Tag Archives: Ansermet

A Little Bit of Borodin Goes a Long Way

Mighty Five aside, not much at all exists in the catalogue for poor old Borodin, especially on vinyl. Of course the perennial favorite for pops purposes is Prince Igor, and The Steppes of Central Asiawhich is tuneful enough but really exhausts all it has to say in about four bars (although Ravel made that work). I’m sure there an no end of acceptable versions of it out there, but my own, C8B3B5B8-9314-4DF7-AC92-943528D2D45B_1_201_aby coincidence, really, is Solti’s from his audiophile favorite “Romantic Russia” which has gotten every remastered/reissue treatment in the book. I’ve never actually heard the SXL or even any of the Deccas, but for years was entirely happy with the London 1ED, which I mainly had for the rousing and really unparalleled Russlan and Ludmilla — say what you will about Reiner’s, but he always strikes mePletnev as cold and uninteresting. I’ve head “Festival” in a 1S and it doesn’t change a thing. The orchestra and direction are just antiseptic, period. Solti’s not a favorite of mine either — he’s always racing! — but it certainly works in Russlan (though Plentev does a great version on CD, the RNO’s debut album from 1994). Can’t find it on YouTube, which is odd, perhaps Putin’s trolls got ride of his stuff because he’s not a lackey like Gergiev. But that’s another story. One of the very few MFSLs I own is Romantic Russia, and the Steppes on there is fine, with sound truly as clear as day and not the standard CD-pressed-onto-vinyl that I get my grumpy ears detect with most so-called audiophile reissues.

As for Borodin’s Symphonies, the Second is the one of any real note, and has for ages been the victim of critical dismissal, hence a dearth of recordings. On vinyl there are just a couple of serious artists recorded besides Ansermet (who did it in both mono and stereo) with the OSR, and the stereo version is on all kinds of lists, and A6547238-10CF-4D36-B2CD-8FA0C29620B5_1_201_adeservedly so, so I’ll start with that. My copy is a 1ED blueback, not perfect but pretty close, and indeed it does have some real dynamic impact. But somewhat to my surprise the first movement lacks some of the read attaca oomph one might have expected from this conductor. All in all it’s a bit tame (?) — but here I’m definitely biased by the version I learned the piece on, as well asAshkenazy my dark horse (see below) — but for stereo versions my top pick is by far Ashkenazy’s CD with the RPO from the early ’90s, whichWalton takes the opening chords with as much intensity as he did — at the same time and with the same orchestra — as the final chords in the closing of the first movement of Walton’s First, also a superb record. There’s a real parallel in the way the Borodin First mvt. starts and the Walton First mvt. ends. Ashkenazy nails them both.

Ansermet doesn’t quite pack the punch Ashkenazy does in both places (the key chords in the Walton finale of Mvt. I are at 13:30). The rest of the piece is great, especially the scherzo, though even there I still prefer Ashkenazy. The Prince Igor Overture is fine too, though here again I might even like Pletnev better, also on that 1994 CD. But Ansermet is at his finest here, to be sure — elegant and dramatic, polished and purposeful. And at least he spares us the Danes, Stranger in Paradise, etc. etc., let’s leave that to Tony Bennett.

The dark horse with the Borodin Second is a very early (1953) Columbia with Mitropoulos and the NYPO (performing as the Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York) paired with Tchaikovsky’s Suite No. 1. My copy is a 1ED blue label and plays perfectly without any noise at all — a rarity. I actually prefer this interpretation to 0413E51E-9CCC-4BA5-9ED7-21AF4206BD47_1_201_aAnsermet, in terms of energy and vigor, who all too often blurs the edges in the interest of his trademark glorious noise. His first movement is perhaps a bit erratic, with the presto attacas, which Ashkenazy nails, contrasted a bit too much with the second subject. But this is a wild ride of a performance, from start to finish. It’s edge of your seat stuff, as was often the case with this underrated (and underrecorded) conductor. I do feel his reputation with the

audiophile set suffers because what little he did record was in mono. But he’s really unparalleled here, as he is in some Shostakovich. There’s a completeness to the work in terms of sheer urgency that Ansermet certainly does not capture, and Ashkenazy does to an extent — but it’s almost hard to compare these two because the difference in sonic impact is so dramatically different. 

As for the Borodin Third, I guess there’s a reason he never completed it and Glazunov at least figured it worth orchestrating. Nothing to see here, move along. And there are a couple of Firsts out there, including Ashkenazy’s valiant effort, but it’s never held my interest. As someone once said to me of Bax, a little goes a long way — longer with Borodin than Bax, to be sure, but not too far! The Ashkenazy disc is the one to get if you still have a CD player, and the Ansermet LP is a classic for a reason. But Mitropoulos has him beat, in my book, and on vinyl you can get this a lot cheaped, though finding a copy in really good shape is easier said than done.

Paul Dukas’s La Peri, De Falla and so on…

Paul Dukas is most known, better or worse, for his Sorcerer’s Apprentice and it’s cultural iconification thanks to Walt Disney and Leopold Stokowski; to be clear, I love Fantasia and have no time for anyone’s nose-thumbing it. I thought I’d listen to some Dukas after writing about his pupil Joaquín Rodrigo and the piece Lliri Blau which came out in 1934 while the two were pupil and student. Clearly, there was an influence here: Dukas’s 1897 piece was based on a poem by Goethe, while Rodrigo’s 1934 piece was from a Valencian poetic legend.

When I think of Dukas, though, the piece I’ve found rewards the most isn’t the cliched Sorcerer (with or without mouse ears) but his 1912 ballet La Peri. Pupil Rodrigo must have studied up as well on La Peri; the thematic material in Lliri Blau (a legend about a blue lily’s magical power) and the central Orientalist story of the search for a flower of immortality in Iran can hardly be coincidence. To my surprise, the ballet merited no mention in Edward Said’s classic on the genre, Orientalism.

Peri is a one-act ballet, and the opening fanfare is probably the most well known/performed selection. The piece as a whole found a non-surprising champion in Ansermet, who recorded it twice on London/Decca. It is a rich and harmonic score, bridging the periods of French Romanticism and Impressionism. (Should Dukas be considered conservative or m odern? Compared to what — apologies to Les McCann — when we have Bizet, Chabrier, Debussy, Ravel, all swirling in the musical atmosphere before Dukas died one year after his pupil’s Lliri Blau debuted in 1934.)

Ansermet’s first recording dates from 1954, London LL-1155 (Decca LXT-5003). I’m using data here from the Ansermet discography at Brenno Bolla. The UK pressed London copy I’m using is NM and no IMG_1720excuses need be made for the range of mono sound. The performance is rather lackluster though — I say this as an admitted Ansermet skeptic. His mono Sombrero de Tres Picos is a bore, if you ask me, though when stereo came along his performance in the studio seemed to get a boost. (I don’t think the mono record is even available on CD.) The same goes for my opinion of La Peri from the 1954 mono version to the early 1958 stereo, also London/Decca. It’s as if the thing suddenly sprang to life. Perhaps this had something to do with the cultural connotations of recording in the early days of the LP? Less realism, with no audience there to applaud?

In the event, the 1958 version, Decca SXL-2027, is an immense improvement, not just due to the stereo sound, but the overall drama. Also, the 1954 version oddly omits the fanfare. Can’t find an IMG_1722IMG_1723explanation as to why this would have been the case. The vinyl I’m using here is unfortunately not an original but a Speaker’s Corner reissue which is — have to say — a reason to stay away from reissues. Way too brightly lit, high frequencies punched, depth depressed despite the 180g weight. The London blueback pressing I’m comparing (CS-6043), is a nice copy wide band/ffss grooved, with far superior sonics and overall warmth.

The last record I mention here is an outlier, in that it’s more modern and I know from prior conversations with vinyl friends draws disdain: Pierre Boulez with the New York Phil, 1976. Recorded in SQ Quadraphonic, and reproduced using my old restored Sansui, the IMG_1724sonic effect is astounding. Yoiu can buy it on CD, to be sure. Boulez is worlds apart from Ansermet, and I wish I could accurately recall the disdainful line from one audiophile friend who said something about Ansermet having dreamed in more colors than Boulez ever saw in the world. That may be so, but in this case the precision and edginess of the score accentuates its drama for me as a listener, as opposed to the blatant (and very much enjoyable) lushness of the Suisse Romande under Ansermet. Boulez is making a point. It’s very much a modernist Stravinskian reading of a Orientalist romantic fantasy; and all the more interesting for it. Ansermet makes this score easy; Boulez makes it rather more hard to digest. One wonders what the composer might have thought, with his clear delight in storytelling and exoticism, whether of magical sorcerers or Iranian immortality.

A perfectly acceptable contemporary account of the complete Peri, similar to Boulez in overall approach, is from Slatkin and the Orchestre de Paris on RCA (1999 recording). You can sample the fanfare here:

And compare Ansermet’s more lush stylings:

Postscript I: Sorcerer’s Apprentice. To my surprise, I checked my collection and only had one record of this piece, Dutoit with Montréal on Decca 421-527, a late 1989 pressing which I had to hunt around IMG_1725for. I recall the CD sound as being perfectly fine, but the late digital vinyl is super. (Again, apologies to my pals who won’t conscience anything on vinyl past 1965.) By comparison, Ansermet’s 1963 OSR version is slower, more lush, and yes — in this case I’ll give in — has orchestral color light years beyond Dutoit, IMG_1726whom I greatly admire. Leave Boulez out of it on this one! Here using a UK Decca first pressing, SXL-6065, ffss, grooved. Going back to my earlier post, wondering why Rodrigo’s Lliri Blau didn’t make it on to one of these compilation records. You can find the Ansermet Sorcerer on CD here. Can’t vouch for the sound.

Postscript II: Three Cornered Hat. Here again is Ansermet, champion of this era. I don’t have the mono version to compare in real time, but have been unimpressed when hearing it in the past; the stereo on London ffss wide band pressing (CS-6224) is, however, wide ranging, dramatic, and a full tilt up toward the final moments. IIMG_1727 also have the Speakers Corner reissue to compare as above, and in this case think the engineers did a IMG_1729much better job. I am partial to Dutiot and Montréal in this on vinyl, though, heresy though it may seem (also looks like this is out of print on CD). And then again there is the Boulez, CBS 33970, also Quadraphonic, and I can’t defend the IMG_1728sound as much in this case. Here his approach loses too much of the romance of the piece. But its precision is remarkable, and cinematic in its drama. A counterpoint to the Dukas and other pieces discussed imagesabove.

The Dutoit finale, on vinyl or on CD, arguably packs even more of a punch than Ansermnet. Sample here: