Ernest Ansermet Collection = BRITTEN: Les Illuminations, Op. 18; War Requiem; BERG: Sieben fruehe lieder – Suzanne Danco, soprano (Les Illuminations)/Heather Harper, soprano/Peter Pears, tenor/Thomas Hemsley, baritone/Chloe Owen, soprano (Berg)/Choirs of Radio Suisse Romande/Pro Arte Choir/Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
Cascavelle VEL 3125 (2 CDs) TT: 96:21 [Distr. by Albany] ****:
Ernest Ansermet (1883-1969) still endures in the music world as a determined individualist in music, a contemporary of Furtwaengler and Schuricht who made his own decisions and his own interpretations. Although Ansermet expressed little patience with twelve-tone developments in music, we have a rare excursion (5 May 1959) into young Alban Berg, that composer’s 1905-1908 Seven Early Songs. The songs reveal the influence of Schoenberg’s post-Wagnerian harmony, certainly, but no less of Mahler, Wolf, and (in Nacht) a touch of Debussy. Chloe Owen’s German diction does not ring with clarity, but the ardor of the sentiments she maintains.
Benjamin Britten, along with Swiss composer Frank Martin, meant for Ansermet a composer who had retained the traditional tonal syntax even as he expressed his individualism. Ansermet premiered The Rape of Lucrece in Glyndebourne in 1946; in 1965 he led the first Swiss performance of the War Requiem. The pungent reading of Les Illuminations (after Rimbaud) with Ansermet’s favorite soprano Suzanne Danco–who excelled so well in the music of Falla–took place 17 December 1953. Britten wrote the piece in 1939, finding the relatively acerbic poems by Rimbaud to his taste, especially as Britten could apply the string orchestra of the Frank Bridge Variations to the requirements of the French language. Danco negotiates “Villes” with dazzling effect, the eighth notes pattering in the manner of industrial routine. The longest song, “Being Beauteous,” waxes erotic in a manner common to Berlioz and Ravel, only more nervously expressive, given the high–almost ghostly– range of the first violins. “Parade” proves just as eerily agitated, despite the participants’ involvement in a spectacle. The last song, “Depart,” makes use of the violas and cellos to add an autumnal mist to the sense that our life has been but a specter.
The War Requiem (26 April 1967), set to the lachrymose lyrics of war-poet Wilfred Owen, juxtaposes the conventional Latin Mass against the graphic depictions of war, its ravages and cosmic futility. The presence of soprano Heather Harper and tenor Peter Pears–participants in the world premier in Coventry Cathedral in May 1962–provide a special authenticity to this performance. Poet Wilfred Owen spoke openly about his role, to warn a fallen humanity against a course of all future conflict, and Britten’s children’s voices project a kind of primal scream in anticipation of any more victims. The trumpets of the Dies Irae capture the pomp of militarism and the terrors of Judgment Day. The frigid patina finds its only counterpart in the Shostakovich “Baba Yar” Symphony. Irony marks the tenor aria, “Bugles sang, saddening the evening air,” mixing nature sounds with the Slaughter of the Innocents. A drunken energy suffuses “Out there, we’ve walked quite friendly up to Death,” the chamber orchestra accompanying the tenor and baritone to create a cabaret-effect, as though war were merely an amusement for cruel gods. Sections of the Recordare Jesu pie and the ensuing Dies irae convey a rhythmic aggression and modal sarcasm we know from Carmina Burana, here cross-fertilized by the Verdi Requiem, our capacity to create Hell-on-Earth.
The gentlest movement, “Move him into the sun,” forces an epiphany upon us, the destruction of that youth and pride of his parents, the human investment of love and hope who lies shattered in a thousand bits. Something of Stravinsky’s Symphony of Psalms informs “Domine Jesu Christe,” the voices of children, adults, and a raucous orchestra suddenly breaking into a canon of lamentation. The Offertorium concludes with tenor and baritone who sing, “So Abraham rose, and clave the wood,” a clear parable of the ready sacrifice of our children in the spirit of “religious” zealotry. Heather Harper’s convulsive Sanctus–with bells, muttering male chorus, and full chorus–conveys the plague of war, an evil parody of God’s epiphany. The vocal line becomes delirious, drunken, a plaint and a screech amidst the burst of fragmentation bombs. Peter Pears intones Owen’s poem “The End,” which queries, “Shall Life renew these bodies?” It seems Nature has run out of curatives, and the seas themselves are tears. Owen’s own “Agnus dei” tells us that even the priests themselves are “flesh-marked by the Beast,” so none can claim moral superiority except the dead. The otherworldly, hysterical and martial Libera me, Domine segues into Owen’s “Strange Meeting,” a grim “reconciliation” of enemies in death, the ironic pacifier which ushers the “In paradisum.” “The undone years. . .the pity of war, the pity war distilled” has been our theme, tracing the spiritual retrograde as nations “trek from progress.” A palpable vapor rises up out of children‘s voices and soprano–whether a mist of pity or miasma–that can only be defined by our future acts of compassion or savagery. Even after forty years, this performance shatters our complacencies.