Damrosch: Symphony in A Major; Festival Overture; Etc.

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The ability of record companies to spring surprises on the public is always pleasant, and here Toccata Classics gives us the opportunity to hear what must be one of the very first American symphonies. Leopold Damrosch is almost unknown nowadays, but his son Walter was for many years the principal conductor of the New York Philharmonic, and the father himself also conducted that body giving the American premières of the Brahms First Symphony and the Berlioz Requiem. Damrosch left Germany for the USA in 1871 and remained there for the remaining thirteen years of his life, during which time he wrote this four-movement symphony; but he never heard it played, and it remained unpublished and in manuscript until 2005 when it was finally edited for performance. This recording was made immediately following the première on 8 February 2015, and it reveals a fascinating if uneven work.

It is unfortunate that the disc begins with the Festival Overture written immediately before Damrosch’s departure for America and dedicated to Georg II, the Duke of Saxe-Meiningen. The booklet note discerns some influences of Wagner, especially Die Meistersinger; but any Wagnerian overtones are less than immediately apparent, bearing comparison (if at all) to some of the overblown marches that Wagner wrote for cash towards the end of his career. The tone is unremittingly loud and overblown; and that impression is reinforced by a closely observed recording in a claustrophobic acoustic which serves only to emphasize the thick brass writing and Damrosch’s reliance on busy string figuration which sometimes fails to achieve an ideal balance, shading into pure decoration. After the symphony the disc concludes with Damrosch’s orchestration of Schubert, a piece which the booklet informs us was popular with American audiences during the composer’s lifetime, but which rarely rises about the workaday.

No, the real piece of interest on this disc is the unpublished and previously unperformed symphony, and I mean no disrespect to the young players here when I say that one can imagine a better case being made out for the work. I have already noted the claustrophobic acoustic — like a confined broadcasting studio. We should also note the questionable balances which bring out the heavy brass at the expenses of the strings (and especially the violins), although these are not as serious in the symphony as in the more stridently scored other items on the disc. The playing is not always impeccable — there appears to be a split horn note very near the opening of the first movement, or at least an appoggiatura which fails to sound convincing — and although one can hear that the violins are working hard and achieving commendable degrees of accuracy they remain overshadowed by the sonorous trumpets and trombones. The woodwind playing, on the other hand, is superbly executed and well observed by the recording. Add to this the committed conducting of Christopher Russell, and booklet notes which are both informative and substantial, and we have here an issue which is of rather more than purely documentary interest. I am amazed that the composer’s son failed to program the symphony with the New York Philharmonic when he was their conductor – maybe he was unaware of its existence – but its revival is decidedly welcome. Perhaps American professional orchestras might care to look at it now that Azusa Pacific have broken the trail.

The conductor’s own booklet essay makes much of the parallels between the music of Damrosch and that of Wagner and Brahms, but the echoes seem to me to be much closer to Bruckner especially in the more atmospheric pages. The opening quiet string tremolos conjure up a definitely Brucknerian feel, and the episodic construction of the rest of the movement also has traces of that composer — but would Damrosch have heard any of the symphonies? The short second-movement Intermezzo is charming; and the solemn march of the third movement builds to a tremendous climax, crowned by a stroke on the gong, and including some positively manic episodes. After this lengthy movement, the most extended in the symphony, the finale is comparatively brief and conventional. As I have already observed Christopher Russell, whose explorations of rare repertory have included first American performances of symphonies by Havergal Brian and Robert Simpson, clearly relishes the music and manages to make it cohere even when it is at its most waywardly rhapsodic.

One more minor cause for complaint in this disc is the ridiculously short breaks between individual tracks – not just between movements in the symphony, but at the beginning and end of that work as well. The result is that the atmospheric slow introduction sounds almost like an odd sort of continuation of the raucous Festival Overture; and even more seriously, the arrival of the Schubert arrangement comes as a real shock immediately after the closing bars of the symphony’s finale. The listener will need to stand by the pause button at these points, but otherwise Toccata’s presentation is impeccable. This label’s restless exploration of the outermost fringes of the repertory is always fascinating, and the Damrosch symphony here deserves rather more than polite intellectual interest.

– MusicWeb International (Paul Corfield Godfrey)

Product Description:

  • Catalog Number: TOCC0261

  • UPC: 5060113442611

  • Label: Toccata Classics

  • Composer: Franz Schubert, Leopold Damrosch

  • Conductor: Christopher Russell

  • Orchestra/Ensemble: Azusa Pacific University Orchestra