Hugo Winterhalter – Hugo Winterhalter Goes Gypsy [RCA Victor, 1960]

Hugo Winterhalter - Hugo Winterhalter Goes GypsyHugo Winterhalter straddles a line between mediocrity and experimentation with his music; he either plants his feet on one side or the other, but his mostly interesting compositions carry his work past contemporaries like Andre Kostelanetz – another composer who you could consider in the same “class,” working with large orchestral compositions but with very different results. Winterhalter holds a musical edge against his competition by using more aggressive compositions that include a bit of experimentation with a variety of instruments, including harp, strings, guitar and female voice. Hugo can stand and conduct straightforwardly, but one can imagine him just as easily throwing off the tux, donning a pair of shorts, and urging his orchestra onto a warm, sandy beach for tracks like Rum and Coca-Cola and Slow Boat to China.

Andre Kostelanetz, on the other hand, appears much more at home in the studio, in his tux, hitting exactly each note of his richly orchestrated compositions. Both musicians have their merits; Andre wrapping the listener in a sonic-soft marshmallow of sound that you can poke your hand through, while Hugo cuts loose a little more, introducing bolder instrumentation into his music using vibes, and electric guitar with echo effects as just two examples of his musical playfulness.

With that said, Hugo Winterhalter Goes Gypsy can be somewhat restrained, presenting richly detailed tracks of romantic adventure reminiscent of some long-lost spaghetti western. Winterhalter began a series of “Goes” records, which includes make-believe trips to such exotic locales as Hawaii and Latin America. His trip into Gypsy territory finds a range of musicianship that plods along with drippy strings one moment, but then tears into a frantic full-on assault the next.

Titles like Zigeuner, a sweeping, string-laden ode with tambourine and bass adding depth to the composition, features flamenco guitar with echo effect, brass, triangle and harp; instruments that predominate throughout this LP. Zigeuner’s entire arrangement remains low-key, but holds listener attention with an interesting melody that could easily become the love-theme from that lost Italian western.

Speaking of westerns, Gypsy Don’t You Cry is exactly what you would expect to find in a sweeping, violent, passionate tale of blazing guns and grizzled outlaws. “Gypsy” starts slowly with clarinet (or possibly French horn?), brass, and deep strings creating a perfect sonic backdrop for this imaginary western; imagine a young protagonist riding away from the ranch where his family was brutally gunned-down; determined to hunt those responsible for the violence, his fiancé looking sadly after him from the doorway.

Gypsy Love Song is a strange entry that uses triangle to highlight a syrupy tune forced along by snappy snare drum and strings. Female vocals eventually ring out to squeeze every last drop of sap from this staid melody.

Standards like Hungarian Dance No. 5 are thrust along at a frenzied pace. Short bursts of horn followed by cascading strings being sawed for all they’re worth accompany a strongly-struck tambourine to set a spastic air. Flamenco guitar adds background fills before the entire orchestra breaks in to add an almost swing feel to the center of this very enthusiastic composition.

The Back of Her Head brings a polka feel to another raucous arrangement of frenzied strings, tambourine and guitar. The entire track clips along while a few bars of shouting horns veer it closely into spy-like James Bond territory.

Francesca finally slows the pace with female voice introducing the melody, followed by woodwinds, triangle, and castanets. This nicely arranged tune doesn’t hold many surprises, but remains enjoyable.

Deep, hollow guitar riding on strings introduces Csardas, a nice melody with a dream-like quality. Horns and tambourine join the guitar while the string section eventually dominates, carrying the melody before once more surrendering the theme back to guitar. The deep guitar then rides the tune to an ending punctuated with piano.

Not every track is a winner, but you really can’t fault Winterhalter’s arrangements, which remain crisp and alive whether setting the frenzied pace of party and dance, or sweeping strongly along with a gypsy’s sense of loneliness. The next time Hugo offers you a ride, go with him for an adventure. Whether its South of the Border, Hawaii, Continental, or Latin, you’ll definitely enjoy the trip.

Nathan Miner

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Hugo Winterhalter: The Sound of an Era
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Hugo Winterhalter Goes Digital