STRAVINSKY: Ballets, Stage Works, Orchestral Works
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet

CD 1: L'oiseau de feu; Le chant du rossignol. CD 2: Petrouchka; Le sacre du printemps. CD 3: Pulcinella (Marilyn Tyler, s; Carlo Franzini, t; Boris Carmeli, bs); Apollon musagète. CD 4: Le baiser de la fée; Renard (Gerald English, John Mitchinson, t; Peter Glossop, b; Joseph Rouleau, bs). CD 5: L'histoire du soldat - Suite; Pulcinella - Suite. CD 6: Symphony in C; Symphony in Three Movements; Symphonies of Winds. CD 7: Concerto for piano (Nikita Magaloff, pno); Capriccio for piano (Nikita Magaloff, pno); Suites ##1-2 for Orchestra; 4 Études for Orchestra; Scherzo à la russe. CD 8: Symphony of Psalms (Choeur de jeunes de Lausanne and Choeur de Radio Lausanne); Les Noces (Basia Retchitzka, s; Lucienne Devalier, c; Hugues Cuénod, t; Heinz Rehfuss, b); Mavra (Joan Carlyle, s, Parasha; Helen Watts, c, Her Mother; Monica Sinclair, c, Their Neighbour; Kenneth Macdonald, t, Vassily).
Decca 467 818 (8 CDs) (B) (ADD) TT: 8:27:50

This reissue, gathering up a diverse cross-section of Stravinsky's oeuvre in a single compact box, would be a worthy acquisition even for the general collector who already has some of this material. It's a convenient and inexpensive source for Stravinsky's quirky, infrequently performed theatre pieces Renard and Mavra, capably cast and sung. And the couplings, perhaps fortuitously, underline the hitherto unexpected kinship between works, as with Song of the Nightingale, which shares the chugging rhythms, darting motifs, and pointillistic splashes of color of its discmate, The Firebird.

But this set has tremendous documentary importance as well, preserving the recorded legacy of one of the last century's enduring artistic associations, even if the recordings were undertaken after its end. Ernest Ansermet introduced Stravinsky's three early "big" ballets to the U.S. on the 1916 tour by Diaghilev's Ballets Russes. With his passion for precision, he became, over time, one of the composer's most trusted interpreters, giving the premières of the Capriccio for piano and orchestra (1929, with Stravinsky at the keyboard) and the Symphony of Psalms (1930). (Stravinsky would, far in 1924, go so as to forbid performances of the Symphonies of Wind Instruments conducted by anyone else.) This artistic relationship would founder on the composer's late-career embrace of atonality, a system which Ansermet, trained as a mathematician, would reject on scientific as well as aesthetic grounds.

Even so, Ansermet brought a sure hand to this repertoire. Summed up briefly, his approach to these scores is essentially lyrical—not a trait we generally associate with Stravinsky's output. Without slighting rhythmic accuracy, he subordinates it to a sense of the long singing line. The suite from L'histoire du soldat, played by seven orchestral principals—headed by violinist Michel Schwalbé, later Karajanâs concertmaste—is crisp and characterful, yet Ansermet draws the score in smooth, undulating phrases over the irregular barlines. Le sacre du printemps begins rubato; where other conductors (and orchestras) are content simply to punch the rhythms out percussively, Ansermet elicits striking contrasts of mood and tone between scenes. Even in Les Noces, inevitably more aggressive in attack owing to the scoring for four pianos and percussion, the conductor manages to project the music in broad, arching phrases.

For all his experience and authority, he could have used a better orchestra. (He did when he rerecorded The Firebird just before his death, with the New Philharmonia.) Ansermet founded L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande in 1918, and remained its director until 1967, over which period they were a fixture of the Decca catalogues. In the right repertoire—mostly French and Russian—they could muster a gorgeous, translucent sonority, but you wouldn't mistake them for a virtuoso ensemble. The players sound ill at ease in the more rhythmically and harmonically complex passages. The earlier recordings betray intonation problems as well—there are a fair share of disputed unisons, and the reeds as a section don't always mesh. The principal horn is flat through most of The Firebird (but pushes conspicuously sharp in Sacre during the Jeu de rapt!); the lower brasses are sour in the chorale that opens the piano concerto, where the dry acoustic also bares some scrappy string tone.

Still, if you're looking for a wide-ranging Stravinsky collection, you won't necessarily do better elsewhere. Sony's composer-led performances aren't consistently superior: the pickup groups assembled under the "Columbia Symphony" rubric can sound stiff, even crude, and the composer apparently lacked the sheer podium technique to weld the players into unified ensembles. And such latter-day Stravinskians as Bernstein and Boulez, with better ensembles at their disposal, didn't undertake so extensive a recording program.

And the Geneva orchestra did improve steadily over the eleven years documented here, culminating in a first-class 1965 performance of the complete Pulcinella. The playing is rhythmically sprightly, and brilliant and sparkling in articulation, with full-throated wind soli: even the bassoon, tentative in the first few movements, acquires a trenchant, saxophonish bite as the performance progresses. Marilyn Tyler is billed as a soprano, but her rich, fruity tone sounds more appropriately mezzo; the tenor and bass are less distinguished, but sound suitably Italianate. (Somewhat redundantly, Decca also includes a drily recorded, less assured 1956 rendering of the orchestra-only Pulcinella suite.)

A pleasant surprise is The Fairy's Kiss ballet, based on Tchaikovsky piano pieces. Where the familiar "Divertimento" abridgement seems a pleasing trifle at best, Ansermet reveals the complete score's real stature, shaping it in a single unified arc, with luminous orchestral textures recalling the great Tchaikovsky ballets. Symphony in C, once past the uncertain woodwind entries near the start, benefits from a similar textural translucency and clarity. The brasses are powerful and brilliant in a clean 1961 recording of the Symphony of Psalms; the expressive chorus, the men dominating somewhat, is sluggish in attack, but here and in the vivid, even savage Symphony in Three Movements, the orchestra is at its most confident.

The two concerted works for piano and orchestra similarly stress line and color over spiky rhythmic projection; the music "require[s] a cool, percussive touch" according to the notes, but soloist Nikita Magaloff creates rich, layered textures by ferreting out and highlighting melodic lines. The orchestra is very much at ease in the short, straightforward pieces filling out this disc, producing a variegated array of timbral blends.

Even with the catalogue full of virtuoso renditions of the three big ballets, Ansermet's smaller-scaled performances have much to offe—at least, two of them do. The conductor's old monaural Petrushka was a sonic showpiece in its day, the exemplar of Decca's"ffrr" (Full Frequency Range Recording) system, and this stereo remake would earn a similar esteem. The opening scene is a bit tentative, though the tricky meters are clearer and tighter than in the readings of Solti (Decca) and Rozhdestvensky (Nimbus, deleted along with the rest of that catalog), leading high-powered orchestras. After that, the light, airy textures are attractive; the later homophonic passages focus the sonority with firm, full impact. The Sacre, as indicated, is unusually lyrical; careful listening betrays a few clumsy transitions, but the massed orchestra again is powerful, especially in the Danse sacrale, which Ansermet builds steadily without overplaying his hand.

Unfortunately, this 1955 Firebird, despite characterful woodwinds, simply sounds redundant: the chattering figurations whirl about to no obvious purpose, and the tuttis of Kashchei's Dance suffer from the dry, unexpansive engineering common to most of the earlier recordings here. (The exception is the Apollon musagète, perhaps because of the strings-only scoring. The warm, dusky string tone comes across with an appealing resiny presence, and Ansermet knows how to shape cantabile phrases without imposing an inappropriate Romantic expression.)

There you have it, then—performances by one of this composer's central interpreters, offering vivid, individual interpretations with some tradeoff in sheer orchestral finesse. Experienced collectors will undoubtedly bewail the absence of this or that particular favorite—mine is the ballet Jeu de cartes—but this variety of repertoire represents impressive value for money.

S.F.V.  (Aug. 2002)