This 6-CD set gives uninitiated listeners a fair introduction to a conductor they never knew while he was alive or in his heyday. Ernest Anserment (1883-1969) was born in Switzerland and was a contemporary of both Furtwängler and Klemperer, although he was of a far different school of music than either German. Originally a mathematician, Ansermet founded Orchestre de la Suisse Romande (Swiss Radio Orchestra) during World War I, toured with them worldwide after the war, and rose to prominence after World War II when he and the orchestra developed a recording contract with Decca Records.
Ansermet was most at home in coolorful scores, 20th century French music, in the works of his countrymen Honegger (born French but spent time in Zurich) and Frank Martin, and in the Russians Stravinsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. But, as represented here, his expertise began with Bach and went well into the 20th century.
Ansermet's strengths were clarity in execution and delivery, strict adherence to original scoring (he opposed Stravinsky's tendency to revise his own works), and a romantic bent that was in vogue in the postwar years. Stated another way, Anserment's work captured the essence of what today might be characterized as a "romantic period performance" style whose chief proponent may be Martin Perlman in Boston.
For me, Ansermet's conducting in the mainstream German classics was equally engaging. He was expert in capturing the full blown romance of Brahms, Beethoven and other romantics through the rigors of exposing every instrument in the orchestra and ensuring all contrapuntal lines could be heard. His Beethoven set included a dazzling performance of the Symphony No. 2 and a draft of the "Choral" symphony most collectors would enjoy today (it's still avaiable in Japan).
While recordings of Ansermet's Rimsky-Korsakov and Stravinsky have rightly stayed in the catalog and been hailed by critics for decades, his greatest recording of romantic repertoire, in my opinion, is neither included in this box nor avaialable anywhere worldwide. That is his pairing of the Franck D Minor Symphony and the St. Saens "Organ" Symphony which Decca paired early in the CD era on a Weekends Classic recording. It has been out of print everywhere for some time and is a great loss for all of us.
Still today, I treasure Ansermet's box of Beethoven symphonies (also out of print everywehere; No. 4, is represented here) for its clarity, romance and elocution. I will never forget buying this box at my local LP store about 1972; what a revelation it was after exposure to the Beethoven of all the high cholesterol German romantics! Ansermet's combination of score adherence, clarity in orchestral detail, and blooming romance in interpretation led to my most satisfying performances of the most recorded symphonies in history during the period when the greatest conductors of the recording era were all represented in this repertoire.
The latter point is, I believe, the linchpin to Ansermet's career. I don't think there's any question that, if a conductor came along today with his combination of skills, sensitivity and technique, he or she would be regarded as a wunderkind combining the best traits of the current and bygone eras. In his lifetime, however, Ansermet was never regarded in this way. I think that's because he existed on a plane or two below all the acknowledged giants of the podium that were active or in their prime in his day.
While Ansermet was making the recordings in this box, Wilhelm Furtwangler was conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, dying, and being replaced by an up and coming German named Karajan that would go on the become the most recorded conductor in history. Klemperer was one of the giants in Germany with Bohm, Jochum and others sharing the spotlight. Among Europe's rising stars of the day were Colin Davis and Bernard Haitink, who had recently taken over for Beinum in Holland. Elsewhere, Leonard Bernstein was in the midst of his titanic career on the other side of the Atlantic and other American orchestral posts were manned by Ormandy, Szell, Solti, Mehta, Monteaux and another young, up and coming condcutor, Lorin Mazzel. Stokowski was in his prime making stereo recordings in this era, too.
This was the epoch of Ansermet's maturity. He was in the same position as a number of great conductors of his era such as Rudolf Kempe -- great men at the podium cast in the shadow of giants. While Ansermet was a member of the Decca stable, he nonetheless was cast in a secondary role as Decca also had new recordings by Solti and Maazel that were outselling anything Ansermet put forth. Simultanously, collectors could also find all the recordings of legendary conductors including Toscanini, Bruno Walter and Beecham. It was surely a crowded time in the record business and the most difficult time in history for a conductor to make his name.
In baseball terms, Ansermet had some of the affect of Sammy Sosa, whose 600 home runs came in the shadow of Mark McGwire's record-breaking season in 1998 and while Barry Bonds would first break the all-time single season record and, second, chase Hank Aaron's home run record. The metaphor may not be competely satisfactory for Ansermet was probably not the third greatest conducting home run hitter of his day.
But he was one of the great conductors with his own orchestra, a unique style, a broad repertoire, and a delivery mechanism underrated due to the shadow cast on him by other greats of the day. We are fortunate, living in the late digital era, to have this testament of his work before us. Now a new generation of listeners can hear what many did a half-century ago with new ears developed in the period performance practice era.
Of the contents of this set, my favorites are the Haydn Symphony 22, Stravinsky Pulcinella Suite, the orchestrated Schumann Carnaval (which I had never heard before), both Resphigi suites -- Pines of Rome and Rossiniana -- Honneger's Pacific 231 and Frank Martin's Concerto for 7 Wind Instruments, Timpani, Percussion and String Orchestra, an interesting, powerful and lively 20th century concerto. I agree with an earlier reviewer that said this set cherry picks certain pieces, teasing you with portions such as the Borodin Polovtsian Dances and Dukas La Peri selections. Still, there's enough here to satisfy both Ansermet enthusiasts and newcomers to the conductor.