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Hector BERLIOZ  (1803-1869) Symphonie fantastique (1843) [47:07]
Paul DUKAS (1865-1935) The Sorcerer’s Apprentice (1897) [10:24]
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) Night on Bald Mountain (1889) [11:40]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
No recording dates/venues listed
SONY LEGACY SBK 89833 [70:51]


Reference recordings:

Berlioz: Ormandy/Philadelphia Columbia LP ML 4467 rec. 10/30/1950; Columbia LP MS 6248 rec. 12/14/1960 (on Sony CD SBK-46329, issued 1990); RCA LP ARL 1-2674 12/16/76

Dukas: Ormandy/Philadelphia Columbia LP ML 2156 4/22/1947; Columbia LP 2/10/63 (on Sony CD SBK-46329); RCA LP rec. 9/28/71

Mussorgsky: Ormandy/Philadelphia Columbia LP rec. 4/19/59 (on Sony CD SBK-46329); RCA LP rec. 4/21/71

Sony is gradually deleting titles in its long-lived “Essential Classics” line, and re-releasing the more popular discs in a new “Legacy” series at a lower price; $6.99 retail in the USA, although you may find them cheaper elsewhere. The packaging here is a bit deceiving. Looking at the booklet cover, one sees just the Dukas and Mussorgsky works listed. Not much of a selection, until you turn the package over. In fact, the work taking up the majority of playing time is the Berlioz Symphonie fantastique; it is listed on the back of the case along with the others. Sony is obviously aiming for the first-time buyer. A sticker proclaims “Why Wonder? Start Here! Definitive recordings of the world’s most beautiful music – Insightful Notes – Pristine Sound”.  The back tray card has teaser notes referring to the content of the CD, describing “the poet’s longing for his beloved to the Inferno of a witches’ Sabbath” in reference to the Berlioz. Then there is the ubiquitous tie-in to Disney’s Fantasia for the Dukas and Mussorgsky. I suppose Sony is following in time-honored copy writing tradition, appealing to the neophyte while selling a product that has some mileage on it. Fortunately, all the blurb regarding the merits of this issue hold true. This collection of familiar works is a true bargain, with world-class performances, preserved in quite acceptable - albeit 40-some-year-old - sound.

Ormandy recorded each of the reviewed works with the Philadelphia Orchestra three times during his career (see list above). I was not able to hear was the first Mussorgsky recording, presumably made at the dawn of the LP era; if anyone has a copy, I would appreciate knowing about it. Ormandy’s approach to these time-honored works is non-interventionist; as one may say of all his conducting. There is no fussing with balances within the orchestral choirs, a function of both the talents of conductor and producer Thomas Frost and his recording team, especially in the stereo versions. The tempi Ormandy chooses seem natural and unforced. The 1960 recording of the Symphonie has been my personal benchmark since 1966 - the beginning of my record collecting passion! - and this latest incarnation still sounds lush and very detailed, with barely a dusting of tape hiss.  I miss the original vinyl sound with its warm tube sonics; I wore my LP copy out long ago. However the CD retains a truthful reproduction of the Philadelphia Orchestra’s unique signature. The “Reveries-Passions” movement, with the potentially spiky idée fixe is handled with loving care, the agogic accents of the melody progressing naturally without aggressive highlighting. The “Ball” sequence is ravishing, the strings’ tone colored with tasteful portamenti throughout.  The various wind soloists are radiant in their playing during the “Scene in the Country”, especially oboist John de Lancie and English hornist Louis Rosenblatt with their plaintive duet at the beginning and end of the scene, as well as clarinetist Anthony Gigliotti midway through the movement. The “March to the Scaffold” allows the magnificent Philadelphia brass section to glow. The final “Witches’ Sabbath” has four index tracks; the Larghetto-Allegro introduction, the Dies irae - which features bells that sound an octave lower than traditionally played in other recordings – truly ominous and effective! - and the Sabbath Round; itself split into two tracks. The peroration is captured quite clearly, with no distortion evident.

The Dukas is paced very naturally with no histrionics, and is brought off brilliantly. The Mussorgsky is an earlier recording, as evidenced by the higher level of tape hiss, and is more distantly recorded. However, it remains a fine example of this orchestral showpiece.

This CD provides excellent value, with an attractive price and sonics to match. This would be the perfect choice for an introduction to three orchestral masterworks, or as a replacement for aging LPs for the longtime collector who may have missed the first Sony CD issue. Quibbles about packaging aside, I highly recommend this disc.

Curt Timmons




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