Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Also sprach Zarathustra, Op. 30 (1896) [34:17]
Camille SAINT-SAňNS (1835-1921)
Symphony No. 3 in C minor, Op. 78 'Organ Symphony' (1886) [34:25]
Norman Carol (violin)
Virgil Fox (organ)
Vladimir Sokoloff & William Smith (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra/Eugene Ormandy
rec. 5 December 1973 (Saint-SaŽns), 26 February 1975 (Strauss)
Under licence from Sony
DUTTON CDLX7379 SACD [68:55]
Eugene Ormandy evidently had an attachment to both the showpiece works here, as he made three recordings of each of them. Both the recordings here are Ormandy’s second: the three of the Organ Symphony were made in 1962 (Columbia/CBS) with E. Power Biggs as soloist, in 1980 with Michael Murray (Telarc) and here for RCA Victor with Virgil Fox in 1973; Also Sprach Zarathustra was recorded in 1963 (Columbia/CBS), 1980 (EMI) and here for RCA in 1973.
Pairing these two sonic spectaculars of identical length, both recorded in the 70’s in the same venue, and giving the CD an amusing, retro, Barnum & Bailey cover, make this well-balanced programme an attractive proposition: 70 minutes of high-powered music-making. Ormandy’s interpretation of both works changed very little over the forty-four years he was at the helm of the Philadelphia Orchestra, but the main attraction of this issue is obviously Michael J. Dutton’s digital remastering of the analogue tapes to produce an SACD version; however, I confess to listening in regular stereo.
There is no shortage of competitive recordings of quality; the safe bet for both lies with Karajan. Now that his early digital Zarathustra has been cleaned up to remove the original shrillness, it remains a front-runner. Likewise, I don’t care that some critics have damned his Organ Symphony as artificial and vulgar because the Notre Dame organ was artificially spliced in later but I love it; however, for this recording Ormandy had the Rodgers Touring Organ wheeled into the Scottish Rite Cathedral so no technical jiggery-pokery was required. The opening deep C natural – evidently greatly enhanced by the remastering - is stupendous and everything after that proceeds swimmingly. The famous, lush tone of the Philadelphian strings – the only band really to rival the BPO in its heyday – is an absolute treat for the ears and Ormandy doesn’t rush them, but lets the orchestra glide over those long melodic lines. The brass is equally impressive. Concertmaster Norman Carol is superb in “Das Tanzlied”; although the orchestral playing is mostly liquid gold, his deliberately raw, vivacious attack in his “Zigeuner” solo forms the perfect foil. The surround-sound and separation are so vivid, even on conventional equipment, that you can hear the occasional bow or valve click and it’s like being in the front row of a live performance and being enveloped in the glorious noise which is Strauss in full-fat mode as a hundred-plus virtuoso musicians play their hearts out. The ambivalent ending with its unresolved B major/C major clash is, paradoxically, deeply satisfying.
The Organ Symphony is equally arresting, beginning very slowly and pensively; the introduction is almost hesitant but momentum is soon acquired as the scurrying, staccato string launch into their Schubertian air. Little things, like the precision of the pizzicato close to the first movement, add to the listener’s enjoyment but the many Big Tunes are given full rein, broadly phrased and couched in a warm, golden tone so typical of the long-standing collaboration between this orchestra and conductor, providing the greatest pleasure. The third movement Presto is a wild ride and the entrance of the organ fulfils expectations, its grand sonority matched by terrific horns. Perhaps the pianos are given undue prominence but it’s good to hear them set against so much orchestral din and the fugal writing picks up on the excitement of the previous Presto. Again, the depth and clarity of the sound – extending occasionally to picking up faint traffic noise outside the church – are exemplary. This is surely the best of Ormandy’s three recordings, good as the others are.
On the basis of this showing how anyone could deny Ormandy his place in the pantheon of great conductors is beyond me. This is thrilling playing revitalised by Dutton’s superb remastering.