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Eugene Ormandy (conductor)
The Philadelphia Orchestra: The Early Years – Volume 1
Franz LISZT (1811-1886)
Les préludes, S. 97 (1854)
Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No. 2 in C Major, op. 61 (1847)
Maurice RAVEL (1875-1937)
Daphnis et Chloé - Suite No. 2 (1912)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben, op. 40 (1898)
Gian Carlo MENOTTI (1911-2007)
Amelia Goes to the Ball – Overture (1936)
Samuel BARBER (1910-1981)
First Essay for Orchestra, op. 12 (1937)
Roy HARRIS (1898-1979)
Three Pieces for Orchestra (1941)
John Philip SOUSA (1854-1932)
The Washington Post (1889)
The Stars and Stripes Forever (1896)
rec. 1936-1942
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC578 [66:34 + 69:26]

This new set from Pristine Classical is the first of a planned series that will bring together the complete 78 RPM recordings made by Eugene Ormandy in the early years of his long reign in Philadelphia (1936-1980). The release poses an interesting question with regards to the transfer of historical recordings: can and should we weigh the value of historical re-releases in the same way we would critically assess a brand-new recording? Many lovers of classical music sniff at modern recordings, holding them up against the unachievable gold standard of the past, but what are we to do when old recordings are competent without being special? To my ears, the majority of these recordings are good performances by a good orchestra led by a good conductor. Other than their value as historical documents, there is nothing unique about them purely as recorded performances, and I suspect that were they to be released today, they would garner a collective shrug.

Take the recording of Ein Heldenleben. The recording was apparently intended to replace the famous 1928 Mengelberg/New York Philharmonic set in the Victor catalogue, but there are a number of factors that make me question that decision. The recording balance achieved by the 1939 engineers is appalling. Strident brass repeatedly overwhelm the reticent winds and almost inaudible strings. The violin solos of Alexander Hilsberg sound as if they were recorded across the street from the Academy of Music via tin can and string. The Mengelberg recording from eleven years before has much more immediate sonics, captures the solo violin at a natural level, and is better-balanced between the various sections of the orchestra.

Paired with the balance issue is a lack of any special interpretive insight. Ormandy’s Heldenleben feels unfocused, and at times, square. In his producer’s note, Mark Obert-Thorn (whose transfers are excellent as usual) does not have much to say about the Strauss, but remarks that of Ormandy’s four recordings of the piece, this is the swiftest. The tempo may be fast for Ormandy, but I don’t hear that all-important sense of schwung, the Straussian momentum that should usher each melodic line forward. The performance lacks the panache of the Mengelberg set, and it cannot touch the rhythmic thrust and theatrical intensity of the 1941 Toscanini NBC Symphony broadcast. (A special shout-out must be given to Mischa Mischakoff’s violin solos on that NBC recording; they are outstanding. Although he studied with an assistant of Leopold Auer instead of the great man himself, Mischakoff plays like a true musical brother of Heifetz and Toscha Seidel.) As a live performance, the Ormandy set would be a perfectly respectable (if humdrum) outing of the piece, but as a recording, it does not sustain repeated listening.

Ormandy’s Liszt and Schumann are fine performances (and receive better engineering than the Strauss), but they still do not beg for reissue. The more delicate moments of Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé must have been a nightmare for the 1930s sound engineers to capture; one misses the incredible shimmer found in later recordings. The famous Philadelphia strings finally have a chance to shine in the lyrical moments of the daybreak movement, but Ormandy allows the musical tension to sag in the following Pantomime. The Danse générale is performed at quite a brisk tempo, but it lacks the orgiastic frenzy of Charles Munch’s performances. To be fair, who has ever matched him in those final pages?

The most convincing recordings, the ones that make this set worth the purchase price, are the American pieces. The orchestra plays Menotti’s Amelia Goes to the Ball overture as if Toscanini was at the helm, with whiplash runs in the winds, heroic, cutting brass, and strings that sing, sing sing. After the disappointing and often dull Strauss, the swashbuckling opening of the Menotti made me sit up and take notice. By the end, I was actually wondering why the piece does not receive regular performances in the concert hall today. Equally persuasive performances of the Barber and Harris make those pieces seem much more important than they actually are, particularly the Barber. The orchestral Essay receives a beautifully-shaped and passionate reading. It is good to hear this early piece, which makes clear the compositional growth of the composer who would soon write the violin concerto of 1940 and Excursions of 1944. The two Sousa marches were recorded during the war and are played with great martial fervor. The Washington Post is on the edge of being too fast, but makes a pleasing impact, the climaxes being goosed by the enthusiastic contributions of the cymbal player.

This set is for Ormandy completists or for American music connoisseurs who wish to hear committed, dynamic period recordings of these early works by Menotti, Barber, and Harris.

Richard Masters

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