The 'Great Composers of the 20th Century' series is
a joint project between IMG Artists and EMI Classics. And most worthwhile
it is proving, since reassessments are being made and new material entering
This 2CD set of recordings conducted by Eugene Ormandy
offers ample testimony of his stature as a major figure in the music
of the 20th century. When he left Europe in 1921 to make a new life
across the Atlantic, he determined that a change of name might help
his cause. He had been born Jenä Blau, but despite the success
he had already achieved as a violinist in his native Budapest, he felt
that the German colloquialism associated with his surname might prove
an obstacle to his career. He took his new name - Ormandy - from the
Normandie, the ship on which he made his transatlantic crossing.
Having worked in Minneapolis through the 1920s, he
took over the Philadelphia Orchestra from Leopold Stokowski in 1936.
This was undoubtedly a hard act to follow, but follow he did, for no
fewer than 44 years, which probably ranks as the longest collaboration
on record between an orchestra and a principal conductor. Together they
made recordings galore, across a wide range of repertoire, and many
favourite pieces were recorded more than once.
For example, this is the fourth of four recordings
of Rachmaninov's Symphony No. 2, and the only one without the cuts that
used to be made until quite recently. It is a fine performance, and
sumptuously recorded, which suits the music. Tempi flow at just the
right pace, and the subtle changes of phrasing bring the diversity of
the material to the fore without sacrificing the line of symphonic development.
There is no lack of expressive emotional tension, and while others may
profess favourite interpretations, this one has the benefit of modern
technology, always a telling factor in romantic music.
Ormandy, like all the great conductors, loved the music
of Brahms and frequently performed the symphonies. This version of the
Fourth Symphony dates from 1967 and again the sound is most pleasing
There is no lack of drama in the performance, which is strong and purposeful,
particularly in the outer movements where the symphonic momentum is
at its height. Perhaps there could have been rather more poetry in the
slow movement, but that too is keenly shaped.
These two symphonies dominate the two discs, of course,
but the additional items are no less interesting. The Munich recording
of Strauss's Don Juan is in somewhat opaque mono sound, certainly
less colourful than the version Ormandy recorded in Philadelphia for
CBS. He was a committed Straussian, understandably enough with such
orchestras as these at his disposal. The Don Juan performance
is well paced, of course, but some subtleties are missed in the more
poetic moments, largely because of the recorded sound, I would suppose.
There is no lack of excitement, however.
The shorter items are particularly worthwhile. It was
Ormandy who was responsible for bringing Webern's early romantic idyll
Im Sommerwind to wider attention, and he conducted its premiere
in 1962, some 27 years after the composer's death, and some sixty years
after it was composed. The performance is atmospheric and beautifully
These words are hardly appropriate for Kabalevsky's
Colas Breugnon Overture, however. This opts rather for virtuosity
and brilliance, and Ormandy and his Bavarian players rise to the challenge.
Virtuosity of an even more uplifting kind can be heard in the programme's
closing item, The Return of Lemminkainen from Sibelius's Legends.
Here was another composer with whom Ormandy had a special empathy, and
in one of his later recordings, from 1978, he and the Philadelphia Orchestra
can be heard at their very best. The words of Sibelius exactly fit with
Ormandy's performance: 'I think we Finns ought not to be ashamed to
show more pride in ourselves. Let us wear our caps at an angle! For
Lemminkainen is an aristocrat, without question an aristocrat!'