ERNEST ANSERMET

1883-1969

A major name, the Swiss conductor Ansermet, associated with the Diaghilev Ballet as was Pierre Monteux and present on the podium for a number of high profile early twentieth century premieres. He racked up a huge discography, much of it French and Russian like Monteux’, thanks in part to being the darling of Decca Records’ ownership. Alas, I cannot say I find him a constantly rewarding interpreter, he could drop from the exquisite to the overly prim in a twinkling, from the loving to the mechanical. In his recording of Brahms’ Fourth with the Suisse Romande Orchestra the allegro giocoso, the third movement, is absolutely leaden. The emotional thinness of which the decorous and dogged Ansermet was capable – while offstage he had a substantial, even messy, romantic life, Stravinsky’s biographer Stephen Walsh tells us – suggests to me a chocolate malt made with too much milk and not enough syrup. Constant little emphases in unaccented phrases cause us to hear the march of too many beams in the orchestral structure when one prefers to experience the façade. Ansermet was a mathematician as well as a musician and, one’s tempted to say, it shows.

I like Ansermet best in his lovely Brahms Third wherein he seems a French Weingartner, lithe and ardent, luminous and bracing, call him Monsieur Verve. Actually he looked like Santa Claus with his elegant white beard. Interestingly enough, Ansermet studied with Weingartner, a fact I only learned recently. Rather amazing I should think is the fact he also studied with Arthur Nikisch, a temperamental opposite to judge by teacher and student’s respective recorded legacies. Of course with Weingartner-ism comes only a rice diet of tempo modification, sometimes the music seems to be hustling from checkpoint to checkpoint without truly being there, but sometimes this straight-and-narrow is refreshing. That Perrier-fresh Brahms Third boasts a delightfully pastoral and balletic opening movement, a quivering ardor in the slow movement’s second theme, an elegiac, cradling poco allegretto to follow. Transparency is abundant: not always in orchestras Swiss, German or American does so much light shine through the instrumental fabric. Ah, to be a bassoonist in the Suisse Romande must have been a honeymoon, participating so vividly in Ansermet’s revealing orchestral textures. And oh how he let his timpanist deliver a staccato whack. Record too the elegantly crouching piano marcato of the violas ejecting the closing theme of the opening movement of Brahms’ First, this is a miniature work of art, a testament to Ansermet’s capacity for fine and telling workmanship . . . and how charming too that gentle now hear this before the coiling counterpoint of the second theme, second movement of Brahms’ Fourth.

But Ansermet in his closed circuit mode could be an advertisement for the perils of literalism. Nice, perhaps, to hear clearly the syncopated birds on telephone pole notes of the horns beneath the eloquent flute of variation 12 in the finale of Brahms’ Fourth, but when there’s no significant dramatic statement from a humdrum Geneva flute who might be hurrying to have tea with the duchess, well, what’s the point? Ansermet it seems did not, like Walt Whitman, choose to “contain multitudes.” He certainly didn’t permit himself to slip on the banana peel of a deliciously overwrought imagination.The acid test! — I’ve just watched a video of Ansermet conducting Beethoven’s Seventh in Paris in 1967 and lo, there’s just not much coming from his eyes, scant spiritual communication, no joy. Eyes, of course, are what good actors use.