Orchestre de la Suisse Romande: recorder of sonic milestones

The Orchestre de la Suisse Romande, based in Geneva, became a household word among classical recording collectors in the late 1950s and '60s, thanks to London Records. During the early '50s, London Records (Decca in Europe) invented a remarkable recording process that it trademarked ``ffrr'' (for ``full frequency range recording''). It offered a new realism in recorded sound, from the rumbliest bass to the brightest strings.

A marketable name was needed to attract the buying public; London found it in Ernest Ansermet, a conductor with personal ties to Stravinsky, Ravel, Manuel de Falla, and most of the important composers of the early decades of this century. Ansermet had founded the Suisse Romande in 1918 and remained at its head until 1968. The large quantity of recordings were hailed as sonic milestones, particularly with the advent of stereo, and have remained staples of the catalog.

The Suisse Romande was in town a few weeks ago on a United States tour, under the baton of new music director Armin Jordan. A chance to hear the orchestra live in Carnegie Hall on two succeeding evenings did not change the impression gained from those recordings: The Suisse Romande has always been a good, but not great, orchestra.

Maestro Jordan is an honest, solid musician -- often elegant, rarely inspired. He is at his best in the French literature, with its subtle dynamics and exotic orchestral colors. Thus, he offered a lovely ``La P'eri,'' by Paul Dukas, an energetic ``Bacchus et Ariane, Suite No. 2,'' by Albert Roussel, and, curiously, a lumpy, understated Ravel ``La Valse.'' His non-Gallic side was reflected in a solid if unsurprising reading of Dvorak's Seventh Symphony.

Jordan can be a fine accompanist. In his mostly French program, pianist Horacio Guti'errez chose to perform Mozart -- the 23rd Concerto, in A major, K. 488. Unfortunately, the overall smooth sound frame within which he unfolds his Mozart is merely pretty, and emotionally bland. Jordan was a sensitive partner, yet how nice it would have been to have heard something French -- say, a Vincent d'Indy ``Symphony on a Mountain Air,'' or a Saint-Sa"ens Fifth Concerto. Both are stylish, tuneful, and virtuo sic pieces in which Guti'errez would have particularly shone.

Jordan's unexpectedly noncommital accompaniment for oboist Heinz Holliger did not prevent the soloist from being electrifying in Strauss's Oboe Concerto. Holliger then conducted his own ``Tonscherben'' (``Music Fragments,'' commissioned by the orchestra for the tour). It proved to be the sort of sound-picture collection of orchestral burps, blips, and roars popular among a waning group of self-styled avant-gardists.

The orchestra has rarely been absent from the recording studio. The latest release, from Erato (digital NUM 75175), boasts a handsome ``La P'eri'' as well as Paul Dukas's Symphony in C.

The old Ansermet recordings are being impressively reprocessed onto London compact discs. Unfortunately, when stacked up against performances of, say, Charles Munch (whose older recordings with the Boston Symphony Orchestra are often definitive) or Pierre Monteux (a legend equally at home in Brahms, Debussy, or Stravinksy, and the man Ansermet considered to be his chief rival), Ansermet generally loses out.

Yet even though the performances are occasionally tame, London has set the standard for the transferral to CD of historic performances recorded in the pre-digital era. For example, Ansermet's Mussorgsky disc (CD 414 139-2) includes ``Pictures at an Exhibition'' (in the Ravel orchestration) that competes, even today, as a sound spectacular, despite some tape hiss.

In the French literature, a Ravel disc fares well -- with an unusually vivid ``Alborado del gracioso'' (CD 414 046-2). A Debussy disc that includes ``La Mer,'' the ``Nocturnes,'' and ``Pr'elude a l'Apr`es-midi d'un Faune,'' interpretively the best of the four reviewed here, is marred by aggressively intrusive bass (CD 414 040-2). The Falla disc (CD 414 039-2, with ``The Three Cornered Hat'' and a selection from ``El Amor Brujo'') sounds the best of all, and boasts Spanish mezzo Teresa Berganza.

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