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Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra
The Columbia Legacy
Rec. 1944-1958, mono
SONY CLASSICAL 19439757482 [120 CDs]

A somewhat curious quote that appears towards the end of Wolfgang Stähr’s interesting essay accompanying this handsome ‘tales-of-the-unexpected’ all-mono Eugene Ormandy collection, partially explains why Jenö Blau (Ormandy’s birthname) has over the years tended to fall short of critical – as opposed to public – favour, his reputation dulled by a veil of ubiquity. Stähr makes the not unreasonable point that ‘the majority of concertgoers are not musicians’, a view that Ormandy himself compounded by claiming that the last piece on a concert programme should have audience members going home ‘whistling the main theme’. And yes, Ormandy was invariably at his best when melody led the way, even melodies that were relatively complex as in the symphonies of Roy Harris, Mahler, Prokofiev, William Schuman, Shostakovich and Sibelius. But to imagine that Ormandy’s principal agenda was to wheel out an endless supply of memorable tunes in luxuriant strings-soaked packaging is to accept an unfortunate myth at face value, which would be a pity, and not only because the ‘Fabulous Philadelphians’ (to quote a tired old cliché) often rose to the bait with what was at the time some challenging recent music.

Ormandy, a violinist himself who in the late 1930s, after a stint with the Minneapolis [now Minnesota] Symphony, had inherited a magnificent band swathed in outsized dynamics, lush textures and swooping portamenti from the charismatic one-time organist Leopold Stokowski, wouldn’t simply leave things as they were. Like the gifted Dutch conductor Eduard van Beinum, who ‘cleaned up’ after his similarly OTT predecessor Willem Mengelberg had left the Concertgebouw (in his case under a Collaborationist cloud), the Hungarian-born Ormandy restored, by a slow process of transformation, passages that Stokowski had cut, ironed out many (though not all) of the string slides and straightened excessive bends in the musical line, venturing more in the direction of his adored Toscanini, whose musical plain-speaking (or should I say plain-singing?) was often on a par with his own. But it took time.

Ormandy and the Austro-German masters
Ormandy wasn’t exactly celebrated for his interpretations of the Austro-German Classics but given the right works he could excel in them. We’re given Bach and Handel in mostly full evening dress (the exceptions being beautifully played ‘straight’ Bach and Vivaldi violin concertos with David Oistrakh and Isaac Stern), orchestrated to the nines mainly by Ormandy himself. The Passacaglia and Fugue BWV582 has none of the showy raucousness that Respighi brought to it, while in the Fantasia and Fugue in G minor BWV542 (arranged by William R. Smith) best is the Fugue, which Ormandy keeps nicely animated. If you want to hear the Fantasia sound like a mighty tone poem turn instead to Dmitri Mitropoulos and the Minneapolis Symphony (once available on Lys). Ormandy’s rendering of the Toccata and Fugue BWV565, a virtuoso tour de force, recalls Stokowski without mimicking him; and while the Bach/Ormandy Prelude and Fugue in C Minor BWV 582 is perhaps more densely textured than is ideal, Elgar’s flamboyant take on BWV537 works well, my only reservation concerning the fugue, which in comparison with Sir Adrian Boult, Albert Coates and the composer himself, lacks an element of swagger.

Other shorter Bach pieces tend to suggest the funeral parlour in their mournfulness (the ‘Arioso’ being by far the worst), saving Ormandy’s ‘Air for the G string’, misnamed by the way. August Wilhelmj’s arrangement of the ‘celebrated air’ is transposed down from its original key of D major to C major, which certainly isn’t the case here. Still, having said that, Ormandy cues a sumptuous, slowly striding bass line and the string playing is, as I’m sure you can imagine, gorgeous. Ormandy’s arrangement of extracts from Handel’s Water Music is fairly conventional, whereas the Handel ‘Concerto for Orchestra’ is a skilful reworking of the D major Organ Concerto and the disc (22) ends with a deftly turned suite of pieces by Corelli.

I was interested to note Haydn is far better represented throughout the set than Mozart, though readers who appreciate Ormandy’s characteristic prioritizing of well-drilled execution and non-invasive interpretation will not be surprised to know that he was a superb Haydn conductor. In the ‘Midi’ or 7th Symphony, a showcase for section leaders, especially the strings, you hear just how exceptional the Orchestra’s soloists were, especially the concertmaster. Likewise in the Farewell Symphony, where although Ormandy realises the urgency of the earlier movements (especially the Menuetto) when the players ‘supposedly’ take their leave of him at the end of the work, the remaining members play like angels. Ormandy’s conception of The Clock rather resembles Toscanini’s and when it comes to the flute melody in the third movement’s trio, like Toscanini, he fails to recognize the ‘wrong note’ accompaniment and alters it to chime harmoniously with the top line. Symphony No 99’s first movement is fairly hard driven (Bernstein in New York, also Sony, better realises the music’s dry humour) but you can imagine what an unholy percussion racket is unleashed during the Military, specifically in the second and last movements.

Mozart’s big G Minor Symphony harbours an even bigger surprise. Can you recall any another recording of the period (we’re talking 1956) that includes both repeats in the finale, bringing the movement’s total playing time to some nine minutes? I can’t, and the performance certainly isn’t lacking in urgency. Beethoven was a more frequent visitor to Ormandy’s relatively early discography. In this particular context, we’re given a rock-solid Fifth, and a Seventh that in spite of sonic limitations allows for an impressive level of transparency. Both here and in the Ninth (which suffers from some less than top-grade soloists), the scherzos go at a fair lick, the trios gauged to keep up the pace without sounding forced. Still, to my mind Ormandy was first and foremost a great Beethoven accompanist. The five Piano Concertos with Rudolf Serkin are benchmarks while the Third, Fourth and Fifth with Claudio Arrau, Robert Casadesus (especially fine) and Eugene Istomin respectively are hardly less distinctive, as is the Violin Concerto which is vibrantly played by Zino Francescatti (using Fritz Kreisler’s cadenza).

Ormandy’s incomparable Brahms
Francescatti and Ormandy also offer us a deeply lyrical account of the Brahms Concerto that in my view will admit only David Oistrakh (under Franz Konwitschny, DG) and Fritz Kreisler (under Leo Blech, Warner Classics) as serious rivals. Fellow Hungarian Joseph Szigeti was Ormandy’s first Brahms Concerto soloist on disc, a deeply insightful player if, by this time in his career (ie 1940s), rather more frail in technical terms than some of his younger contemporaries. Also, you can sense some of the shellac side joins (as you can in Sony’s ‘Szigeti Album Collection’). If you want to hear Szigeti’s Brahms Concerto in really good shape you need to go back to his first (pre-War) recording with the Hallé Orchestra under Sir Hamilton Harty.

Ormandy’s Philadelphia Brahms is in sore need of critical re-evaluation. The stereo recordings of the symphonies, though rarely celebrated in the way they should be, are fairly well known, but their mono predecessors have until now languished among the shadows. The First is magnificent, the opening movement taut and cleanly focused, the second flooded with warmth (and what playing!), the third a swift, breezy exit from the second whereas the big brass tune that makes way for the finale’s crowning string theme is as sonorous as an organ chorale with all the stops pulled out. In Ormandy’s hands the Third is truly Brahms’s Eroica, the bracing opening movement especially, and what a joy to hear the middle movements as separate entities rather than merging into one another (as is so often the case). The tempos for both are perfectly judged.

If the Third emerges as Brahms’s Eroica, then surely the Second is his Pastoral, its textures suggesting seasoned mahogany, certainly as performed by Ormandy and his Orchestra, where transitions are effortless, the music ebbs and flows, the way it is phrased (especially the first movement’s ‘Lullaby’ second subject), in fact the sheer joy of it all. The Fourth is passionate to a fault, the end of the scherzo a maniacal preparation for the uplifting finale, which exits in a flaming flurry, like a banshee on the run. Rudolf Serkin recorded the Second Concerto with Ormandy three times, the First once (in stereo only). The two mono versions of the Second (1945 and 1956) differ mainly because the later version has superior sound, although it’s also worth mentioning than the 1956 slow movement is broader than its predecessor by a minute. All three performances veer towards Beethovenian directness, the middle version possibly being the best of the bunch, though the widescreen, epic vistas of the stereo remake supplement it beautifully. It’s worth mentioning too the Haydn Variations, some spirited Hungarian Dances and, making a momentary diversion, the two memorable Serkin/Ormandy recordings of Schumann’s Piano Concerto, separated by ten years (1946 and 1956) and yet virtually identical tempo-wise.

Meaningful comparisons and some great Romantics
Ormandy’s two mono recordings of Franck’s D minor Symphony are quite different in that the first (1945) is the more powerful and rich in tone (specifically at the lower end of the spectrum), the second (1953), more keenly inflected and with a noticeably swifter central allegretto. Saint-Saëns Three enjoys a thrilling account of the last two movements, organist E. Power Biggs sounding richly resplendent while Ormandy excitedly pushes the pace. The sound too is amazingly good for its year (1956). Regarding Bizet’s Symphony in C, Ormandy is reputed to have said ‘Bizet was a very young man when he composed the Symphony, so play it softly.” Fortunately, he doesn’t take his own advice seriously, nor do his players, and the recording we have here is as bracing and outgoing as any I know (incidentally more amusing Ormandy quotes are available here). It shares a CD with Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony – always a favourite with these performers, and two fine readings (1946, 1955), the high strings in the larghetto immaculate - and the riotously Regerian Schwanda ‘Polka and Fugue’ by Weinberger, sounding as busy and rumbustious as ever.

Ormandy was associated above all with big Romantic masterpieces, and his recorded performances chronicle an abiding love affair with them, though over time his attitudes to favourite works often changed. Berlioz is represented by his Symphonie fantastique, the opening sensitively judged, the main body of the first movement poised on a nerve’s edge, the ‘Ball’ pressing for a swiftly swirling conclusion. As for the close of the Witches’ Sabbath, only van Beinum and the Concertgebouw Orchestra are as exciting. Henri Vieuxtemps’ Fourth Violin Concerto again finds Zino Francescatti a superbly accomplished soloist, and Ormandy’s handling of what is often an extremely beautiful orchestral score is also memorable.

Although Berlioz is the obvious crossing point between Classicism and Romanticism, I think it fair to say for that for many people Richard Wagner is the prime mover when it comes to big-scale Romantic repertoire. Ormandy’s Wagner discography predates his Columbia days with notable recordings in collaboration with the great Norwegian heldensoprano Kirsten Flagstad. Their RCA Victor recording of the ‘Immolation Scene’ from Götterdämmerung is justly famous. Here, Margaret Harshaw, although adequate on her own terms, is tame by comparison, and no rival to her immediate Wagnerian predecessor at the Met, Helen Traubel, whose live ‘Immolation Scene’ under Toscanini (1941, Guild) has been hailed in some quarters (including mine) as one of the greatest Wagner recordings ever made. Ormandy, though, directs a commanding account of the orchestral score, his way with the music surely influenced by Toscanini; this is part of a CD that also includes a fearsomely theatrical ‘funeral music’ from Siegfried (this could easily be the work not only of the Italian Maestro himself but one of the great German Wagnerians). Tristan und Isolde is represented by the ‘Prelude’, ‘Liebesnacht’ and ‘Liebestod’ in an uncredited arrangement. Here Ormandy has a feted predecessor in Stokowski who recorded the sequence on various occasions and whose handling of the same, or similar, music in his own arrangement is better focused, more tellingly erotic and more explainable in terms of the narrative, whereas Ormandy’s presentation lacks direction. A Parsifal programme is better, the Prelude superbly played, especially by the Philadelphia brass whereas the first act ‘Transformation Scene’ - one of the most extraordinary passages in all of Wagner - emerges as somewhat demystified and the truncated finale is rather surplus to requirements. Best is the darkening drama of ‘Klingsor’s Magic Garden’ and the uplifting ‘Good Friday Music’.

The most rewarding of the three all-Wagner CDs included in the set opens to a blindingly brilliant account of the ‘Overture and Venusberg Music’ from Tannhäuser which accelerates wildly towards the main climax and even admits a Stokowskian portamento in the quiet coda. Lohengrin’s Third Act Prelude flies off the runway with afterburners aflame, engaging the Valkyries’ bouncy ‘Ride’ before Wotan bids his daughter Brünnhilde farewell, again to the strains of some magnificent brass playing. The programme ends with a Meistersinger suite that alternates tenderness and gaiety.

As to comparisons, and shifting away from Wagner, the two featured recordings of Dvořák’s New World Symphony (1944/6 and 1956) exhibit a marked difference in playing style, with Stokowski’s ghost haunting the earlier version (slides, artfully flexible phrasing and prominent added cymbal clashes in the finale). The later option is more direct (no loud cymbals, the timps are far better recorded and tempi in the finale are fully integrated) though the earlier scherzo avoids a certain muddled quality that rather spoiled its successor. Both performances include a poignant account of the Largo. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto finds Gregor Piatigorsky offering a vibrant, intensely expressive account of the solo part, alertly accompanied, with Bruch’s Kol Nidrei added, a touching afterthought given that the Concentration Camps had only recently been liberated and both Piatigorsky and Ormandy were Jewish.

Tchaikovsky fares remarkably well, as might be expected given the Philadelphia’s tradition in playing his music. The Fifth Symphony, always a Stokowski favourite, features an account of the Andante cantabile second movement where the last dramatic statement of the Symphony’s motto theme is especially high in shock value. As to the Fourth, two recordings are included, the earlier of the two from 1947, the later from 1953. The 1947 account admits noticeably Stokowskian portamenti to the first movement’s central sequences, whereas in 1953 Ormandy and his players delivered a faster, more balletic ‘pizzicato’ scherzo. Neither version opts for a hell-for-leather Mravinsky-style approach to the finale (the tempo is in fact quite moderate) though in 1953 Ormandy goes for the burn in the closing pages.

But were I to nominate one truly remarkable Ormandy Tchaikovsky symphony recording from this mono era collection, it would undoubtedly be the 1952 account of the Pathétique, as much for the subtleties of its interpretation as for Ormandy’s candidly emotional approach to the entire score. For example, in the second movement’s central section, the way the strings oppose the winds’ futile efforts to revisit the opening theme. The finale is tragedy pure and simple with never a hint of sentimentality. This is classy Tchaikovsky conducting that connects both heart and brain directly with the music but without the unwanted impediment of excess. Excess regrettably rather spoils the Romeo & Juliet Fantasy Overture with its copious added cymbal clashes, hardly ‘in the best possible taste’. Certainly not a performance I’ll be returning to. As for 1812, just plain boring I’m afraid, though Marche slave is a real thriller, the Serenade for Strings is warmly engaging and Francesca da Rimini works, by stages, towards an electrifying conclusion though en route to the coda (ie at around 20:10) things sound a little confused. Of the three ballet suites, Swan Lake is by far the best.

And lastly among the Romantics, Debussy’s gorgeous La Damoiselle élue (The Blessed Damozel) involving the seraphic Brazilian soprano of Bidu Sayăo and the University of Pennsylvania’s Women’s Choir. With music inspired by the pre-Raphaelite poet and painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, this is among Debussy’s most arresting early works, here given the recording of a lifetime by Sayăo, Ormandy and his players, maybe not ‘super-fi’ but certainly super seductive.

… and into the Twentieth Century
Twentieth century music often offered Ormandy and his players scope for exploring (and exploiting) masses of orchestral colour and there’s no better place to lead on from the nineteenth-century Romantics than Rachmaninov, who dedicated his Symphonic Dances to Ormandy and his orchestra - needless to say their stereo recording doesn’t qualify for inclusion in the current set - and whose passing was marked by a heart-stopping live Ormandy/Philadelphia account of The Isle of the Dead available in Marston 53022-2, an all-Rachmaninov 3-CD historic release that includes a recently discovered recording of Rachmaninov demonstrating his Dances to Ormandy on the piano. The Isle of the Dead included here is also extremely moving, the sombre play of the waves suggesting a deeply troubled current, the climax inexorable. Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony (recorded in 1951, and cut as was so often the case in those days) is marginally quicker than the Philadelphians’ 1959 stereo recording, more intense too, especially the central second of the second movement which is beautifully done. The Third recalls the composer’s own shellac set with the same Orchestra from 1939 (RCA Victor) except that Ormandy in 1954 works the finale into a far greater frenzy than Rachmaninov did. I’d say that the Rachmaninov jewel here is The Bells, where Ormandy in 1954 employs a fine team of soloists, most notably tenor David Lloyd and baritone Mack Harrell. Perhaps the third movement, ‘The Loud Alarm Bells’, is most impressive, whereas I was disappointed that at 4:53 into the first movement the all-important trumpets are virtually inaudible. Kyrill Kondrashin and his Moscow forces on Melodiya are magnificent at this point. Ormandy later re-recorded the work in stereo for RCA but, unfortunately, I haven’t had access to that production for comparison.

Two more prophetic Russians whose music was successfully recorded in Philadelphia under Ormandy were Nikolai Myaskovsky, whose hyperactive 21st Symphony of 1940 seems to be glancing back and looking forwards simultaneously, and Reinhold Gličre, composer of a programme symphony (his Third) Ilya Muromets about the Kievan Rus’ folk hero of the same name. Like Stokowski before (and after) him, Ormandy makes heavy cuts in the score (Hermann Scherchen was, I believe, the first to record it complete, for Westminster, available on Naxos) but even so the music emerges with stunning vividness, rich food for the imagination, the only credible rival to Stokowski’s Philadelphia recording, though I’d still recommend you try a complete recording to supplement it.

While listening to the Philadelphians’ uncommonly urgent account of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht I was interested to note both on the back and front of the dust jacket that it was used for a dramatic Antony Tudor ballet ‘Pillar of Fire’ (1942). The playing suggests a palpable sense of theatre, as do the couplings, Ravel’s Daphnis et Chloé suites, the First performed with chorus, both Suites closing with positively unhinged performances of their respective fast dances. Robert Casadesus and Ormandy join forces for a surprisingly refined account of Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand (their craggier stereo re-make more suggests the music’s implied rage). Key scenes from Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck need a dramatic context to work, which isn’t the case here, even though they are intensely sung by soprano Gertrude Ribla.

Ormandy had a great fondness for the music of Sibelius (who, as with Rachmaninov, he knew personally) and among the highlights of his discography is the ecstatically Wagnerian Lemminkaďnen Suite, which pushes for maximum drama; the timing for ‘Lemminkaďnen in Tuenola’ 14:35 in comparison with, say, Sir Colin Davis who clocks up a generous 18:07. A CD featuring En Saga, Pohjola’s Daughter and Oceanides closes – it would appear - with the storm filled pages of Tapiola, the final hurricane of which finds the Philadelphia strings scrubbing away for dear life. Ok, at the close of the work, once the storm has passed, the wood-sprites in the gloom weave their magic secrets to something resembling distant sunlight but do you really want this awesome essay to be immediately followed by the maddeningly cheerful strains of Alfvén’s First Swedish Rhapsody and a couple of movements from Grieg’s Peer Gynt, even if as well performed as they are by Ormandy and his Orchestra here? Not sure that I do.

Sibelius 2’s great virtue, performance-wise, is the unanimity of the Philadelphia ‘walking basses’ in the slow movement while at the close of the Fifth, a powerfully atmospheric performance overall, the clinching final chords are both incisive and widely spaced. The Fourth is probably the most involving Sibelius performance of all, the first movement dominated by fierce brass interjections, the finale a tangled web of tense modulations. The clinching virtue of this performance is Ormandy’s mastery of the music’s highly sophisticated structure and atmosphere, not to mention his absolute control of what is going on in the orchestra.

Various works by Richard Strauss crop up, including Ormandy’s imposing second Ein Heldenleben (broader than his first, which was for Victor), Don Quixote with cellist Lone Munroe as an eloquent Don and a brilliant Burleske with Serkin. But perhaps the most impressive Strauss here is a coupling of Suites from Der Rosenkavalier (very plush) and Die Frau ohne Schatten, the latter revelling in the score’s manifestly rich complexities (second only to Salome and Elektra) and forget the plot – not that you’d be likely to remember it. Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra is a qualified success, with bags of spirit, although the swarming fast strings at the start of the finale tend to lose focus. The stereo re-make is better. On the other hand, Kodály’s Háry János Suite suits Ormandy and his players to perfection: from listening to their vividly coloured performance you could virtually guess the storyline even without foreknowledge.

No-one in my experience has made the texturally crowded opening of Prokofiev’s striking Scythian Suite sound more lucid or logical – thanks to sensible pacing – than Ormandy, whereas the singing, waltzing, youthfully assertive Seventh Symphony puts on a brave face in difficult times … though at the end Ormandy (like André Previn after him) chooses Prokofiev’s alternative (ie Stalin Prize-winning) ‘jolly’ closing pages, an artistic misjudgement in my view. The Sixth Symphony, on the other hand, is an unqualified success. Recorded in 1950, the year after the Symphony’s American premiere (under Stokowski), it joins rival early versions under Ansermet (Decca) and Mravinsky (Melodiya) in the way it is able to focus the music’s combination of grim resolve (the march-time centre of the first movement, taken fairly briskly by Ormandy) and the out-of-kilter jollifications that close the work. Between those extremes comes Prokofiev’s most profound symphonic slow movement, a crowning moment in Ormandy’s recorded output. The cantata Alexander Nevsky, exciting though it often is (albeit sung in English), cries out for superior sound (try Reiner in Chicago, on RCA ‘Living Stereo’ for comparison) while in Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring initial stiffness is mostly oiled once the pounding strains of ‘The Augurs of Spring’ get going. Thereafter tempos are furious, even a little impatient. Movements from Khachaturian’s Gayane ballet might not match the electric effect of recordings under Rozhdestvensky (DG), Doráti (Mercury) and Alfred Newman (Capitol/Warner Classics) but they’re well played and make for a happy 35-minutes’ worth.

A Hindemith coupling pushes the strong, ‘feelgood’ aspect that was so often a key element in Ormandy’s conducting style, the Mathis der Maler Symphony both deeply poetic and celebratory, the Concert Music for Strings and Brass, a grand, noble showpiece. The sound has real presence too, with an impressive edge to the brass, both works as much ‘concertos for orchestra’ as Bartók’s so-named masterpiece proves to be. Honegger’s Joan of Arc at the Stake features Vera Zorina as narrator (she’d performed at the work’s 1948 American premičre under Charles Munch), memorable music and an extremely dramatic production, no holds barred.

Some notable Americana
Ormandy was always a keen promoter of music from his adopted homeland and his discography, both mono and stereo, reflects boundless enthusiasm for the American musical cause. Perhaps the most spectacular item sound-wise, a fair match for any early Mercury ‘Living Presence’ production in fact, is ‘The Philadelphia Orchestra plays Victor Herbert’, right from the punch-drunk, sock-it-to me opening selection Pan America, through American Fantasy to the extended Irish Rhapsody (a really terrific piece) and selections from Naughty Marietta and The Fortune Teller. Great stuff all of it, given the mood – and, as you can imagine, superbly played. Hershey Kay’s Gottschalk-based ballet suite Cakewalk includes an especially ingenious orchestration of ‘The Banjo’ involving harps and full orchestra. Virgil Thomson’s vivid music for Robert Flaherty’s film Louisiana Story sits alongside his Five Portraits. When it comes to Copland, Ormandy made the interesting decision to programme Appalachian Spring complete (as opposed to the more familiar Suite) which, like Bartók’s Miraculous Mandarin ballet, contains much dramatic music that the Suite dispenses with. The performance has a real swing to its step, rough-hewn you might say, which applies equally to Billy the Kid (the Suite this time rather than whole deal). Two American symphonists who suited Ormandy’s big, outdoors conducting style to perfection were Roy Harris and William Schuman, Harris a sort of symphonic Lone Ranger, prowling the prairies with a rugged style inimitably his own, though you could say that of his more than fourteen symphonies many re-visit the world of the famous Third. Ormandy gives us the Seventh Symphony, 19 minutes of action coupled, amazingly, with the first-ever commercial recording of an American symphony, Harris’s ‘Symphony 1933’, set down during the following year by the Boston Symphony under Serge Koussevitzky, whose RCA (cut) recording of the Third put Harris on the international map. Ormandy’s (complete stereo) version of the same work wouldn’t arrive until many years later. Schuman’s muse was somewhat more cerebral than Harris’s but his sense of atmosphere and drama was just as acute. We’re given the Third and Sixth Symphonies, as well as Credendum (Article of Faith). Incidentally, Schuman Three is coupled with one of the most finely observed accounts of Debussy’s ‘Ibéria’ that I have ever heard.

The highpoint in a programme of music by the Armenian-American composer Richard Yardumian is his Armenian Suite while the pleasure quota is extended with Louis Gesensway’s atmospheric Four Squares of Philadelphia (with narrator) and Vincent Persichetti’s stylistically varied Fourth Symphony. John Vincent’s Symphony in D, a single-movement structure, ‘a festive piece in one movement’, sounds like elevated film music – and is none the worse for that – whereas as Norman Dello Joio’s memorable Variations, Chaconne and Finale wears a Bernsteinian tragi-comic mask (though Harris seems as keen a presence), the finale in particular a real earworm. Incidentally, if you find yourself browsing down the perfectly readable jacket note (as I did) and spot Dello Joio’s ‘Air Power’ Symphonic Suite as another potential contender for the set, there’s a good reason why it’s missing: it was also recorded in stereo, the mono being merely an alternative for those who were as yet without a stereo setup.

Initially, I suspected that the only other recording included that has a stereo equivalent is Beethoven’s Emperor with Eugene Istomin, but because it was never actually released in stereo, the mono version is featured in the set. A few similar cases are distributed throughout the collection and one wonders if the stereo tapes are still in existence, scheduled for release in a later, stereo Ormandy box (his subsequent stereo albums beginning in 1958 number over 200). There is, however, one strange anomaly that concerns Isaac Stern. It’s disc 103, a Wieniawski/Saint-Saëns/Ravel programme that also appears as disc 21 in Sony’s Collection ‘Isaac Stern: The Complete Columbia Analogue Recordings’, same timings, identical recording dates – but there the programme is presented in (very good) stereo. So, the exception that proves the rule perhaps. Elsewhere, alternative mono tapings (released where stereos were also available) are not included in this collection. But what we do additionally have, Americana-wise, are valuable pieces by Walter Piston (Symphony No 4), Leon Kirchner (playing his own Piano Concerto), Barber (Adagio – need you ask?), Harl McDonald, Paul White, Howard Hanson and Kent Kennon, the last two featuring the Orchestra’s wonderful lead flautist William Kincaid.

Ormandy’s 1954 Gaîté Parisienne with the Philadelphia ‘Pops’ Orchestra pushes for maximum high spirits with playing that at times defies belief, the energy of it, the sheer clout of the rhythms, and the tenderness too. Les Sylphides is tame by comparison, musically as well as performance-wise. And when it comes to the album ‘Ports of Call’, which takes its title from Ibert’s appealing mini-Suite, Ormandy delivers a performance of Ravel’s La valse that climaxes to a temple-swelling riot the like of which I’ve never previously heard in this work, not even ‘live’ under Charles Munch. Likewise, an especially brilliant account of Chabrier’s Espańa, the first loud tutti of which will knock your socks off. A relatively pacey, show-off Boléro features some superb solos but is hardly seductive. Albéniz’s Iberia (orchestrated by Fernández-Arbós and Surinach) and Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade (with Alexander Hilsberg, violin) both of which could have been written for Ormandy and his players, who present themselves as sumptuously attired, in the latter pushing the tempo marginally more in 1947 than for their re-make in 1953. Smetana’s ‘Vltava’ rides high in a superb 1956 recording, the piccolo in the ‘St John’s Rapids’ screeching loudly so that when the orchestra takes the three-note motif over for itself the connection is perfectly obvious. Liszt’s Mephisto Waltz is similarly transparent and Weber’s Invitation to the Dance is presented not in Berlioz’s orchestration, nor Felix Weingartner’s, but Ormandy’s own, which combines a certain level of contrapuntal ingenuity with an elegant turn of phrase.

Ormandy’s breathless conducting tends to make Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus sound like a non-stop patter song (it’s as well that the orchestra is relegated to the relative distance), but the performance is redeemed by some excellent singing, most notably Ljuba Welitsch (seductive as ever), Richard Tucker and Lily Pons. Other Viennese classics from the lighter end of the spectrum – and there are plenty to choose from - subscribe to an interpretative formula shared with fellow Hungarians Fritz Reiner, Antál Doráti and Ferenc Fricsay where the lilting element takes second place to tonal variety and orchestral exuberance. Waldteufel and Lehár have a disc to themselves, opening with Estudiantina and ending with Gold and Silver with some harmless kitsch arrangements in between, a dizzy merry-go-round of a programme with sundry high percussion, though there’s a whopping great edit 9 seconds into Espańa, probably on the original tape and therefore irreparable.

Among various other shorter works Enescu’s two Romanian Rhapsodies require brilliance in the First and a certain languid quality in the Second, both requirements duly met by Ormandy and his players, whereas the celebrated Capriccios by Rimsky and Tchaikovsky and an exciting if occasionally breathless disc of overtures (Rossini, Suppé, Thomas, Smetana, Offenbach) are enjoyable. Then there are other notable concerto recordings which involve violinists Zino Francescatti (Paganini 1), Nathan Milstein (Lalo Symphonie espagnole, 4-movement version), Isaac Stern (Lalo Symphonie espagnole, 5-movement version, Tchaikovsky, Mendelssohn, Bruch 1), David Oistrakh (Vivaldi, Mendelssohn and Mozart 4). Pianists include Eugene Istomin (Rachmaninov 2), Claudio Arrau (Liszt 1, Hungarian Fantasia), Rudolf Serkin (Mozart 20), Oscar Levant (Tchaikovsky 1), György Sándor (Bartók 3 and Chopin 1). There are also various performances featuring ‘first chair’ Philadelphia Orchestra soloists. Oistrakh’s Mozart (No. 4), Stern’s Lalo and Sándor’s Chopin and Istomin’s Rachmaninov are the standout items.

Summing up: Ormandy x 120 - to buy or not to buy?
I’ve hopefully covered most of the important items included in the set, though I should also mention additional Philadelphia performances conducted by the likes of Bruno Walter (Schubert 8, Beethoven 6), Sir Thomas Beecham (Berners Triumph of Neptune) and André Kostelanetz (Richard Rodgers South Pacific Suite, Jerome Kern Showboat), as well as George Szell in Cleveland (Haydn, Hindemith) and shorter works involving star soloists (Stern, Francescatti, Levant, etc). All are good to have. The main point to make is that the Philadelphia Orchestra, whether enjoyed as so-named or as the Philadelphia ‘Pops’, is a magnificent band and this collection of CDs contains some of the best recorded items in Sony’s Archive, a legacy that even as I write this the Orchestra’s current Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin is building on.

But I cannot possibly close this review without paying tribute to some of those gifted back-room guys who facilitated such an extraordinarily accomplished remastering effort. This is the second-largest box in Sony Classical’s history after the complete Arthur Rubinstein set of 142 CDs was released in 2011. So, here’s thanking Producer Robert Russ, Booklet Editor Jochen Rudelt, tape researcher Matt Fiveash, document researcher Tom Tierney, the mixing and mastering team and those who prepared the analogue tape transfers. The 200-page hardback oblong book includes, in addition to album contents, original cover artwork and notes on individual releases, details of the original shellac and microgroove discs, and much more. And there are the CDs themselves, presented in laminated card sleeves and so beautifully reproduced from the LP originals that in most cases, aside from appreciating the often attractive period artwork, you can read the programme notes even without the aid of a magnifying glass.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not for a moment denying the importance of Eugene Ormandy’s ‘super-fi’ stereo Philadelphia legacy (hopefully we’ll have that too before long) but these vivid, beautifully re-mastered single-channel recordings catch Ormandy at white heat whereas the later ones often don’t quite. As to where ‘Eugene Ormandy: The Columbia Legacy’ stands in relation to CD ‘bricks’ of differing sizes featuring Barbirolli, Furtwängler, Karajan, Knappertsbusch, Marriner, Mehta, Munch, Muti, Paillard, Previn, Szell, Toscanini, Walter and their like, I’d say that in a sense ‘mono-era Columbia’ Ormandy justifies the purchase even more than they do, if only because the process of listening allows you to learn so much about the conductor’s art that you possibly didn’t know before. OK, it’s not exactly a snip in terms of cash (though calculated on a disc-by-disc basis it is a bargain) but once into the listening process you’ll forget about the outlay: the music will take over, and you’ll be in seventh heaven, and that’s a promise. And look at the facts: 179 recordings new to CD and 139 receiving their first authorised release. All in all, it’s an astonishing achievement, an object lesson in how big boxes should be planned, produced, processed and presented. So, if you can raise the readies (as I did, I’ll admit), go for it.

Rob Cowan

For full contents see here

information received

Since this review was published we have been advised of a flaw in the final track of Disc 103. The last few bars of Isaac Stern's performance of Tzigane are missing. Any collectors who have purchesaed a set with this flaw are invited to email to obtan a replacement disc.

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