Ernest Ansermet Collection = BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14; LISZT: Battle of the Huns; WAGNER: Eine Faust-Overture – Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/ Ernest Ansermet – Cascavelle

by | Jan 8, 2011 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Ernest Ansermet Collection = BERLIOZ: Symphonie fantastique, Op. 14; LISZT: Battle of the Huns; WAGNER: Eine Faust-Overture – Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/ Ernest Ansermet

Cascavelle VEL 3143, 76:28 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) last inscribed the Berlioz Fantastic Symphony on 24 June 1968, during his tour of Japan with his Suisse Romande Orchestra, which he had led since 1918. Ansermet savors the knotty meandering lines and color tapestry Berlioz presents, unafraid to exaggerate a sigh or roulade, since Ansermet used to refer to Berlioz as “a crier–one who felt deeply, passionately romantic.” The transparency of Le Bal–its idee fix heroine now surging and whirling in the throes of a grand ballroom–moves with lithe airiness, floating on a sea of silks, fluttering woodwinds, and gauzy harps. The descending scale  and slightly eerie presentation of the Beloved foreshadow her later transformation into an agent of spiritual destruction. Recorded in stereo, the Scene aux champs–evocations of pastoral and rustic musings and ecstasies–wraps us in color sonorities that should gratify any audiophile. Ansermet’s sense of orchestral balance, moreover, rivals that of Stokowski for building an organ diapason out of layered timbres and antiphons between cellos, violas, and high woodwinds. The appearance of the Beloved in the mist of the natural setting leads to a summer storm to rival Beethoven’s in the Pastoral Symphony. The clarity of line Ansermet effects in the ensuing counterpoint provides us all a lesson in textural discipline of the highest order.  English horn and tympani make quite an unnerving dramatic duet prior to the movement’s otherwise calm conclusion. 

The last two movements–March to the Scaffold and Dream of Sabbath Night–urge from Ansermet and the Suisse Romande the same exactitude of rhythm and tonal articulation we know from his exemplary readings of Stravinsky. The deep contrabassoon and tympani riffs quite wring our hearts. A slice from the resounding guillotine, and the plucked strings have our protagonist’s head in a basket. Then, onto a perverse nightmare of extraordinary palette, given Ansermet’s use of brass plates–with their reverberant overtones– in lieu of the usual bells for the Witches’ Sabbath and its fervent iterations of Dies Irae. Ansermet bestows a curiously sec quality to the infernal round dance, allowing its grotesque inner harmonies a distinctive, if unnerving, clarity. The appearance of the Beloved as prima donna of the festive orgy must invoke the horror with which Hawthorne’s Goodman Brown beheld his venerated Faith at his own coven of despair. The final chord brings enthralled cheers from an otherwise subdued audience.

Wagner’s 1840 Eine Faust-Overture in D Major originally meant to serve as the first movement for a projected Faust Symphony. Much of its developmental procedure follows Schumann rather than Beethoven, with excursions into D Minor and F Major. Ansermet’s performance (14 November 1950) traces the tuba and doublebasses into chromatic territory that warrants classical sonata-form evolution, the secondary theme relatively diatonic in character.  The OSR brass display their rich sonority, while the strings churn moody, angular riffs, sometimes in obvious mockery of the sincere Faust-motif. In brief, the Wagner overture telescopes much of Liszt’s later experiment in his own Mephistopheles movement of his Faust-Symphonie.

Liszt’s 1857 Battle of the Huns derives its dark imagery from the painting by Kaulbach of the 451 A.D. clash fought on the Catalaunian Fields, the musically ghostly effect wrought through mutes on the strings even in forte passages. The forces of Attila versus the armies of Flavius Aetius and Visigoth Theodoric prove so fiercely competitive that even their departed spirits continue the fray in the air. The Christian hymn Crux fidelis breaks through to become both a banner and a consoling moment, until its peroration in organ and brass pageantry at the end. Ansermet (8 April 1959) brings muscular and tender coloration to the pictorial spectacle, a contest in Manichean antipodes. Lovely flute and oboe work in the latter pages, the strings, battery, and brass rising up in venerable, Gregorian heraldry to celebrate the defeat of (Hungarian) paganism.

— Gary Lemco

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