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CD Review

Claude Debussy

  • Prélude to the Afternoon of a Faun
  • La Mer
  • Juex
  • Khamma
L'Orchestre de la Suisse Romande/Ernest Ansermet
Decca Legends 470255
Find it at AmazonFind it at Amazon UKFind it at Amazon GermanyFind it at Amazon CanadaFind it at Amazon FranceFind it at Amazon Japan

I cannot listen to Debussy's PAF without thinking of the first animated clip in the movie "Allegro Non Troppo" If you haven't seen the move you really should. Someone put together this weird animated/classical music movie in 1977 or 76 (the dates on the Border's site gives both). The movie opens in black and white and the animated items are in color. The idea is that this Italian movie maker has decided to make a movie that "puts classical music to color and color to classical music'. He is oblivious to "Fantasia" and at one point, when called about it, gets furious. The "orchestra" is made up of ancient-looking women and led by a fat, cruel conductor. An animator is literally chained up to make him work. The music is from recordings by von Karajan and other well-known conductors and orchestras. The animation was added. How they got away with this probably has something to do with Italy's copyright laws.

Anyway, Ansermet leads a clear performance of PAF that is good but blown away by Stokowski. Ansermet is like the black and white to Stokowski's Technicolor. This is particularly true in the London Symphony performance on Decca.

My notes indicate that Ansermet's "Mer" is stately, majestic and awesome like some god on Olympus. Ansermet himself gives us an idea what to expect. "The conductor at his score can be compared not to a sculptor at his clay, adding lump after lump to create a likeness, but to the carver at his marble, chipping away persistently to bring out the figure." What we have is clearly limned like the work of a master lapidary. (I just learned that word and wanted to use it!) The problem for me is that, once again, Stokowski beats the pants off of his colleague. Stokowski is significantly slower in every movement (9:46 to Ansermet's 8:10 for example) but it doesn't sound slower and Ansermet doesn't sound necessarily exciting. Listening to The Wizard you realize that he had a personal relationship with the sea because he went to Europe only by boat and on several occasions, too. I can't help but wonder if Ansermet had a similar relationship and have some doubts.

I do think that Ansermet is among the better conductors of the last century. His Prokofieff 5th is perhaps my favorite. (Also on a Decca Legends issue) I find his way with Jeux fantastic. I had heard it before but this was the first time I was compelled to listen to it. It has a surreal quality to it not in the recording I have by Cluytens. Neat stuff. Perhaps it is here that Ansermet's approach brings out music that is in the notes but not always realized by others.

I have no comparisons for Khamma. It sounds good to me.

The strings in the original Decca release (now packed in some box as I get ready to move) were thin. This has been improved a lot, but they are still not as full as I like.

For some reason this disc is not available in the US. I tried every source I could in this country and ended up having a friend of mine get a copy in Europe and mail it to me. I had memories of the "Mer" being among the best. If it sounds like I am not recommending this release that is not the case. Keep in mind that my recollections were strong enough to go to the trouble I did to get it. I have presented my observations and leave it to you to decide.

Copyright © 2003, Robert Stumpf II