Christoph Willibald von GLUCK (1714-1787)
Airs de Ballet arr. Gevaert; Air [1:43]; Slaves’ Dance [2:49]; Tambourin [1:03]; Chaconne [5:38] from Iphigenia in Aulide (1774): Gavotte from Armide (1777) [1:56]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Suite No.6 for solo cello; Gavotte in D arr Leopold Damrosch [4:19]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Ballet Divertissement from Henry VIII (1883) [15:18]
Gabriel FAURÉ (1845-1924)
Pavane, Op.50 (1887) [4:47]
Moritz MOSZKOWSKI (1854-1925)
Suite No.1 Op.39; Perpetual Motion (c.1887) [4:29]
Gabriel PIERNÉ (1863-1937)
Cydalise et le Chèvre-Pied; Entrance of the Little Fauns (1923) [3:00] ¹
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Ma Mère l’oye (Mother Goose) Suite (1908-11) [18:17]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.3 Eroica in E flat, Op.55 (1803) Funeral March explained at the piano by Walter Damrosch [8:38]
National Symphony Orchestra/Walter Damrosch
New York Symphony Orchestra/Walter Damrosch ¹
Walter Damrosch (piano and speech) ²
rec. 1927-30 New York City
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC 395 [71:54]
There was a time, as the song goes, when easy consensus condemned musicians to the crudity of caricature. Thus whilst Olympians such as Weingartner and Toscanini generated square feet of critical thrust and counter-thrust, men such as, say, Henry Wood, Frederick Stock and Walter Damrosch (1862-1950) were condemned to that critical limbo in which reside the unconsidered, the taken-for-granted or the plain dismissed.
One of the blessings that has accrued from the digital revolution is the wide availability of the recordings made by such conductors. Certainly, of the three, Damrosch made the least important contribution to recorded history. In that sense, maybe there’s a logic as to why he’s long resided in the shadows.
His major project was a recording of Brahms’s Second Symphony, though he had in fact, as Mark Obert-Thorn notes, pioneered orchestral music in America, leading the first native orchestra to record under its own director – rather than exalted European imports – as early as 1903. There was then a lacuna until these 1927-30 sides, of lighter fare in the main. He was still with Columbia, as he had been in 1903, when he set down the Mother Goose suite in 1927. A few years later he contracted with Victor. Thus, with the exception of the Brahms, which is not here, what we have in this single-disc is his complete Columbia and Victor studio recordings.
I’m convinced that for years people didn’t really listen to Henry Wood’s records – they preferred to review his name. Coming blind to this disc, stripped of all prejudice and assumptions as to the — let’s guess — lumpy, unimaginative qualities of a conductor who didn’t record much so couldn’t be any good, I am sure that – on the contrary - you would be strongly impressed. Damrosch was given largely ballet music to record, not all of it terribly elevated as to the processes of interpretation, but nearly everything reveals imagination, a propensity for colour, characterisation, pathos and an intelligent, practical musicality. It’s no great surprise that he was selected to head the forerunner of the NBC Symphony – the National Symphony Orchestra was the orchestral arm of the 1930 NBC.
The Gluck extracts, almost all from Iphigenia in Aulide, are heard in the Gevaert arrangements and are all aptly pointed, on their toes rhythmically, and not subject to any Stokowski-like inflations. String tone remains lean, the ethos respectful and functional in the very best sense. The Bach Gavotte movement from the sixth Cello Suite (not a Sonata, obviously, as the jewel case has it in a clear typo) is an arrangement by Damrosch’s illustrious father, Leopold. This is no mere act of filial piety, but a fine arrangement in its own right. A standout is the ballet divertissement from Saint-Saëns’ Henry VIII in which the bagpipery and the drones are put across with just the right amount of knowingness. Anyone who doubts the Frenchman’s ‘filmic’ imagination can listen to the end of the Scotch Idyll. Mother Goose is atmospheric – the birdcalls are well defined - and full of nuance that justify the record companies’ interest in Damrosch setting down French repertoire, albeit of a rather specialised light kind. Fauré’s Pavane is another example, and Pierné’s little Faun piece is very reminiscent of Grieg.
Finally there is one of those oddities that crop up in earlier recorded history, a piece of descriptive musical analysis. Around this time Walford Davies recorded extensive extracts on the piano accompanied by the fiddle player Marjorie Hayward in what were called ‘Lecture Illustrations’. Music and talk, in other words. Damrosch does much the same, solo though, in over eight minutes, talking about the Funeral March from the Eroica. Sophisticated contemporary listeners may find this ‘explanation’ rather naïve; to use a word suggested in Pristine’s note. Oh well, call me naïve. I think it’s tremendous. If you smirk at Damrosch’s talk of the ‘fluttering of angel’s wings’ you’re probably too sophisticated.
So, a terrific disc, one that enshrines largely ‘inessential’ repertory played with artistry and sensitivity. The transfers are first class. That said, and whilst I appreciate space is limited, I’m not taken by Pristine’s decision to relegate some of the recording details to their website. I’m up in my bat cave listening and I want it all in black and white, please.