> Romberg GEMMCD9100 [RW]: Classical Reviews- May 2002 MusicWeb(UK)






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Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Sigmund ROMBERG (1887-1951)
The Desert Song (1926)
Harry Welchman, Edith Day, Dennis Hoey, Sidney Pointer
New Moon (1929)
Evelyn Laye, Howett Worster, Ben Williams
Drury Lane Theatre Orchestra/Herman Finck
Rec. 1927 and 1929

Robert STOLZ (1880-1975)

The Blue Train (1927)
Lily Elsie, Bobby Howes, Arthur Margetson, Cicely Debenham
Prince of Wales Theatre Orchestra/Charles Prentice
Rec. 1927
PEARL GEMM CD 9100 [69.10]


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This disc is a compilation of three sets of 78rpm records. Unusually these recordings use theatre orchestras and cast from when the original performances were being staged. The Desert Song and The Blue Moon were obvious choices for the Columbia Record Company to put in its catalogue, yet Stolz's Blue Train, which had a short West End run, was not. The decision to include it was probably due to a desire to capture the singing of Lily Elsie who had risen to fame with her earlier portrayal of Hanna in the British première of The Merry Widow in 1907. On the other hand it may have been recorded in the anticipation that the show would enjoy a long run.

Sigmund Romberg haled from Hungary but unlike Kálmán he left traces of Bohemia in his music when he started to compose for the stage. From his association with the Theater an der Wien whilst studying in Vienna he gained insight into theatre technique. After visiting the United States as an engineer in 1909 he returned to New York in 1913 where he turned to music and composed songs for a revue. He lost no time in writing his first operetta, The Midnight Girl (1914). He went on to compose scores for the Passing Show of 1914 (and others) and worked with Al Jolson on Sinbad (1918). Then in 1924 Friml's popular Rose Marie was eclipsed by Romberg's The Student Prince, which had been adapted from an earlier score, Old Heidelberg of 1903. The Student Prince took off, making Romberg a Broadway favourite. The musical was soon exported back to Britain and Europe in its new form.

The Desert Song, written two years later, with libretto by Hammerstein II, Harbach and Mandel, had a good cast and so much good music, colour and romance that it was destined to match the popularity enjoyed by The Student Prince. Within six months it was also playing in London at Drury Lane where these recordings were made. Some fine melodies, skilfully orchestrated by Gerstenberger, capitalised as fully as possible on the exoticism of a French North African colony.

The operetta is set in North Africa in the '20s against a background of discontent between the French colonials and local guerrillas, "The Riffs". A 'Valentino style' love story takes place between a French commander's daughter, Margot, and the Riff leader, Red Shadow (whose face nobody has seen). The score, with its brilliant tunes and rhythms, reflects the confidence gained by Romberg from the success of The Student Prince. All its favourite songs are here in these Columbia 78s transcriptions.

The New Moon, written shortly after Desert Song with libretto by Hammerstein II, Mandel and Schwab, opened in New York in 1928 (and in London in 1929). The musical numbers boasted more popularity than The Desert Song and are probably the best remembered of Broadway. This was helped by the existence of a film version. Ganzl in his book "Musicals" tells us that this popularity is surprising because each of the songs was a replacement, found necessary when the producer tried out a Philadelphia run prior to Broadway.

Set in the 18th Century in New Orleans, the well-crafted script concerns a murderer (a French aristocrat) who escapes justice by disguising himself as a bonded servant sold into the service of a local landowner. He is in love with his master's daughter yet since a French detective is pursuing him he dares not declare it. The French revolution is now in progress and the detective (himself an aristocrat) is whisked away, so the need for a disguise is now unnecessary.

Packed with good music The New Moon is representative of the best of many 1920s scores and the Pearl CD notes remind us that it deserves to be revived more often. Their selection is an interesting one because it bridges the transition between traditional European romantic voices and the snappier transatlantic style: these led to the jazzier approach of Kern and Porter, which commenced with Showboat and its kind.

Austrian, Robert Stolz, studied with Humperdinck of Hansel and Gretel fame in Berlin. Like Romberg he was also associated with the Theater an der Wien and produced his own work there, Die Lustigen Weiber von Wien in 1909. He was a conductor and composer of popular ballads as well as an occasional composer of film scores. Although an Austrian he abhorred Hitler's politics and left for America in disgust in 1938. He made his feelings known by composing a Funeral March for Adolf Hitler while Hitler was still alive.

As a prolific composer of operettas, Stolz's The Blue Train is not well known. With libretto by Titheradge and Arkell the plot is trivial. It concerns a broken engagement that fiancée, Eileen, hopes to restore. This is achieved by asking to be married for only one month (by which time she hopes to renew his affections). The 'Blue Train' is a stage mechanism for transporting the couple first to a Swiss ski resort and then on to the Rivera where comic sub-plots take place.

The show was not gauged a success with only 116 performances, and one asks why Columbia rushed in to record its music? It seems that Lily Elsie, its main star, was popular with the British public and would sell records since she had previously created the star part in The Merry Widow back in 1907.

In general the singers exhibit something of the 'flutter vibrato' which was fashionable during this period. Edith Day has a lovely voice with clean top notes and much clarity of diction, yet this is marred by noisy intakes of breath. Gene Gerrard has an intimate appeal whilst Harry Welchman at times comes across as a bit aloof with his RADA diction. He is best in One Alone (tk8). Those who know of Derek Oldham will understand what I'm talking about.

A few of the records are not in ideal condition: the Desert Song record suffers from some high frequency worn-groove distortion.

The pit orchestras are not unduly recessed in the recording and play reasonably competently. But the opening of Riding Song of the Riffs sounds distinctly odd and a new wax should have been cut: in the introduction the wind section is not in tune and it sounds as if only a solo cello is present.

In New Moon the new electric xylophone (at least that is what I think it is) makes a prominent appearance but castanets are almost lost in the recording. The brilliance in Evelyn Laye's voice comes clearly across and it is likely she had great stage presence (tk10). Her breezy phrasing is elegant and this suits her character. Ben Williams has a wide range and strong voice with good breath control, but long-held notes can waver at times. Howett Worster has a warm resonant tone with clear diction (tk13).

In the first Blue Train record the orchestra is disappointingly masked by the singers to a large extent. The balance is better judged in the following numbers. Delightful singing is provided by Lily Elsie who, here must have been getting past her best: this recording was made twenty-five years after her star appearance in The Merry Widow. Arthur Margetson sings with a certain magnetic presence, but also has problems when pitching sustained notes: it is a pity that Elsie couldn't have been provided with a more confident partner. Bobby Howes sings with confidence and gives us a sample of the change of musical style in America that was now penetrating London's West End (tk17). He sings with an appropriate jazzy bounce.

Useful, brief notes are provided by Charles Haynes who puts these shows in context with others of the period. Matrix and catalogue numbers are provided. His assertion that more modern recordings of Romberg works are desperately needed I whole-heartedly support. This would make an ideal project for John McGlynn and EMI: they proved it with Showboat so what about some others?
Raymond Walker

 

THE DESERT SONG
1. RIDING SONG OF THE RIFFS
2. FRENCH MARCHING SONG
3. ROMANCE
4. IT
5. THE DESERT SONG 13'261
6. EASTERN AND WESTERN LOVE
7. THE SABRE SONG
8. ONE ALONE
THE NEW MOON

9. MARIANNE into STOUT-HEARTED MEN
10. THE GIRL ON THE PROW
11. SOFTLY, AS IN A MORNING SUNRISE
12. ONE KISS
13. WANTING YOU
14. LOVER, COME BACK TO ME
THE BLUE TRAIN

15. BACHELOR DAYS
16. THE BLUE TRAIN
17. YOU'VE GOT TO FIT YOUR STEP
18. WHEN A GIRL IS IN LOVE WITH A MAN
19. EILEEN
20. YOU'LL MISS MY DANCING
21. SWISS FAIRYLAND
22. YOU DIDN'T ASK ME FIRST


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