Though marketed and presented in identical formats with each cover
boasting The Complete Works
, in reality these two sets differ
significantly from each other. Ernest Ansermet’s Nutcracker
is a full version of Tchaikovsky’s score that can be subjected
to valid comparison with other recordings. Swan Lake
, on the
has been drastically pruned and will be, as such,
immediately ruled out of court by some potential purchasers.
The severity of the cuts is indicated by looking at the timings of
a few other accounts of the full ballet chosen randomly from my shelves.
Charles Dutoit brings it in opulently and to universal critical acclaim
at 154:01 (Decca 436 212-2). He is closely followed by a trio of idiomatic
Russians: Evgeny Svetlanov clocks in at 153:36 (Melodiya 74321170822),
Mark Ermler follows at 153:03 (see
) and, some way behind, comes Mikhail Pletnev at 142:52 (review
Ansermet’s selection amounts, though, to a mere 83:17 of music.
He jettisons numbers 3, 4, 6 and 9 from Act 1, losing more than 20
minutes in the process; a further 18+ minutes are sacrificed by cutting
numbers 16, 19, 20a and 24 from Act 3; and more than 9 minutes of
music disappear from Act 4 when numbers 25, 26 and 27 are excised.
Only Act 2 emerges relatively unscathed.
Having pointed out a potentially fatal defect in the Swan Lake
set, it is only fair to observe that there are also, on the other
hand, several very positive things to say about both it and its companion
. The first is the undoubtedly skill and artistry
that Ernest Ansermet brings to the music. His eight years with Diaghilev’s
(1915-1923) had made him acutely conscious of
the need to mould ballet scores, even those not originally written
for dancing, to the practical requirements - and the capabilities
- of real dancers on real theatrical stages. He is not, therefore,
one to indulge in flashy displays of orchestral virtuosity for their
Also characteristic of Ansermet’s conducting is the great care
he takes to clarify orchestral textures and to uncover what is going
on beneath the main melodic line. As the Geneva-based Suisse Romande
Orchestra’s founder and, since 1918, music director, he had
had four decades in which to mould it to meet his requirements, so
that its relatively transparent 1959 string sound was a deliberately
engineered means to an artistic end. You will not find the luxuriously
upholstered textures of the Berlin or Vienna Philharmonics here: instead
Ansermet offers a keen eye and a dose of cold, sharp and clear Alpine
The sound quality of these 54 years old recordings also deserves a
very positive mention. After signing an exclusive contract with Decca
in 1946, Ansermet went on to make something like 300 recordings with
his orchestra before he retired in 1967. In almost all cases, the
expert engineering team provided sound that was then second to none
and has stood the test of time extremely well. Both recordings under
consideration here are remarkable for their clarity and warmth and
utterly belie their true age.
A number of recent and successful CD reissues on the Australian Eloquence
label (see here
for details) have demonstrated that Ansermet’s reputation still
carries weight. Even taking into account the important caveat about
the cuts to Swan Lake
, these two budget-priced reissues will
only add to that regard and both can be warmly welcomed.
See also review of The Nutcracker