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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975)
Symphony No. 5 in D minor, op 47 (1937) [47:33]
Symphony No. 15, Op 141 (1971) [43:12]
Incidental Music to Hamlet, Op 32 (1932) [19:54]
Zoltán KODÁLY (1882-1957)
Háry János - Suite, Op 15 (1925) [24:25]
The Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
Boston Pops Orchestra/Arthur Fiedler (Hamlet)
rec. 5 February 1973 (Symphony 5); 29 October 1975 (Háry János); 4-5 October, 1972 (Symphony 15), Scottish Rite Cathedral, Philadelphia; 28-29 May, 1968, Symphony Hall, Boston (Hamlet)
DUTTON EPOCH 2CDLX7370 SACD [72:07 + 63:22]

Here’s another set from Dutton Epoch reissuing, as SACDs, four recordings made by CBS/Sony and originally released as Stereo/Quadraphonic disc; the exception is the Arthur Fiedler recording which I believe was originally just a stereo release and has now been remixed in surround sound.

I wonder if Eugene Ormandy has been undervalued as a conductor – and champion – of the music of Shostakovich. He recorded quite a number of the symphonies; I think I’m right in saying that he recorded numbers 1, 4, 10, 13 and 14 in addition to the two included in this set. But he deserves recognition, too, for his enterprise on behalf of the composer. For instance, his recording of the Fourth was, I think, the first set down in the West and the present recording of the Fifteenth, the work’s second, was made just a few days after Ormandy and the Philadelphians had presented the US premiere on 28 September 1972. It’s worth recalling that the first performance of that symphony had been given as recently as the beginning of 1972, closely followed by its first recording, both conducted by Maxim Shostakovich; so, Ormandy was something of a pioneer for the work, certainly in the West.

I must confess that when I started to listen to Ormandy’s account of the Fifth, I thought I wasn’t going to like it. He sets off at quite a swift pace and whilst there’s a certain urgency in the performance as a result of the fleet tempo, I didn’t sense any feeling of struggle: that long violin theme soon after the start could, ideally, sound more bleached of tone. Then, at 4:05 the long violin melody over quiet, insistent lower string rhythms begins. Here, Ormandy takes the music at a steadier pace and the effect is entirely beneficial. From this point right through to the end of the movement I found his interpretation convincing. In most respects the recording is good, though there were one or two occasions when I felt a detail was artificially highlighted – for example, at 7:34 the piano ostinato which underpins the ominous brass music is rather more prominent than is usually the case. The main climax (from around 11:45) is imposing and the tranquil conclusion (from 13:08) is very well managed.

The Allegretto is very well pointed; Shostakovich’s sardonic style is well brought out. In the Largo the famed rich tone of the Philadelphian strings is much in evidence. I didn’t find their sound to be too plush though, ideally, I’d prefer to hear this music played in a slightly leaner fashion. However, Ormandy is well in tune with the music and the performance has strong focus. The performance is eloquent and convincing. The finale is begun at a brisk, though not excessive, pace. One factor that I couldn’t escape in this movement is the very bright sound of the orchestra’s trumpet section; oddly, I didn’t find it quite as obvious in the preceding movements. After the movement’s first main climax, the extended slower section is very well done and then the grandiloquent conclusion to the symphony is exciting. This wouldn’t be my first choice for the Fifth Symphony but it has a good deal to commend it.

As I mentioned, Ormandy was a pioneer of the Fifteenth Symphony in the West. He must have prepared the orchestra assiduously for the US premiere because this recording is very well played indeed. The booklet includes a note by the conductor, which I presume accompanied the original release. In it, Ormandy tells us how the receipt of a copy of Maxim Shostakovich’s premiere recording – a gift from the composer – and reading the liner notes helped him to understand the work. He refers to the composer’s comment that the first movement depicts nocturnal activities in a toy shop when the toys come to life. Ormandy refers to ‘the fantastic high jinks of the music’, a form of words that to me implies a playful scenario. Notwithstanding the jocose little quote from the William Tell Overture, which crops up several times, I’ve always thought that there’s a darker element to the music; not all the toys’ activities are playful and benign. Interestingly, while Ormandy’s comment suggests light-heartedness, I find that his actual conducting brings out the dark side very effectively. The orchestral playing is acutely pointed and I think this is a very good account of the movement.

A few weeks ago, I listened, along with some colleagues, to the second movement in the MusicWeb International Listening Studio. On that occasion I had some reservations about the sound. I felt that details were often spot lit and in particular, it seemed to me that in the important cello solo near the beginning of the movement the player was balanced almost as a concerto soloist. Having listened further to the recording and on my own equipment with which I’m familiar on a daily basis, I’m now better disposed towards the recording. I still feel the cellist is too prominent – not the excellent player’s fault – but otherwise the overall sound seems better integrated. The movement is, in essence, a solemn funeral elegy which contains many passages where the writing is spare and exposed. At 6:12 we hear a lugubrious trombone solo which emphasises the funeral march nature of this movement. That paves the way, eventually, to a big, albeit short-lived climax (9:12), which is powerfully delivered by the Philadelphians. The sparsely scored ending of the movement leads without a break into the short Allegretto. This movement is in Shostakovich’s best nose-thumbing vein and the music is expertly articulated here.

Not having seen a score, I don’t know if the final movement, Adagio-Allegretto, is marked attacca but in this performance it follows with scarcely a break. This is where Shostakovich several times quotes the quiet, ominous start of Siegfried’s Funeral Music from Götterdämmerung. I was fascinated by Ormandy’s suggestion that this motif ‘set[s] the stage for a musical canvass that could be entitled “They Shall Not Be Forgotten”’ and that, perhaps the use of an idea from German music in this context may be ‘a gesture of reconciliation’. Taking that idea a step further, he also notes the prominent use of a self-quotation from the ‘Leningrad’ Symphony. Ormandy’s traversal of the movement is impressive, growing in intensity until a huge climax is attained (8:26 – 9:30), the last of the composer’s symphonic career. This climax is delivered with terrific power before the volume subsides and the remainder of the movement is played out in subdued fashion. The haunting ending, dominated by quiet, insistent percussion writing, takes us back to the end of the great Fourth Symphony, a deeply personal statement by Shostakovich which, at the time he composed the Fifteenth, was on its way to rehabilitation, thanks to Ormandy among others. This is an impressive account of the Fifteenth Symphony and I’m very pleased that Dutton have spruced up the recording and reissued it.

The set is filled out by two shorter, lighter scores. Ormandy makes a very good job of the Háry János Suite by his fellow Hungarian, Zoltán Kodály. In this delightful and good-humoured music, the conductor seems to revel in the brilliance and colour of the scoring and his orchestra plays it extremely well. We move to Boston for the other filler and hear Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops in Shostakovich’s Incidental Music to Hamlet. This is thoroughly entertaining and the Bostonians offer a polished, incisive performance.

This is a very worthwhile collection of performances. I must confess that I’m not entirely sure exactly how the remastering of these recordings from the ’60s and ’70s has been done. In the track listing there’s a little note, specifically relating to the Háry János recording, stating that this is “from the original multi-track tapes by Michael J. Dutton”. Does this imply that the other works have not been transferred from the original tapes? Whatever the sources used, the recordings have come up very well indeed. I listened to the stereo layer of these SACDs and obtained impressive results. The documentation consists of the notes which accompanied the original LP releases. These are all good, informative essays.

These Shostakovich recordings by Eugene Ormandy, which have received a new lease of life from Dutton, are well worth your attention. If Mr Dutton is minded to issue more Ormandy SACDs then I’d be very interested to experience the recording of the Shostakovich Fourth, which I’ve never heard, and also the Deryck Cooke performing edition of Mahler’s Tenth – another pioneering recording by Ormandy – which I last heard many years ago.

John Quinn

Information received

I am grateful to one of our readers, Julian Davis, who has kindly emailed me an image of two pages of the full score of the Fifteenth Sympony: the end of the third movement and the beginning of the fourth.  This shows clearly that the finale is not marked to be played attacca, which confirms my experience of other performances and recordnigs I have heard.

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