Even in the mid 1960s when my early childhood interest in lps mostly expressed itself in cover adoration and disc destruction my late father described his Ansermet discs as really old and sounding that way. Thus a recent encounter with a splendidly sounding Ansermet Falla recording included in the first Decca Sound box came as a very pleasant surprise. Based on Ansermet's well documented mastery of the French repertoire and the hope that this box would match the Falla disc sonically, its purchase represented a no-brainer. Prospective buyers can expect a diverse collection of French works in ideal interpretations. Unfortunately, the sound quality of some of the older discs leaves a lot to be desired.
This box contains 32 well filled discs. The presentation is bare bones, with a small booklet that provides track listings, soloists and recording dates. Prices of this box have shown wild fluctuations, and comparing sites pays off. I ordered the box at Amazon Germany and had it US delivered for under $63.
The technical quality of the recordings varies greatly. The recordings from the late sixties are highly acceptable, those of the early fifties show their age to the point of entering the Furtwangler universe. Those in between are very listenable, especially since the musicianship makes one easily forget the sonics. Yet, as interesting as e.g., the Ravel Piano Concertos may be, their poor sound quality excludes them from any top 10, or top 100 lists.
When it comes to the interpretations, it is hard to find a conductor who masters this broad a repertoire at this high a level. Charles Dutoit has been a contemporary champion of this music, but to me does not really belong in the Ansermet category. Charles Much would be a better candidate, but even he is not a match for Ernest's breadth.
The most striking experience of listening to this box is the freshness of the interpretations. While it's clear that Ansermet had this material in his DNA and was familiar with every nook and cranny of the scores, things sound unstudied and spontaneous. His sense of color, phrasing and timing are so attuned to this repertoire that any other interpretation pales by comparison. As much of a von Karajan fan as I am, comparing his Arlesienne Suites to those of Ansermet is downright comical. They sound stiff, undynamic, heavy, and as good as the BPO is, its orchestral color palette is completely wrong for this repertoire.
Importantly, works like the Bizet and Franck symphonies each get their own character, without turning into the all too common neo-classical and late romantic symphonies with added French flavoring, respectively. There are too many examples that invite singing Ansermet's hosanna, so let me conclude with a relative rarity: Magnard's 3rd Symphony. I had greatly enjoyed Ossonce more recent recording of all 4 Magnard symphonies and then listened to Ansermet. This is not just an interpretation of another dimension, but of an entire universe. It's epic, but light, tightly structured yet spontaneously living in the moment. There is a "key sense" with adjustments in phrasing and timbre through modulations that is uncanny. Yet, there is never any sense of imposing anything on composer or composition.
Those looking for state-of-the-art sound may not find everything in this box to their liking, those grailing for definitive performances of the French repertoire have reached their destination.