Three Early Weber Recordings

Most of the early recordings that feature the bassoon did so in a comical fashion. A handful of artists recorded Quentin Ashlyn's song "The Bassoon" in the first decades of the 20th century, and I have in my collection a couple of very strange (at least to modern ears) "laughing records" from the same era that include the bassoon. In 1911, Carl Borgwald recorded Julius Fučík's classic "Der Alte Brummbär" in 1911 (released as "Polka Fantastique" in the U.S.). And in 1918, Edison released two somewhat silly piccolo/bassoon duets: "The Elephant and The Fly" and "The Nightingale and the Frog", both featuring Benjamin Kohon, who would later become principal bassoonist of the New York Philharmonic. The earliest "serious" bassoon piece on disc (the earliest that I've been able to locate, anyway) was not the Mozart Concerto, as one might guess. Rather, it was Carl Maria von Weber's Andante e Rondo Ongarese. In fact, this Romantic showpiece was recorded three separate times between 1920 and 1938.

Aside from being historical curiosities, these recordings give us a glimpse of early twentieth century bassoon playing. And as far as I can tell, none of these recordings have ever been re-released. Below you will find copies of all three, digitized from discs in my collection. I've applied a bit of noise reduction and removed the worst of the pops and clicks, but these are far from professional-quality transfers. I'd recommend listening to these on headphones or real speakers, as they may be a bit difficult to hear on laptop, tablet, or phone speakers.

Weber Recordings

The three discs in chronological order. Click for a larger version.

The first two of these were in fact made by the same man: William Gruner, who played bassoon in the Philadelphia Orchestra 1906-1917 and 1929-1951. Gruner was born in Berlin on January 12, 1883 and arrived in the United States aboard the S.S. Deutschland in April 1906. He became a U.S. citizen in 1914, and lived near Philadelphia until his death in February 1971. In the period between his two stints with the Philadelphia Orchestra (1917-1929), Gruner worked for the Victor Talking Machine Company, making numerous recordings with the Victor Orchestra and numerous smaller groups.1

William Gruner

William Gruner, from his 1923
U.S. Passport Application

Gruner and the Victor Orchestra first recorded Andante e Rondo Ongarese in June 1920. They recorded ten takes over the space of three recording sessions in Victor's Camden, New Jersey studios. The last of these, recorded on June 24th, was issued as "Hungarian Fantasie" on the B side of Victor 18684, a ten-inch 78rpm disc. The piece was severely cut down to fit this format: it lasts a mere three minutes and thirteen seconds. (For comparison, complete recordings I have by Milan Turkovic, Nadina Mackie Jackson, and Masahito Tanaka clock in at 9:53, 9:02, and 9:20, respectively.) After the initial 16 measures of the Andante, a two bar orchestral transition launches us right into the Rondo. The Rondo is a bit more substantial, but is missing huge chunks (including most of that dreaded last page of 16th-note triplets). The end of the piece has been rewritten, too. Hear it for yourself:

Listen to William Gruner - Andante e Rondo (1920)

When Gruner made this recording in 1920, the technology involved was quite similar to that invented by Thomas Edison 43 years earlier: the performers played into a large horn that transmitted sound waves to a flexible diaphragm connected to a stylus that cut the sound directly onto a wax disc. This method produced recordings with limited frequency and dynamic range and required performers to crowd around a single horn to be heard. But in 1925 Victor (and many of their competitors) adopted a new electrical recording process that used microphones, vacuum tube amplifiers, and an electromagnetic recording head. This system allowed for much greater dynamic and frequency response, and produced a generally much better sounding recording.

Gruner and the Victor Orchestra returned to the studio on October 19, 1926, and recorded an additional five takes of the Weber with the new electrical recording system. They used the same pared-down arrangement - electrical recording did nothing to mitigate the format's time constraints. This new recording was released in June 1927 as the B side of Victor 20525, another ten-inch 78rpm disc. Although Victor didn't set about re-recording their entire catalog after switching to electrical recording, this is in instance in which they clearly wanted to re-create an earlier disc. The A sides of the two discs are recordings of Tourbillon (Whirlwind), a piece for flute and piano by Adolph Krantz, albeit featuring different performers.2

If you made it all the way through Gruner's 1920 recording, you probably don't need to listen to all of this one. His interpretation doesn't change appreciably, although it is interesting to hear the differences between the two recording processes.

Listen to William Gruner - Andante e Rondo (1926)
Fernand Oubradous

Fernand Oubradous

The French bassoonist Fernand Oubradous recorded Andante e Rondo Ongarese in Paris in 1938, accompanied by the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire under the direction of Roger Désormière. Oubradous was born in Paris on February 12, 1903. He won his Premiere prix from the Paris Conservatoire in 1923 - after only a single year of bassoon study. He played with the Paris Opéra, the Orchestre Lamoureux, the Orchestre de la Société des Concerts du Conservatoire, and the Trio d'Anches de Paris. In addition to Weber's Andante e Rondo Ongarese, Oubradous recorded concerti by Mozart, Weber, and Boismortier and a great deal of chamber music. But his first job after graduating from the Conservatoire was as music director of the Théâtre de l’Atelier, and he received much acclaim as a conductor throughout his career. Oubradous died in Paris in January 1986.3 For more on Oubradous, see these two sites (both in French): fernand.oubradous.free.fr and Fernand Oubradous - Site de l'association Fou de Basson.

Oubradous's recording of the piece is nearly complete, thanks to it being issued on both sides of a twelve-inch 78rpm disc (L'Oiseau-Lyre O.L. 14). This is likely attributable to the fact that Éditions de l'Oiseau-Lyre has always had a more specialist and scholarly focus than more mass-market companies like Victor. Side A is the Andante, which is just over four minutes long. The Rondo (on side B) is slightly longer at four minutes and sixteen seconds. The Rondo had to be cut down a bit to fit; forty-two measures have been excised. This is mostly mostly repeated themes and sections of orchestral interludes, but the entire last statement of the rondo theme has been removed as well. There's one other interesting change: the four measures of quarter-note trills in the middle of the last flashy section have been taken out of the solo part and given to one of the orchestral bassoonists!

Listen to Fernand Oubradous - Andante et Rondo Hongrois (1938)

It's clear that recording technology and disc manufacture had improved quite a bit in the 12 years since Gruner's second recording. The bassoon is clearer and more present (the fact that he was playing a French bassoon helps, too), and the orchestra's sound has far more depth and definition. Frankly, the quality of the bassoon playing is much higher, as well. Although this particular recording hasn't been rereleased, you can occasionally find Oubradous's Mozart Concerto on CD on Amazon, or as mp3s here.


  1. John Ardoin, The Philadelphia Orchestra: A Century of Music (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999); William Gruner, Petition for Naturalization, March 20, 1913, Naturalization Petitions for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, 1795-1930 (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, microfilm series M1522, roll 93), 335; William Gruner, 165-03-6373, Social Security Death Index, 1935-Current (Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2011); William Gruner, Draft Registration Card, September 12, 1918, World War I Selective Service System Draft Registration Cards, 1917-1918, (Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration, microfilm series M1509, roll PA83), 278. 

  2. The earlier disc (Victor 18684) features flutist Arthur Brooke of the Boston Symphony, while the performance on the later disc (Victor 20525) is by Clement Barone, a member of the Victor Orchestra and formerly principal flutist of the Philadelphia Orchestra. 

  3. Jean-Pierre Seguin, "Fernand Oubradous: A Half-Century of Woodwind History," trans. Philip Gottling, The Journal of the
    International Double Reed Society
    , no. 14 (1986),
    http://www.idrs.org/publications/controlled/Journal/JNL14/JNL14.Seg.html

  • Vincent Ellin

    August 5th, 2013

    Reply

    Inter­est­ing post.…I’ve want­ed to get a dig­i­tal copy of the Eli Car­men recording.….it was done some time lat­ter, and it would make an inter­est­ing com­par­i­son too. By the way I’m a “blog­ging” bas­soon­ist too…excellent post.

    • David A. Wells

      August 5th, 2013

      Reply

      Thanks, Vin­cent. After a com­ment by Har­ry Sear­ing on Face­book, I found the Car­men record­ing on YouTube: 

      . Haven’t had a chance to real­ly sit down and lis­ten in a focused way yet, but will do so lat­er. It’s just the Ron­do, though!

      Thanks also for the link to your site. I’ve added you to my links to the right and to my per­son­al read­ing list, as well.

  • Volodymyr Runchak

    August 24th, 2013

    Reply

    Dear Mr. Wells,

    My name is Volodymyr Run­chak.
    I am a Ukrain­ian com­pos­er, con­duc­tor and the artis­tic direc­tor of the cham­ber ensem­ble, New Music in Ukraine. 

    I would very much like the oppor­tu­ni­ty of cre­ative col­lab­o­ra­tion with you.
    I have writ­ten piece for bas­soon *, which I would like to offer for your con­sid­er­a­tion for per­for­mance.

    If you would like to have my score and CD, please let me know where to mail them.
    I thank you for the oppor­tu­ni­ty to send you this let­ter, and I look for­ward to your answer. 

    Respect­ful­ly,
    Volodymyr Run­chak

    Dra­homano­va st. 22, apt. 163,
    02068, Kyiv, Ukraine
    tel: +38 044 5704135
    fax: +38 044 2342260
    e-mail: v_runchak@voliacable.com

    *
    The Bassoonist’s note­book (2 pieces for bas­soon solo, 3 pieces for bas­soon and piano)
    Homo ludens XI or sev­er­al com­pe­ti­tion SMS for bas­soon­ist and mem­bers of the jury

  • Christopher Weait

    May 1st, 2015

    Reply

    I bought the fine Heck­el bas­soon #6131 played on the lat­er record­ing from Mr. Gruner in 1968. I played it pro­fes­sion­al­ly and even­tu­al­ly sold it.

    • David A. Wells

      May 1st, 2015

      Reply

      Inter­est­ing! Now you’ve got me think­ing about trac­ing the bas­soons that were played on var­i­ous record­ings…

  • Elly Moses

    July 20th, 2015

    Reply

    I’ve just read your arti­cle on William Gruner and his bas­soon recording(s) for Vic­tor. Mr. Gruner was my grand­fa­ther. I have been gath­er­ing infor­ma­tion for a scrap­book re my grand­par­ents, so this was delight­ful to read. I also just lis­tened to his record­ing on anoth­er web­site. I see your com­ment from Mr. Weait — I have a signed pho­to of him that was in my grandfather’s pos­ses­sion. Small world!

    • David A. Wells

      August 26th, 2015

      Reply

      Wow, small world indeed! I’m glad you found my post, par­tic­u­lar­ly as you’re in the process of mak­ing a scrap­book about your grand­par­ents.

  • James Irsay

    February 24th, 2017

    Reply

    Hel­lo Mr. Wells,

    How nice to dis­cov­er a real­ly well-managed bas­soon web­site, with his­tor­i­cal per­for­mances no less. I produce/host a week­ly radio pro­gram in New York City, spe­cial­iz­ing in his­tor­i­cal per­for­mances — most­ly piano and strings, with excur­sions else­where. This week I dis­cov­ered Fer­nand Oubradous while watch­ing a movie. His name appears in the open­ing cred­its, as a musi­cal arranger, for Robert Bresson’s 1959 film “Pick­pock­et”. Won­der­ing who he was, I found his Mozart Con­cer­to record­ing from 1936, with Big­ot. I aired the very fine per­for­mance this morn­ing. I am not a con­noiseur of bas­soon play­ing, but his per­for­mance seemed exem­plary: clear, clean, vir­tu­osic, with beau­ti­ful tone, and extreme­ly musi­cal. He does have a “French” sound, espe­cial­ly his artic­u­la­tion.

    Would you hap­pen to know who com­posed the first move­ment caden­za? Wow! Maybe it was com­posed by Oubradous? His play­ing will cer­tain­ly be sent out over WBAI-FM again! Keep up the great work. I’m down­load­ing a few of your uploads now 🙂

    • David A. Wells

      March 4th, 2017

      Reply

      Thanks for your com­ments, and my apolo­gies for being so slow to reply!

      Oubradous’s Mozart record­ing is indeed quite vir­tu­osic, and it’s also the ear­li­est record­ing of that con­cer­to I’m aware of. His caden­za from the first move­ment was writ­ten by none oth­er than Jacques Ibert! Ibert also wrote a caden­za for the sec­ond move­ment, but pre­sum­ably the need to squeeze that move­ment onto a sin­gle 12″ side pre­vent­ed them from record­ing it. The two caden­zas were pub­lished by Leduc, and are now avail­able in a new edi­tion by Trevco.

      Oubradous also record­ed “Mozart’s 2nd Bas­soon Con­cer­to,” which was lat­er deter­mined to be spu­ri­ous (L’Oiseau-Lyre 40–41). Devi­enne has been put for­ward as a pos­si­ble author, but that’s shaky, too.

  • James Irsay

    February 24th, 2017

    Reply

    By the way, your trans­fers of the Weber are fine, but you may want to con­sid­er sav­ing a bit more of those high fre­quen­cies, to restore some of the “bite” to the sound. The ear is very for­giv­ing of sur­face noise if bright-sounding music comes along with it. Again, great site!

    • David A. Wells

      March 4th, 2017

      Reply

      Not­ed – thanks!

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