In what appears to
be the first in a series of historical
discs, VMS are off to a good start,
at least where the quality of the music
making and the restorations is concerned.
Regrettably, the accompanying information
booklet, absolutely vital to historical
recordings, is woefully lacking in content,
and, as seems to be more and more typical
of smaller record companies, is carelessly
and sloppily produced, with a number
of annoying typographical errors and
proof-reading oversights. It would also
certainly be nice to know who did the
restorations. As good as they are there
is no credit to the tonkunstmeister
to be found.
Having said that, I
can only hope that future releases will
fix these problems, and that this label
which seems to be an effort of several
parties on at least three continents,
continues to exist and prosper, as the
quality of the product that really
counts, the music itself, is absolutely
Walter Damrosch (1862-1950)
came from a fine line of German musicians.
His mother participated in the first
performance of Wagner’s Lohengrin
and his father was a violinist in Liszt’s
orchestra in Weimar. When the family
emigrated to the United States in 1871,
the elder Damrosch became a focal point
of American musical life, founding the
New York Oratorio Society in 1873 and
the New York Symphony Society in 1878.
Walter rose to great prominence as a
conductor and was a champion of what
was then contemporary music, commissioning
works such as Sibelius’s Tapiola
and conducting the first performances
of Gershwin’s Concerto in F and
An American in Paris.
Damrosch is represented
here by some lighter fare, played by
the National Symphony Orchestra of New
York, which through a series of mergers
and acquisitions eventually became the
modern-day New York Philharmonic. Throughout
this series of overtures and encore
pieces, Damrosch proves himself to be
a conductor of tremendous style and
grace, never losing a tasteful elegance
that seems to be his signature. That
is not to say that he lacks gravitas,
surely the first American performances
of the later Tchaikovsky and Brahms
symphonies, for which he was responsible,
had that. But here, he allows his lighter
side to show through, and it is a pleasant
turn indeed to hear a world class orchestra
play some of the lighter and more entertaining
fare so sadly absent from modern concert
programs. In spite of their age, these
seventy-five year old recordings come
through with some marvelous depth stored
in their grooves, and whoever the mystery
producer was, he or she did a magnificent
job of capturing the spatial ambience
of these recordings. Of particular merit
are the rich and dynamic bass tones.
There is, to be sure, audible surface
noise from the 1929 vintage 78s, but
one can get past that rather quickly.
Up next is the Silesian
born conductor Leopold Reichwein (1878-1945),
weighing in with two lively and charming
performances of opera overtures by Flotow
and Suppé. Known primarily as
a Wagner conductor, Reichwein succeeded
Bruno Walter as conductor at the Vienna
Court Opera in 1913. In these 1938 Odeon
recordings, he brings the rather lighthearted
overtures to Martha and Die
Schöne Galathee to sparkling
life in remastered sound that is clear,
clean and rich in detail.
Herbert Sandberg (1902-1966),
although trained in Germany, made the
most of his career in Sweden where he
was a Royal Court Musician and worked
in the Royal Opera House in Stockholm.
He is best known for translating a number
of important German operas into Swedish.
This 1955 recording of Grieg’s Holberg
Suite is in superb mono sound, and the
RIAS orchestra rises to the occasion
splendidly in this well-paced rendition
of this string orchestra masterpiece.
Grieg can often get overly sentimental
in the wrong hands, but Sandberg manages
to retain the lyricism and beauty of
the slower movements without becoming
maudlin, and the energy and sprightliness
of the dance movements is infectious.
This is a release that
will doubtless appeal more to the specialists’
market, but there can be no doubt that
any serious music lover will at least
appreciate it for its overflowing bounty
of really fine orchestral playing. If
one can get past the surface noise (which
truly is quite minimal) of the earlier
performances, then there is contained
herein an hour-plus of delightful gems.
Let us hope that VMS will clean up their
documentation act and give us more information
about the specific recordings and the
music itself in future releases.
Recommended with a
couple of qualifications.
review by Jonathan Woolf