Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra:  The Early Years, Vol 1 — Pristine Audio

by | Dec 24, 2019 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra: The Early Years, Vol. I = LISZT: Les Preludes; SCHUMANN: Symphony No. 2 in C Major, Op. 61; RAVEL: Daphnis et Chloe – Suite No. 2; R. STRAUSS: Ein Heldenleben, Op. 40; MENOTTI: Amelia Goes to the Ball Overture; BARBER: First Essay for Orchestra, Op. 12; HARRIS: Three Pieces for Orchestra; SOUSA Washington Post March; The Stars and Stripes Forever – Philadelphia Orchestra/ Eugene Ormandy – Pristine Audio PASC 578 (2 CDs) 66:34; 69:26 [www.pristineclassical.com] ****:

Conductor Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) always poses musical problems for me: as the inheritor of one of America’s greatest musical institutions and ensembles – especially as refined as the Philadelphia Orchestra had become under Leopold Stokowski – I find it often infuriating how limited his recorded legacy could be. Moreover, Ormandy prided himself on his musical memory, to the extent that he rarely re-evaluated his prior conception of any piece in order to deepen or extend its possible meaning. Editor and restoration engineer Mark Obert-Thorn informs us that while Ormandy recorded Liszt’s Les Preludes twice in the 78 rpm era, he did not leave an LP document; nor did Ormandy venture into the other twelve symphonic poems of Liszt. And though I find the reading of Les Preludes technically adequate, dramatically it lacks both the poise and plastic dynamism of fellow Hungarian Ferenc Fricsay’s reading or that of the German Wilhelm Furtwaengler. The even earlier record by Willem Mengelberg from 1929 provides a more overt demonstration of sheer orchestral prowess. My general assessment has been and remains that Ormandy embodied the perfect accompanying artist to any capable soloist – Heifetz, Serkin, Kapell, Stern, Piatagorsky, Feuermann – but his readings of the standard orchestral canon soon pale when scrutinized from the vantage point of rival interpreters’ depth perception. Finally, I have never quite forgiven Ormandy for his rather cavalier dismissal of composer Richard Yardumian, then in residence to the orchestra – after some falling out, Ormandy made sure Yardumian’s name did not appear in a commemorative booklet. When I met Ormandy on tour in Atlanta, I found for me the perfect LP for him to sign for my sense of posterity, his recording of Offenbach’s Gaite Parisienne.

The innate lyricism and stylistic sympathy Ormandy elicits for the Schumann C Major Symphony (rec. 1936-37) virtually has my eating my words, so effective are its musical means. I assume Marcel Tabuteau realizes the oboe part in the last movement, pungent and piquant as the playing proves. Unlike the George Szell approach to Schumann and closer to what would be the Bernstein (via Mitropoulos) hallmark in this symphony, Ormandy avoids reducing the work to a series of marches. The marvelous Adagio espressivo third movement has its way of anticipating much of Mahler, whose Resurrection Symphony Ormandy had recorded in Minneapolis. We must lament, as does Obert-Thorn, that Ormandy returned to Schumann only for the Piano Concerto (with Serkin), ignoring his obvious penchant for the composer, having led the D minor Symphony in Minneapolis and this fine C Major here. A special moment does arrive in the form of the Second Suite to Daphnis et Chloe, alternately lushly soaring and incandescently transparent in the textures, especially the strings and winds. The brass work with triangle at the coda of “Daybreak” resonates in a way has not for the many decades this performance lay dormant, only now reissued since its lacquer days. Do we surmise correctly that William Kincaid plays the luxurious solo flute in the “Pantomime”? The Danse generale achieves a blistering tempo and brilliant articulation in winds, tympani, and brass, a real virtuoso orchestra demonstration moment, certainly the equal of the Mengelberg model in Amsterdam.

Ironically, RCA turned to Eugene Ormandy for recordings of the work of Richard Strauss, who in a sarcastic moment, characterized Ormandy as the “perfect conductor of Johann Strauss waltzes.” The violin principal for this 1939 Ein Heldenleben – the first such recording other than that by its dedicatee Willem Mengelberg in Amsterdam – Alexander Hilsberg (1900-1960) had joined the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1935 and would make some prominent recordings, including a Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto (as conductor for young Isaac Stern). The Ormandy tempos for the solipsistic portrait of the composer remain fertile and brisk; and until Hilsberg’s intoning of Pauline, “The Hero’s Companion,” we hardly realize how far we’ve come in terms of self-characterization and the brief exposure of the “Adversaries” (in parallel fifths) with whom The Hero will engage in a Battle Royal. The seamless quiet of the 78 rpm transfer here in this episode belies the age of the recording! The call to arms having been announced, Ormandy virtually pounces on the opportunity to showcase his brass and battery sections, along with the full complement of swooping string lines. The pompous elements manage to collide with the “South Seas” caress of the violin part, the polyphony always a variant of the opening motif of the work. A fine serenity imbues “The Hero’s Works of Peace,” with references to Guntram, Don Quixote, Don Juan and Death and Transfiguration. In case we suspect Strauss of humility, the scalar passages from Beethoven’s Eroica that form “The Hero’s Retreat from the World” soon dispel any false modesty.

Gian-Carlo Menotti’s 1937 Amelia Goes to the Ball had its premier by yet another conductor who coveted the Philadelphia Orchestra, Hungarian Fritz Reiner. The charming parody of socialite mentality has its first recording here from Ormandy, who injects a pert, incisive energy into the playful mix, indicative of his commitment to American music. The 1937 First Essay by Samuel Barber marks another premiere on disc, here of a work through-composed, inspecting its opening motif from a variety of viewpoints. The Philadelphia strings open and soon swell with the somber theme, joined by brass and tympani in a resolute statement, in canon, of this musical “essay.” Cast in two sections, the music reveals an idiosyncratic dissonance, but the parts, including the quick scherzando, reveal aspects of the initial motive. The agitation becomes alternately jazzy and disruptive, utilizing the piano as a percussion color. As an innovative exploration of the “essay” form, the work has a tight, lyrically explosive potency, fading out in eerie menace. Roy Harris took two Dance movements from his Folksong Symphony and sandwiched between the outer movements a new movement, Evening Piece. Pristine here revives an otherwise unpublished recording. The opening Dance Tunes bears an Irish lilt or two. The middle movement conveys a nocturne in the true sense, almost hymnal. Dance Tunes for Full Orchestra project a rural, festive spirit, peppy in the brass. Real Americana, the music rings with the same national impetus we associate with Copland and Gould.

Lastly, we have two Sousa marches that announce our having entered into WW II and mark the last RCA sessions for the Philadelphia Orchestra for many years. The bouncy, nationalistic Washington Post March exploits high brass, tuba, and cymbals in a sporting spirit. Stars and Stripes Forever will once more ask William Kincaid to contribute to the gallant hours of American patriotism. The clarity of line truly affects us even now, and the entire restoration has been a marvel of seamless splicing.

—Gary Lemco


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