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Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Violin Concerto in D major, Op.35 (1878) [30:11]
Romeo and Juliet, Op.18 (1869) [19:56] Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) (arr. Ravel)
Pictures at an Exhibition (1874) [30:23]
Itzhak Perlman (violin)
Philadelphia Orchestra/ Eugene Ormandy
rec. 1979?
EUROARTS 2072128 [81:24]



This DVD is a compilation of two films made by Unitel in the late 1970s. Both showcase the Philadelphia Orchestra and their long serving principal conductor Eugene Ormandy. It is also an entirely Russian programme. There appears, then, to be a logic to the combination. However, matters are not quite that simple.
 
The highlight of the disc is Perlman’s magnificent performance of the Tchaikovsky concerto. Collectors may already be familiar with his conception of the work from the audio recording that he made with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta in Russia (now also available on DVD). The present performance is flawlessly played, the passage work excellent and the double - and occasionally triple - stopped chords precisely in tune. Just listen to the first movement cadenza. Perlman has a spiccato to die for and provides a generous quantity of portamenti. The first movement begins at a sensible tempo but as soon as Perlman and Ormandy see a piu mosso indication, the tension increases quite considerably. The final allegro giusto is similarly sensational, as is the ending of the movement. Ormandy was always an excellent accompanist in concerti, but here the orchestral tuttis have a certain stoicism to them; whilst Perlman generates considerable electricity, the moments when he is not playing tend to sag a little. Perhaps this was due to a disagreement over interpretation. Ormandy’s conducting is throughout noble, Perlman’s playing all fireworks and heart-on-sleeve emotion. The visuals emphasise this. Whilst Perlman is frequently smiling, the Philadelphia players simply look bored. Nevertheless the impact of this movement is incendiary, prompting the audience to prolonged applause.
 
Happily the rest of the concerto maintains the high standard set by the first movement. The central canzonetta is played at a swifter, more flowing tempo than usual and gains immeasurably for it. Perlman’s warm, burnished tone is an asset here. The final movement begins with a forceful, fearless solo and then settles into an astonishingly fast allegro. In short Perlman demonstrates some astoundingly good violin playing here, particularly when playing octaves (perfectly tuned) or harmonics. The Philadelphians provide some lovely wind details in the meno mosso sections, although some might find such moments a little too flexible. However, the final pages are electrifying, even the uninterested orchestral players galvanised to some fiery playing. Needless to say, Perlman gets a rapturous reception.
 
The rest of the programme is variable. Ormandy has always been an underrated conductor. Perhaps the sheer volume of his recorded legacy has tempted some to brand him a ‘hack’ conductor. He remained at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra for an incredible 42 years and the rapport between conductor and orchestra is evident throughout these performances. There are, however, problems. Romeo and Juliet probably comes off best. As the booklet notes point out, this is not a performance of extreme tempo contrasts. Rather, Ormandy varies the tempi only slightly. The result is somewhat less exciting than the norm, but all the more moving for it. The orchestra play magnificently, the wind particularly providing some lovely playing.
 
Pictures at an Exhibition continues the trend of sensible tempi and a lack of visceral excitement. This was an Ormandy speciality, and whilst there is a certain symphonic grandeur to the performance there is a definite lack of excitement. Suffice to say ‘The Great Gate of Kiev’ makes an awesome impression, due mostly to the impact of the Philadelphia brass. Indeed, all the works on this DVD are remarkably well-played. The Chicago Symphony are perhaps more renowned for their physical impact, but the Philadelphians as heard here are more than a match in terms of decibels for their neighbours to the west and can certainly boast of a superior tonal lustre.
 
EuroArts are to be commended on this release, and many others. Not only have they swiped a significant section of the Unitel catalogue - which was originally going to be released by Deutsche Grammophon - but their presentation is exemplary. The booklet contains a critique of the performances and the artwork is a vibrant combination of greens and oranges. Sound is generally good, though a little constricted in the concerto. The picture is typical of videotape recordings of the period - very clear but with frequent colour ‘spillage’ and interference. Eminently watchable nevertheless, and certainly worth investing in for the unbeatable combination of Ormandy, Perlman and Philadelphia. An absolute essential for violin fans, and certainly worth snapping up by the casual buyer.
 
Owen Walton

 

 

 

 


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