Sergei RACHMANINOFF (1873-1943)
Symphony No. 1 (1897) [44:23]
Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Romeo and Juliet overture (1880) [19:09]
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy (Rachmaninoff); Boston Symphony Orchestra/Charles Munch (Tchaikovsky)
rec. 1960 (Rachmaninoff) and 1963 (Tchaikovsky), venues not specified
HDTT HDCD147 [63:32]
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 striking 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 extensive discography 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 usual.
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.
Rob Maynard
Two first rate performances in a new disc incarnation ... see Full Review