American Light Music. HERBERT: Pan American (arr. Otto Langey). American Rhapsody. Irish Rhapsody. Naughty Marietta, excerpts (arr. Harold Sanford). The Fortune Teller, excerpts (arr. Langey). GOTTSCHALK (arr. Hershey Kay): Cakewalk Ballet Suite.
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy.
Pristine Audio PASC356 TT: 69:10.

Waltzes and high-steppin'. Eugene Ormandy didn't disdain the popular. Indeed, he conducted light music very well and with gusto and, of the conductors of the Fifties and Sixties Big Five (Cleveland, Chicago, Philadelphia, Boston, and New York) obtained the greatest popularity of them all, save Leonard Bernstein. Szell, Monteux, and Munch may have had respect, but Ormandy was loved. This CD from Pristine gives us at least one classic performance re-engineered in superb sound.

Victor Herbert, born in Ireland and raised in Germany, received thorough musical training. He became a cellist in great demand and began to compose. He emigrated to the United States and added conducting to his skills. He continued to compose, including among his works a cello concerto that inspired Dvorák to write his own. Herbert's star, which burned brightly in its day and made him a wealthy man, has dimmed almost to extinction, a process notable after World War I. He became one of the founders of ASCAP, to provide intellectual-property protection to composers and lyricists. The general public today may still recognize Naughty Marietta's "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life" and Babes in Toyland's "Toyland" and "March of the Toys."

The works here are essentially medleys, much like the clichéd Broadway overture. Hearing the show tunes before and after the curtain goes up, and possibly reprised in the finale enables an audience to remember them and possibly like them enough to purchase the sheet music or the recording after they leave the theater. "Pan American" Herbert wrote for the 1901 Pan American Exposition, held in Buffalo, New York. In A-B-A form, it uses two melodies which have little to do with one another. The first, a brisk march, probably represented the can-do spirit of North America, while a lazily syncopated habanera stood for South America (the Exposition tried to include each of the Americas). Herbert sets the second tune with all the understanding of Latin-American musical rhythm one expects from an Irishman raised in Germany.
The American and Irish Rhapsodies are essentially the same piece -- a medley of national and folk airs -- and differ only in the tunes used. After some 20th-Century Fox fanfares, American Rhapsody sings "Hail, Columbia!," an over-the-top "Old Folks at Home," "The Girl I Left Behind Me," military fanfares, "Dixie," the Ives favorite "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean" and winds up with "The Star-Spangled Banner," which despite all the brass, cymbals, and swirling strings, seems pretty tame compared to Stravinsky's arrangement. Irish Rhapsody runs through tunes I don't know the names of, with the exceptions of "Believe me if all those endearing young charms" and "The pulse of an Irishman," but have heard before, mainly in the soundtrack to the movie The Quiet Man. Despite the routine of much of the music, Herbert nevertheless comes up with some moments so inspired that they show up the rest of the scores: "The Girl I Left Behind Me" tootles along to fife and drum, while an Irish war song barbarically marches over a reed drone.

Born in New Orleans and educated in Paris, Louis Moreau Gottschalk became one of the great piano virtuosos of his day, as well as a conductor and composer. His music divides in two -- sentimental frou-frou like "The Dying Poet" and scores based on the African-based dances of the Caribbean Triangle (New Orleans, Cuba, Haiti). He concertized in all these places and heard the music first-hand. The sappy stuff has disappeared down history's oubliette while the dances have survived, in large part due to Hershey Kay's Cakewalk ballet, which has become a light classic. Kay studied composition with Randall Thompson at the Curtis Institute and found remunerative work mainly as an arranger and orchestrator of musicals. He became one of the pre-eminent arrangers on Broadway, along with Robert Russell Bennett and Don Walker. I love his Broadway work, even when the musicals he worked on may not be up to snuff. He also wrote the occasional ballet for George Balanchine, of which Cakewalk is one. At the time, Gottschalk had become more or less a dead letter. Cakewalk helped revive interest. (Incidentally, for a good and entertaining biography of Gottschalk, try S. Frederick Starr's Bamboula!).

Kay orchestrates in a Modern manner, as opposed to a historically-correct one, and it sounds wonderful. Unlike Herbert, Kay never lets up on invention and wit. Bits of Charles Ives's "General William Booth Enters into Heaven" and Stravinsky's Petrushka, among other snippets, flit through. Legendary producer and engineer Mark Obert-Thorne points out the fact that Kay included traditional minstrel tunes in his score. He also argues that Kay orchestrates in a "Broadway" manner. Certain sections -- notably "Sleight of Feet" -- bear him out. But overall the scoring, though clean and economical and suited to a pit orchestra, has more in common with Piston than with the usual Broadway orchestrator. Mostly, the Broadway manner is Hershey Kay's Broadway, which included work on Bernstein's On the Town, Candide, Peter Pan, and 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, none of them exactly Gals and Gams. The non-Gottschalk provides respite while the Gottschalk injects the score with fizz and animal spirits.

Ormandy, because he loved schmaltz with a true heart, tends to save Victor Herbert from himself. As one example, "Ah! Sweet Mystery of Life" (which Madeline Kahn sang while having sex with the monster in Young Frankenstein) teeters over, but doesn't quite fall into, Sugar Canyon. Cakewalk, however, gets an electric performance, with Ormandy and his Philadelphians digging into almost every syncopation with vim. The sound in both improves immeasurably over the mono originals. Indeed, at times you might swear the disc spoke stereo, so rounded and clear is the sound. Hats off to Pristine once again.

S.G.S. (September 2014)