Defauw conductingThe unexpected but enormously welcome appearance of two CDs of recordings by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra under Désiré Defauw, from the British-based Historic Recordings, is something that ought not to be overlooked. Defauw, almost entirely forgotten now, was a fine musician with some interesting repertory choices and an invariably persuasive way with the music he chose to perform. These recordings not only bear that out, but also provide some striking examples of the surprising quality of orchestral recordings made in the immediate postwar years.

Most collectors of recordings of "classical" music are familiar with those made by the Chicago SO under Fritz Reiner, even though they go all the way back to 1954 (Reiner’s tenure in Chicago was 1953-63), because they have never been out of RCA Victor’s active catalog. They were "sonic showpieces" when they were new, and they have been effectively refurbished with each new development in the science of sound recording over the decades.

What fewer people recall, because it was earlier still, is the series the same company recorded on 78s with the Belgian conductor Defauw, one of Reiner’s less fortunate predecessors on the Chicago podium, whose tenure there was brief (1943-47), but not as brief as those of the two men who occupied that post between himself and Reiner: Artur Rodzinski had a single stormy season there (1947-48), and Rafael Kubelík had only three (1950-53). Kubelík, however, made recording history with the Chicago SO on the LPs that introduced Mercury’s "Living Presence" series, and then returned to Europe to become one of the most respected musicians of his time, as documented in his recordings with the Vienna Philharmonic, the Berlin Philharmonic, the Boston SO, and his own Bavarian Radio SO.

Defauw himself (1885-1960) enjoyed a similar status until he came to Chicago, having earned respect as leader of a string quartet, and then achieved greater renown during his 14 years as conductor of the Royal Conservatory Orchestra in Brussels, where he made a number of well received recordings in the late 1920s and eventually founded a new orchestra, independent of the Conservatory. He fled just ahead of the Nazis’ arrival, and one of his admirers, Arturo Toscanini, helped him get a visa for the US and invited him to conduct his NBC SO in that orchestra’s third season. Defauw had three weeks in December 1939, and returned for a concert in September 1942, when Leopold Stokowski was in charge; between those two engagements, he became conductor of the orchestra in Montreal that was later to bloom under Charles Dutoit. When Frederick Stock, who had been conductor of the Chicago SO since 1905, died in 1942, Toscanini was apparently among those who recommended Defauw to succeed him.

Defauw recordingIn any event, Defauw could not have been prepared for what happened to him in Chicago, and in his 60s he did not have the resilience to bounce back as Kubelík subsequently did in his 30s. At the time of Defauw’s arrival, in 1943, the orchestra was at a low point. Some of its principal players had left for wartime service, and some of the replacements were embarrassingly inadequate. The music critic of the city’s most widely read newspaper seemed to go out of her way to tear Defauw down -- as she did later in ending Kubelík’s tenure in Chicago, even though the orchestra had by then improved markedly and its recordings were making a terrific impression everywhere. Ironically, a year or so after losing his position in Chicago, Defauw returned for a week as a guest conductor, and the critic who had effectively chased him out of town compared him favorably with another guest conductor, Ernest Ansermet, who had preceded him in some of the same repertoire.

After Chicago, Defauw did not return to Europe, but took the helm of the Cape Town SO in South Africa, where his tenure was again brief. For whatever curious reason, he again did not return to Europe, but instead went back to the site of his misfortune, the Chicago area, as conductor of the orchestra in the steel-mill town of Gary, Indiana, and with a professorship at Northwestern University, in Evanston, Illinois. By the time of his death, in 1960, the LP and stereophonic recording had introduced the world to a host of new and "rediscovered" musical superstars, and Defauw, whose lifetime discography was small, had already been largely forgotten -- but a string quartet of first-chairs from the Chicago SO performed at his modest funeral in Gary.

To the world beyond Chicago, the few recordings Defauw made there gave no intimation that problems of any kind had ever existed. By March 1945, when he made his first recordings there, the war was nearing its end, and recordings were again being made in the US, following the two-year hiatus imposed by James Caesar Petrillo, the president of the musicians’ union. Both RCA Victor and American Columbia began recording in earnest, and Victor in particular was achieving a new level of spaciousness, detail and all-round realism in recording the orchestras under contract to it. The Defauw/Chicago recordings were among those that came to be regarded as the introduction of the concept and the reality represented by the term "high fidelity." Orchestra Hall itself, the orchestra’s home, was at that time one of the most splendid recording venues among the world’s concert halls, a factor very much in evidence on Defauw’s 78s, an intriguing mix of the familiar and the decidedly less so, including four concerted works with some of the most admired soloists of that time. On a total of seven days, between March 1945 and March 1947, Defauw and the Chicago SO recorded 17 titles:

Borodin: Symphony No.2
Fauré: Sicilienne from Pelléas et Mélisande
Franck: Le Chasseur maudit
Franck: Three movements from Psyché
Franck: Morceau symphonique from Rédemption
Grétry: Airs de ballet from Céphale et Procris, arr. Mottl
Handel: Water Music -- Suite, arr. Harty
Handel: Concerto grosso in D minor, Op.6, No.10
Handel: Serse -- Largo, arr. Hellmesberger
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, with Mischa Elman
Prokofiev: Scythian Suite
Respighi: The Birds
Smetana: Overture to The Bartered Bride
R. Strauss: Burleske, with Claudio Arrau, piano
Stravinsky: Fireworks
Tchaikovsky: Violin Concerto, with Erica Morini
Weber: Konzertstück, with Arrau

Mischa ElmanAll of these were promptly issued, and all were well received. Defauw had recorded the Respighi, the Grétry, and the excerpt from Franck’s Rédemption in Brussels, and these pieces remained prominent in his repertoire throughout his life. Both the Grétry and the Respighi were included in his NBC SO concerts in 1939, as well as his first sessions in Chicago.

Felix Mottl, an esteemed conductor in the second half of the 19th century, arranged tasteful suites of ballet pieces by Rameau, Lully and Gluck, as well as the Grétry, and also the brilliant piano piece Bourrée fantasque, by his own contemporary Emmanuel Chabrier. Unfortunately for us, all of those arrangements more or less disappeared from our concert life long ago. The Céphale material, the most charming of all those "Mottled" suites, was a virtual calling card for Defauw; he managed to perform it with amazing frequency in Chicago, and its appeal never faded, with his players or his audience. The prominent horns were confident and witty, the orchestral balance was impeccable, the whole thing was a showpiece for the orchestra as well as for the recording team, and even now it is a self-renewing joy.

Defauw’s unlabored approach to the Rédemption interlude remains unique for its commanding animation. He made a small cut and simply eschewed all thoughts of monumentalism, choosing instead to make it really grand, instead of merely grandiose, by breathing life into the piece and building its climaxes with spot-on assurance. Again, the orchestra came through as an out-and-out virtuoso ensemble relishing every moment of both the challenge and the opportunity inherent in Defauw’s own triumphal enthusiasm. It is the only Defauw recording RCA itself revived on CD, as the sole representative of this conductor’s work with the orchestra in a short-lived Chicago SO centenary set. Unfortunately, it is perhaps the least well preserved of all of this conductor’s Chicago recordings, but the Historic Recordings transfer strikes me as being more successful than RCA’s own.

If the Overture to The Bartered Bride looks somehow out of place in this line-up of titles, it is a brilliant performance by any standards, and benefits particularly from the skills the Victor engineers had developed by 1947 in revealing detail that simply doesn’t turn up in many other recordings of the piece, even now -- such as the three notes from the trumpet linking the fizzy introductory section to the main part of the piece, which stand out in the character of a fanfare.

Another fanfare, totally unexpected, makes the recording of the Borodin Second Symphony certifiably unique. When this product of Defauw’s final Chicago sessions was first issued, shortly after his tenure there ended, several reviewers commented on the cut in the work’s slow movement, but I cannot recall that any of them mentioned the added material at the end. This symphony’s rumbustious finale concludes with a whirring figure in the strings which leads to the conventional final chord. In this performance, however, a brass fanfare, based on the movement’s principal theme, exultantly cuts through those whirring strings. It takes no more than 15 seconds, but for some of us it not only enhances the finale’s spirit of jubilation but makes the entire work more exciting in instantaneous retrospect.

It also, of course, raises the obvious question: Whose idea was this? It obviously was not Borodin’s own, and of course some of us take offense at the idea of meddling with the composer’s own "final word." While in most cases I would certainly agree with that view, in this one I find the addition irresistible. Not only do I remind myself that Borodin was essentially an inspired amateur musician -- statues of him in his native country honor him as an outstanding scientist -- and we know several of his works in arrangements by Rimsky-Korsakov, Glazunov, and others. I can envision him responding to the added fanfare here by slapping his forehead in irritation -- not over the presumptuousness of the addition to his score, but over his failure to think of that fanfare on his own.

In earlier times, performers were expected to take some liberties with the printed score. A cadenza, an embellishment -- such things were the performers’ contributions in recreating a piece. Gustav Mahler, one of the most respected conductors of his time, even among those who had little use for his compositions, retouched or revised the symphonies of Schumann and Beethoven. "Creative liberties" are taken with Rossini overtures even now, in the face of conflicting versions of the scores. Defauw’s predecessor in Chicago, Frederick Stock, used to double the violin parts with clarinets in the Brahms symphonies. It was, in fact, old Stock who added this fanfare -- though this was not confirmed until as late as 2001, when the orchestra’s archivists came across the evidence. Since no one else has performed or recorded this intriguing embellishment since Defauw did, it is especially heartening to have his recording on CD at last, and in more than respectable sound.

RCA Victor itself did reissue most of its Defauw material on LP -- some of it on the Camden label (with the orchestra masquerading as the "Century SO" and no conductor named), others on Bluebird, but on CD brought back nothing but the Franck piece already mentioned. Some of the other recordings have turned up on various "historical reissue" labels -- the Tchaikovsky Concerto with Morini, for instance, a lovely collaboration between two very sympathetic artists, on Biddulph -- but the new Historic Recordings CDs are the first attempts at anything like a comprehensive revival, offering a total of ten titles, nearly all of which are among the most appealing of the Defauw/Chicago recordings and benefit from quite decent sound for this sort of thing -- good enough, certainly, for the details and the spirit of these performances to make their engaging impact. The two discs are laid out as follows:

Defauw/Chicago Vol.1, HRCD 00093
Franck: Le Chasseur maudit
Franck: Rédemption (Morceau symphonique)
Franck: Three movements from Psyché
Respighi: The Birds
Prokofiev: Scythian Suite

Defauw/Chicago Vol.2, HRCD 00102
Smetana: The Bartered Bride -- Overture
Grétry: Céphale et Procris -- Airs de ballet, arr. Mottl
Stravinsky: Fireworks
Mendelssohn: Violin Concerto, with Elman
Borodin: Symphony No.2

Historic Recordings, which has quietly built up a catalog of hundreds of interesting recordings by stellar artists of the past, has not used metal parts or original master tapes provided by the respective originating companies, but has engaged Mark Obert-Thorn and other respected transfer engineers to take the material from well preserved copies of the original 78s and LPs. Among its other releases are a collection of Defauw’s early Brussels material, Sir Thomas Beecham’s pathbreaking recording of Schumann’s music -- all of it, not just the familiar Overture -- for Byron’s Manfred, and most of Constant Lambert’s pre-war recordings with both the London Philharmonic and the Sadler’s Wells Orchestra.

While a single Historic Recordings reissue, a Mengelberg collection transferred and annotated by Mark Obert-Thorn, is available from, in a standard CD "jewel case," the numerous other HR reissues must be ordered directly from the company itself. CDs, mostly in "slimline" cases, are priced in British currency at £7, plus shipping (usually £3 for fewer than 20 discs); downloads are available at £4. US and Canadian currency exchange rates will vary from time to time. Check the Historic Recordings website for details on purchasing the Defauw reissues, and for information on additions to the catalog.

. . . Richard Freed