‘La Mer’ was a signature work for Ernst Ansermet. He made four recordings of Debussy’s trilogy of symphonic sketches through the course of his career. The first and second of them, from 1947 and 1951, have been made available in new remasterings by Eloquence (482 5007 and 480 0127 respectively). Now they are joined by the third, from 1957. All the recordings are remarkably similar in overall outline, differing in minutiae of balance and colouration.
Ansermet’s exacting approach to details of orchestral balance is particularly suited to the fastidiously crafted music of Paul Dukas. At sessions with the Paris Conservatoire Orchestra in September 1954, Ansermet directed the composer’s orchestral showpiece, ‘L’apprenti sorcier’, as well as the much less familiar Orientalist ballet from 1912, ‘La Péri’. Conceived by Dukas as a ‘poème dansé’, it is the pre-eminent forerunner to the late masterpiece to which Debussy gave the same unusual classification: ‘Jeux’: his elusive, half-lit score for Diaghilev and the Ballets Russes.
Ansermet and the OSR made their first recording of ‘Jeux’ in 1953; the second, in stereo, was reissued on Eloquence 480 0127. Thus Decca initially issued the two ‘poèmes dansés’ together, and reserved ‘L’apprenti sorcier’ for an ‘Ansermet Orchestral Concert’, coupling it with ‘La Valse’ and ‘Boléro’ of Ravel and ‘Pacific231’ by the conductor’s fellow countryman, Arthur Honegger.
By 1957, Ansermet had been conducting this music for almost half a century. ‘Debussy never repeated himself,’ he remarked in an interview with Peter Heyworth in 1962. ‘In his music the work itself, the inspiration, creates the form.’ And of ‘Jeux’: ‘Here Debussy’s fantasy is exceptionally free and its formal development is quite extraordinary.’
La Mer (1957 recording)
Jeux (Poème dansé)
La Péri (Poème dansé)
L’Orchestre de la Suisse Romande*
Paris Conservatoire Orchestra+
Recording Producers: James Walker (La Mer); Victor Olof (Jeux, La Péri, L’Apprenti sorcier)
Balance Engineers: Gil Went, Roy Wallace (La Mer); Gil Went (Jeux); Kenneth Wilkinson, Roy Wallace (La Péri); Kenneth Wilkinson (L’Apprenti sorcier)
Recording Locations: Victoria Hall, Geneva, Switzerland, October 1953 (Jeux), 5, 6 & 8 October 1957 (La Mer), La Maison de la Mutualité, Paris, France, 20 September 1954 (La Péri), 21 September 1954 (L’Apprenti sorcier)
Remastering Engineer: Chris Bernauer
Original Decca LP Releases: LXT 5424/SXL 2061 (La Mer); LXT 2927 (Jeux); LXT 5003 (La Péri); LXT 5004 (L’Apprenti sorcier)
Eloquence Series Producer: Cyrus Meher-Homji
Art Direction: Raymond Bannerman
Booklet Editor: Bruce Raggatt
François Hudry is author of Ernest Ansermet, pionnier de la musique (Editions de l’Aire, 1983)
‘The Dukas symphonic poem comes off quite well, being expertly played and beautifully recorded.’ High Fidelity (L’apprenti sorcier)
‘The Swiss orchestra give each score a splendid performance, with the strings especially outstanding.’ Gramophone (Jeux, La Péri)
‘Ansermet must have a very special regard for these fascinating if rather enigmatic scores. His delicately precise yet glowing performance of ‘Jeux’ easily outclasses the recorded competition and his ‘La Péri’… revels in sensuous melody and fragrant orchestral sonorities.’ High Fidelity