Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra: The Early Years Vol. 4 = TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphonies 5 & 6, Nutcracker Suite; RIMSKY-KORSAKOV: Russian Easter Overture [complete listing below] – Pristine Audio PASC 693 (2 CDs: 2 hr 1:35) [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:
With the exception of the 10 January 1945 recording of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite, the performances resurrected here by master Engineer and Audio Producer Mark Obert-Thorn all derive from sessions 1936-1942, many of which, like the two Rimsky-Korsakov works, had never been issued in modern sound technology media, while some had been overlooked in favor of alternate readings.
Obert-Thorn makes an early point of Ormandy’s veneration of conductor Arturo Toscanini as his model of musical excellence, and the insistence of relatively fast tempos and clarity of execution by the Philadelphians testifies to that influence. The central section of the March from The Nutcracker sets a good illustration of this principle. The sheer hustle of the reading that never permits any slack in orchestral articulation makes the version – once issued via a 10” LP in the 1950s – a remarkably fined-honed document. The lushly lyrical sweep of the Philadelphia strings meets every musical expectation here, as it does in the Valse movement of the Fifth Symphony.
The Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony (15 March 1941) offers a surprisingly ardent reading, much in the Koussevitzky tradition, given that the score did not interest Toscanini. The first movement broadly asserts its Romantic ethos with generous rubatos, portamentos, and pregnant ritards, all the while indulging the string and brass choirs of the Philadelphia ensemble in dramatically energetic thrusts. The much-esteemed, popular Andante cantabile con alcuna licenza flourishes its opening French horn solo, while the supporting winds and strings proffer a halo of sound. Once more, after the main theme establishes itself, we hear various rhythmic and dynamic adjustments that bestow a majestic character to the music’s otherwise sentimental evolution.
Some of the dynamic and metric gambits feel as though Stokowski were at the helm. The “fate motif” assumes both a dire and conciliatory character as the music progresses. We must admit the aptness of response in Ormandy’s forces, especially as the woodwinds assume more thematic development. When the climactic moment bursts forth, tutti, the effect makes a case for Ormandy as a superior interpreter of this score, especially given his just insertion of all the development section in the last movement, injudiciously excised in the Willem Mengelberg and Frederick Stock readings. We note that later, in the last movement, the Allegro vivace’s coda, the Stokowski cuts made prior to the final full statement have also been restored. This last movement combines surging, driven energies with a warmth of expression I found uncharacteristically convincing from the Eugene Ormandy whom Richard Strauss had casually dismissed as the “ideal interpreter of Johann Strauss waltzes.”
Ormandy’s first of five recordings of Tchaikovsky’s Pathétique derives from two sessions, those of 13 December 1936 and 9 January 1937, and it shimmers with a direct, linear sense of melancholy nostalgia, relatively uncluttered by 19th Century, histrionic performance practice. The clarity of the individual woodwind lines shows off the versatility of the ensemble at a time when the Stokowski characteristics still lingered, especially in climactic passages. Ormandy draws out the Adagio prior to the eruptive energies of the first movement’s Allegro non troppo, yet the duration of the first movement proves quicker than that of many of Ormandy’s contemporaries, the drive most likely a Toscanini influence. While the Philadelphia brass section excels in this segment, the literalness of expressive phrasing may seem unimaginative and glib compared to conceptions from Stokowski, Coates, and Koussevitzky.
The Philadelphia string tone projects its patented, burnished beauty for the famous 5/4 Allegro con grazia, the winds in response in the manner of the composer’s ballet sequences. The melodic line moves seamlessly, the supporting harmonies and colors integrated artfully. The ensuing Allegro molto vivace arrives, perforce, as a showcase for the color versatility of the orchestra, a militant assault rife with tragic undercurrents. The trumpet work proves exceptional, and the strings’ homogeneity of tone had to represent the paragon for American ensemble playing.
Has musical scholarship decisively concluded whether Gustav Mahler’s penchant for concluding his late Symphony No. 9 with an Adagio comes from Tchaikovsky’s example or arrived at independently? Here, in Tchaikovsky, Ormandy delivers a sincere, linear performance of this Finale, relatively uncluttered by Romantic rhetoric, although occasional string slides can be detected. Those familiar with the closely contemporary performance of Pathétique by Wilhelm Furtwaengler from 1938 Berlin may find that document more convincing, but one cannot deny Ormandy’s strong kinship and innate sensitivity to the Tchaikovsky style.
Editor Obert-Thorn supplements the Tchaikvosky entries with two examples from Rimsky-Korsakov: first, a 20 December 1941 scene, previously unissued, arranged by Ormandy from the 1895 opera Christmas Eve, after a short story by Gogol. From the opening measures the entire sequence resembles, explicitly, the beginning of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture and its Russian Orthodox hymn to defend Mother Russia from Napoleon. From the “Magic Key of RCA” broadcast program (9 April 1939), we hear an abridged version, previously unpublished, of the Russian Easter Overture. Despite the obvious cuts, the fierce intensity and expertise of ensemble quite sweep us away in an ecstatic, virtuosic expression of festive pageantry and religious veneration. This broadcast occurred on the same day contralto Marian Anderson appeared in recital on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, an event that clearly overshadowed, in retrospect, the present occasion.
Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra: The Early Years Vol. 4:
The Nutcracker – Suite, Op. 71a;
Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64;
Symphony No. 6 in B Minor, Op. 74 “Pathétique”;
Church Scene from Christmas Eve (arr. Ormandy);
Russian Easter Overture, Op. 36 (abridged)