinking is very creative, free, full of fantasy... The orderly FORM in which the results are usually presented is something slightly different.

One also should not confuse the school arithmetic...etc with mathematics.

David said...

And full of subjective feeling too? There's the rub, surely.

Jan said...

It depends on what you call 'subjective feeling'.

Good mathematics (mathematical thinking) has (may have) its internal beauty which may overwhelm you when you 'capture' it through your intuition.

Geo. said...

Quite late contribution to this thread on EA, where I meant to mention that here in STL, one of the DJ's on the local low-power classical station likes to air his share of Ansermet recordings, in particular "The Three-Cornered Hat" and "Pictures at an Exhibition", which I'll hear with some regularity in the car when he does his show. I don't know if he knows about Ansermet's icky pronouncements that you noted, unless he can compartmentalize the recording artist from the person. This puts me somewhat in mind of T.S. Eliot, who was also known for similar icky sentiments in print and in his writings, but apparently as a person in one-on-one dealings, didn't translate those icky sentiments into harmful action against people. I don't know Ansermet's bio, but I would hope that this was the case, i.e. that icky prejudices didn't translate into actual physical harm against those folks.

BTW, going off-topic; I did find your reply about Oramo and the BBC SO, in the context of our separate discussion about Nott and the OSR. I'm glad that Oramo's relationship with the BBC SO is still going strong. Hopefully it will continue for a good while, as I understand that his contract with the BBC SO is up in 2 years. We're up for a changing of the guard here, with Deneve set to take up the SLSO music directorship next season.

(Sorry if there's any duplication, as I'm having trouble submitting this comment. Feel free to delete any replicates.)

David said...

And Wagner too, on a bigger scale... What does impress me is the number of women in the OSR from the start (and he founded it, of course).

Deneve is wonderful. I've missed him ever since he left the RSNO. Another fun person to talk to, and much liked by players, I think. Shall never forget his Berlioz Symphonie fantastique, and his CD of Poulenc's Les Biches and the Stabat Mater is a total winner.

Susan said...

I’ve only just got round to coming back to your Ansermet post, starting with a listen to the Chabrier, and joyous it is, indeed! I searched around, but could not find, an Ansermet recording of Valses nobles et sentimentales, but have so far struck out. Time for a trip to the Academy Records CD bins! Meanwhile, this morning, I ran across a compendium of favorites/first loves of various musicians and composers, and there was Ansermet, again, via Julia Bullock, who wrote: “This album was my introduction to classical music, and the brilliance of the human voice.

Ravel’s ‘Shéhérazade’: ‘L’Indifférent’
Régine Crespin, singer, with Ernest Ansermet and the Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Decca)

This, I did find, and it is utterly lovely.

David said...

Timely, Sue, because I'm soon to post again on listening to more Ansermet recordings, and how those led me to discover the wonderful soprano Suzanne Danco. One of whose recordings with him is Sheherazade. And I was thinking, though the meaning is superb, probably the classic Crespin is more sensual - must get to hear that again. Little thinking that she, too, recorded it with Ansermet...

It's always good to know of musicians' first loves.