My first introduction to Claude Debussy’s music was the Decca Eclipse recording (ECS 515) of La Mer, the March Écossaise, the Nocturnes and the orchestral arrangement of Claire de lune. This version of La Mer had been recorded by L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande conducted by Ernest Ansermet in Geneva during 1951. It was first issued on Decca LXT 2632. (There was some confusion in The Gramophone magazine about the version used for the Decca Eclipse release, so I hope I have got the antecedent correct!)
I recall playing the work repeatedly marvelling at the strange (to me) sounds and ‘sensuous beauty’ of the score. At the time, I did not know that Ansermet had made an earlier recording, released on 78 rpm discs (AK1606-8) of La Mer with the same orchestra in 1948. In fact, he made four recordings in total of this work: 1948, 1951, 1957 and 1964.
La Mer was subtitled ‘Three Symphonic Sketches’ and was composed between 1903-5. The titles of the movements are ‘De l'aube à midi sur la mer’, ‘Jeux de vagues’ and ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’. Despite these colourful titles there is no specific programme, save to present the moods of the sea and skies throughout the day.
Often regarded as a masterpiece of impressionism, it is in fact a symphonic work where the movements are related by common themes and ideas. It is essential that La Mer is played from end to end and not excerpted into separate movements. In this recording, Ernest Ansermet discloses the poetic nature of the music, as well as creating a performance full of colour, light and sensitivity. This is not an exclusive quality to Ansermet, but there is a definite magic here that is often lacking in more modern versions.
The CD opens with an idiomatic performance of Ravel’s ‘Alborada del gracioso’ which is an orchestration by the composer of the fourth piece in the piano suite Miroirs (1904-05). It displays all the excitement of Spain, seen through the eyes of a Parisian. Although all five pieces of Miroirs were orchestrated by Ravel or others, I understand that the ‘Alborada’ is the only one to have been recorded by Ansermet.
La Valse is a strange work. It was first conceived by Ravel in the dark days of the First World War and was completed by 1920. To my ear, it is an often disturbing and sometimes even macabre ‘take’ on the birth, decay and destruction of ‘The Waltz’, with a clear allusion to the political situation at the time. Although the composer denied this interpretation, it is hard to agree with him that this work does not at times reveal a ‘dance of death.’
Ernest Ansermet’s 1947 Kingsway Hall recording of La Valse is always in kept in check: he does not allow himself to get carried away by the sheer exuberance of the piece. Clearly the sound quality is a little less perfect than the later 1963 version released by Decca (SXL 6065) yet the maxim that Ansermet stayed true to his interpretations holds good here.
Ansermet made three recordings of Ravel’s Shéhérazade for soprano and orchestra: 1948, 1954 and 1963. The first two featured the remarkable Belgian soprano Suzanne Danco; the last the mezzo-soprano Régine Crespin. Danco was renowned for her lightness of touch, her perfect diction and was regarded as a model interpreter of French music,
The present version was recorded on 28 May 1948 in Paris with Danco accompanied by the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. Sometimes criticised for the lack of warmth in her voice, this crystal-clear performance allows the listener to hear every syllable. It displays a perfect sensitivity to the words by Tristan Klingsor inspired by The Thousand and One Nights. Alas, the text/translation of these songs is not given in the liner notes.
I was amazed at the quality of the transfer from 78s of Debussy’s charming but uncharacteristic Petite Suite originally composed between 1886-89 as a piano duet. In 1907 it was arranged for orchestra by composer, organist and conductor, Henri Büsser. The movements are ‘En Bateau’, ‘Cortege’, ‘Menuet’ and ‘Ballet.’ Ansermet presents a truly idyllic performance of ‘En Bateau’, which is my favourite movement. ‘Cortege’ seems a little ‘light’ and hardly suggests a funeral procession. After the elegant ‘Menuet’, the Suite closes with a sprightly ‘Ballet.’ Ansermet’s 70-year-old reading sounds new-minted. It is a pleasure to listen to this delightful piece of early Debussy, and Busser’s sparkling arrangement of it.
For the record, Ernest Ansermet was born in Vevey, Switzerland on 11 November 1883. As a young man he was equally competent in mathematics as he was music. In fact, he became lecturer in maths at the University of Lausanne. His first position as conductor was at the Casino in Montreux. He personally knew Debussy and Ravel and discussed their music with them. In 1915 Ansermet took up the post of conductor for the Diaghilev Ballet. At this time, he became familiar with Igor Stravinsky’s music, which he championed throughout his career. He was Stravinsky’s own favourite interpreter of his music. In 1918, Ansermet formed his own orchestra, L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in Geneva. He conducted this orchestra until shortly before his death on 20 February 1969.
The re-mastering of this disc impressed me. It is difficult to believe that all these recordings are 70-odd years old. The liner notes present an overview of Ernest Ansermet, his relationship with the recording studio and a discussion of the present ‘Ravel and Debussy 78s’.
From a personal point of view, I will always turn to Ansermet’s 1951 recording of La Mer, as that was the one I first discovered. For a slightly more up-to-date version, I turn to Jean Martinon’s account dating from the early 1970s. Bearing in mind that there are 170 versions of La Mer in the catalogue, it is not possible to hear them all (unless one is a Debussy specialist).
So, what of this present disc? It is wonderful to hear Ansermet’s ‘take’ on these five works. Enthusiasts of this maestro will demand these re-mastering’s which are released on Decca for the first time. It has been a pleasure them.
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Alborada del gracioso (1904-5)
La Valse (1919-20)
Shéhérazade for soprano and orchestra (1904)
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)
La Mer (1903-5)
Petite Suite (1889) arr. Henri BÜSSER
Suzanne Danco (soprano), L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet (Alborada, La Mer); Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire/Ernest Ansermet (La Valse, Shéhérazade, Petite Suite)
Rec. Radio Studio, Geneva, 4 February 1947 (Alborada, La Mer); Kingsway Hall, London, UK, 6 October 1947 (La Valse); La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris, 28 May 1948 (Shéhérazade), 1 June 1948 (Petite Suite).
DECCA 482 5007
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.