We remember the 1950s – in many ways a Golden Age of recording
history – as the era of the great musical tyrants. By all accounts
they virtually terrorised their musicians into producing standards
of orchestral virtuosity that have rarely been equalled since.
The many stories to that effect centring on such martinets as
Toscanini, Reiner and Szell live indelibly on to remind us that,
as L.P. Hartley perceptively noted, “The past is a foreign country;
they do things differently there”.
Yet let us not forget that there were other conductors, even
in that authoritarian period, who, while by no means abdicating
their own status on the podium, saw music-making as a more collaborative
process and treated their musicians with humanity, consideration
and respect. This new CD offers us performances from two of
them – Eugene Ormandy and Charles Munch.
I have always had something of a soft spot for Ormandy. After
all, a man who migrated to a new life in America and, in doing
so, dropped his birth name Jeno Blau and adopted a new one taken
from the ship on which he crossed the Atlantic, the SS Normandie,
sounds as if he must have had a sense of fun. (By the way, can
any readers throw light on this well known – but possibly apocryphal
- story? It is recounted as fact, for instance, in John L. Holmes’s
Conductors [London, 1988], but Wikipedia’s entry on Ormandy
now suggests that, within the conductor’s family, Ormandy was
a genuine middle name.)
Yet Ormandy was often disparaged as a rather bland conductor,
churning out well played but usually pretty unremarkable accounts
of mainly standard repertoire. Moreover, his recording engineers’
apparent difficulties in capturing the famed “Philadelphia sound”
in its full splendour on disc seemed to negate one of the orchestra’s
main claims to listeners’ attention.
Ormandy certainly played by the corporate rules and was far
more willing than his predecessor Stokowski to fulfil the social
and PR demands that went with being the Philadelphia Orchestra’s
music director. But it goes without saying that, in the cutthroat
world of North American orchestras, he would not have lasted
an amazing 44 years (1936-1980) in that role had he not had
considerable musical ability too.
The Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 1, set aside by its composer after
a disastrous 1897 premiere and subsequently thought lost, was
rediscovered only in 1944, the year after the composer’s death.
But within just four years Ormandy had given the US premiere
with his Philadelphians in the first classical concert broadcast
in full on US television. He is sometimes also said to have
made the work’s first commercial recording (the one reissued
on the disc under review), though that honour actually goes
to either Heinz Bongartz or the even less well known Jacques
Rachmilovich, both of whom set down accounts on disc at unknown
dates in the 1950s with, respectively, the Dresden Philharmonic
and Stockholm Radio orchestras.
Ormandy was, all the same, well known as an interpreter of Rachmaninoff’s
works. He was one of the composer’s closest musical collaborators
in the 1930s and he and his orchestra were the dedicatees of
the composer’s final orchestral composition, the Symphonic
Dances, giving its world premiere performance in 1941: a
photograph from that year shows them working closely together.
So does that close personal association give this account of
the first symphony a special authority? Probably not ... Given
the history of the work’s sole previous outing and the lack
of even a single available score at the time, it is highly unlikely
that Rachmaninoff would ever have discussed the work with Ormandy
in anything other than the most general terms. And the fact
that the conductor and his players reportedly had some difficulties
with the symphony’s idiom at the time of their 1948 US premiere
performance suggests too that their familiarity with the composer’s
“mature” style gave them no special insights into this stylistically
very different early work.
This Symphony is now, though, widely performed and recorded
and Ormandy’s account, re-released in various formats several
times over the past fifty years, will be sufficiently well known
to most Rachmaninoff enthusiasts as not to need any detailed
commentary here. It is, suffice it to say, by turns superbly
dramatic, fiery, tempestuous, exciting and very moving. The
intensely engaged fierceness with which the strings attack their
parts in the opening movement is still very striking indeed.
The next time anyone remarks to you that Ormandy was an invariably
bland conductor who was averse to risk-taking, play them this
recording and they will surely never venture such a generalisation
again. Along with Evgeni Svetlanov’s even more elemental and
rugged 1966 recording - recently available on Regis RRC 1247
- this is still the finest account of the work that we have
in the catalogue.
Turning to Charles Munch, even a cursory glance at that conductor’s
will demonstrate that he was never especially focused on the
music of Tchaikovsky in the recording studio. This version of
the ever-popular Romeo and Juliet overture is, though,
a fine one. Munch’s approach is rather cooler than many: he
holds everything well in check until releasing the orchestra’s
full Romantic power at the last climax of the famous “love theme”
which, as a result, comes across even more effectively than
His expert ear for orchestral balance ensures that plenty of
interesting orchestral detail – frequently unheard when submerged
by the massed strings favoured by some conductors – emerges
crystal clear while his precise control of dynamics is also
apparent throughout. Thus the Boston orchestra – not usually,
I admit, one of my favourites – demonstrates superb flexibility
in his hands and is easily able to combine passages of intensely
involving lyricism with a degree of ultra-precise incision that
would have pleased even George Szell. This account of a very
familiar work is well worth its resurrection on this disc.
But what of the disc itself? I confess that the label HDTT (“High
Definition Tape Transfers”) was new to me, as was their concept
of using “commercially released, reel-to-reel tapes (some of
which are more than 50 years old)” as their source material.
The resulting transfers are, in fact, excellent, though at least
in the case of the Rachmaninoff, which I was able to compare
directly with my own digitally remastered CD version of the
symphony (CBS Maestro M2YK 45678), I would be hard put to detect
any discernable improvement in the sound. Maybe my ears
are lacking, however, for HDTT themselves are so proud of their
technology that they devote a complete page of their skimpy
booklet to letting us know about the rather arcane details of
their specialist recording equipment, including such unexplained
gems as “Mytek ADC192 Modified by Steve Nugent of Empirical
Audio”, “Antelope Audio Isochrone OCX Master Clock” and – my
particular favourite – “Weiss POW-r Dithering Software”.
Well, I really don’t know whether that software dithers or not,
but potential purchasers need not do so at all if considering
buying these two first rate performances in their new incarnation
on this disc.
Re: Ormandy ... My compliments to Rob Maynard and to say that
the SS Normandie story is indeed apocryphal! I also used it
in my notes for a 1997 Ormandy / Biddulph CD of Tchaikovsky's
Pathetique, quoting the Gramophone obituary of 1985 where it
was also given. However, in these internet days one need only
Google SS Normandie to find out that it made its maiden voyage
in 1935, long after Ormandy arrived in the USA. Further research
also reveals that Ormandy was using the name before he left
Hungary. I'm not sure if it was a family name or not but the
ship had nothing to do with it!