Ansermet - Debussy La mer Jeux Khamma - MusicWeb International

14 June 2012
MusicWeb International
Dan Morgan

After a few tentative shoots the Linn/Universal download catalogue is now growing apace. Among the latest additions is this delectable Debussy collection, last seen as a 24/96 Decca Legends disc. As with all the CDs in that series it was a high-res re-master, but comparing the Linn/Universal Studio Master of Solti's Mahler Eighth with the Legends disc confirms just how remarkable these newly minted downloads are . And that isn't a one-off, either; the Davis Symphonie fantastique and Steinberg's Planets and Zarathustra have also been renewed in a way I scarcely thought possible.

Speaking of analogue classics, Decca's partnership with Ansermet and his Swiss band yielded quite a few, many now available on the Eloquence label. As for this Prélude it's hard to believe it dates from 1957, so rich and three-dimensional is the sound. As a performance it's glorious, weighty but still diaphanous, Ansermet judging the ebb and flow of this music to perfection. True, the upper strings are a little edgy, but the trembling, evanescent character of this lovely piece isn't compromised one bit. A far cry from the dull run-through by Jun Märkl on Naxos and a reminder - if it were needed - of Decca's engineering skills of the period.

La mer is no less immersive, ‘De l'aube à midi sur la mer' as atmospheric as one could hope for. The subtle interplay of instruments has seldom been better caught, or the woodwinds more seductively rendered. The conductor doesn't dawdle either, yet there's no sense of rush or raggedness, the OSR clean-limbed and cultured at all times. And although the sound is immediate it has enough ‘air' to suggest a broad soundstage. As a piece of scene painting La mer has few equals, Ansermet mixing his colours with consummate skill. ‘Jeux de vagues' is played with plenty of point and polish, the piercing brass and billowing harp figures simply breathtaking.

‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer' is suitably ruffled, the bass drum and cymbals captured without stress or strain. As always Ansermet
calibrates the climaxes with great skill, so they never seem arbitrary or overdriven, the final bars simple thrilling. As a performance I'd put this alongside that of Lan Shui and his Singapore orchestra. In terms of sound the latter is hard to beat; as a reading it's up there with the best as well. But it's a mark of Decca's sophisticated engineering - and re-mastering techniques - that the sonic gap between these two recordings is not as wide as you might think.

Jeux gets a delightful outing as well, the music shaped with an authority and emphasis that doesn't undermine its charm. As for the OSR they play with real feeling, relishing Debussy's soft textures on the one hand and his crisp rhythms on the other. Some listeners may find Haitink (Philips) more beautiful, but for insight and energy Ansermet is in a class of his own. The same is true of Khamma, written for piano and orchestrated by Charles Koechlin under the composer's supervision. It's rhythmically taut, the notes given the kind of shimmer one hears in Ralph van Raat's recording of Koechlin's Les heures persanes. That said, edges are well defined and Ansermet's direct, unsentimental way with this music ensures it doesn't outstay its welcome.

This is another fine Studio Master, although the earliest recorded items - Prélude, La mer and Jeux - have more of that warm, analogue loveliness than Khamma, recorded several years later. But that's just nit-picking, for this is a treasurable collection that's well worth your time and, at £18, quite a few of your hard-earned shekels.
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