Ormandy's years with CBS (Sony's predecessors) stretched
from 1943 to 1968 before he took wing to RCA. That period included a
smattering of 78s but most of it encompasses the LP era - mono at first
then stereo. As can be seen these famous Rachmaninov sessions date from
the last decade of Ormandy's time with CBS.
The symphonies have been issued repeatedly and in various
formats. They were issued first in the USA in the 1960s finding their
way to Europe between 1967 and 1972. The original CBS UK LP numbers
are 72571, 77345 and 72674. The oldest recording (No. 2) took some thirteen
years to reach the pages of the Gramophone. This was also the era in
which CBS recorded Symphonic Dances, The Isle of the Dead
and The Bells. If space had permitted I would have wished
for the Symphonic Dances on this set even if this meant a different
layout and movement split.
Ormandy was Stokowski's successor at Philadelphia.
He curtailed the swashbuckling programme choices and majored on the
standard repertoire and established classics. He nurtured Stokowski's
trademark sumptuous string tone and precision of attack. Individual
bowing was dropped but the seamless legato remained steadfast. These
qualities are fully in evidence in all four works. I have the impression
that the harsh but for me ultimately endearing sound of the original
LPs has been softened. Somehow the extensive cuts in the Second Symphony
count for little while you are held in the artists' hands. The great
adagio is done with passionate feeling and with swooping portamenti
which you may well find yourself missing when you hear other more 'correct'
versions. All four works are opulent and exciting and though the 1960s
sound removes shadings of subtlety the passion shines through. The First
Symphony comes off rather well though it is not the strongest of works.
Glazunov (allegedly the worse for the odd vodka) conducted the premiere
that drove the composer into mental breakdown. Glazunov is in fact the
composer I thought of most often in this work which certainly bubbles
with coruscating woodwind and brass writing of a quality that shines
through Glazunov's Fourth, Fifth and Eight Symphonies. The Third Symphony
rattled along with all the usual Philadelphian virtues and virtuosity
but I still favour the garish euphoria of the Svetlanov version with
the Bolshoi Theatre Orchestra.
These discs have been issued many times before including
on CBS Maestro CD45678. Someone has put some thought into layout this
time. In the original it was the Second Symphony that was split across
discs 1 and 2. In this case the Second Symphony is complete on CD1.
It is the rather less coherent First that is split. A similar misjudgement
rather takes the gloss off the BMG Melodiya set by Kondrashin. There
too we encounter a Second Symphony heavily cut but given an exalted
if rather roughened performance.
This is a great bargain and even if you already have
say the Ashkenazy, Litton or Previn you should try to hear these and
find reasons why you do not have this as an alternative displaying the
music in the hands of a great orchestra and conductor each with a Rachmaninov
tradition acquired first-hand from contact with the composer.
Forget political correctness (it isn't difficult with
this set) and hold your hand in Ormandy's flame for the wonderful Second
Symphony. A burnished classic of the gramophone.