Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra:  The Early Years, Vol 3 — Pristine Audio

by | Jul 16, 2021 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra: The Early Years, Vol. 3 = WAGNER: Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg: Dance of the Apprentices; Entrance of the Mastersingers; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 2 in D Major, Op. 73; J. STRAUSS II: Vienna Blood Waltz, Op. 354; Voices of Spring Waltz, Op. 410; Emperor Waltz, Op. 437; HINDEMITH: Mathis der Maler Symphony; R. STRAUSS: Waltzes from Der Rosenkavalier; Symphonia Domestica, Op. 53 – Philadelphia Orchestra/ Eugene Ormandy – Pristine Audio PASC 634 (2 Discs, 65:44; 73:28) [www.pristineclassical.com] *****:

Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn extends his projected five-volume Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) cycle with this third installment, devoted to the Philadelphia years 1937-1941. In some ironic moment, Richard Strauss once called Eugene Ormandy “the perfect conductor for the music of Johann Strauss,” whether an affirmation of a calling or a slight of musical intelligence, I remain uncertain. Regardless, the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra strings, well honed by Leopold Stokowski’s tenure, makes its shimmering presence felt. I had been familiar with Ormandy’s later 1950’s reading of the Suite from the 1910 Der Rosenkavalier, so I went to this restoration from 25 October 1941. After a condensed introductory phrase, Ormandy launches into the suave textures of the waltz sequences, lushly Romantic, as if a sentimental gloss has been overlaid on an idealized courtly, Viennese past. The glow of the waltz from Act III lingers in the mind long after the last chords fade away. 

Ormandy does not share with Stokowski a reputation in the music of Richard Wagner, so the 9 January 1937 orchestral excerpts from Die Meistersinger come as a pleasant, transparent surprise. Contrapuntal and diatonic in syntax, both the Dance of the Apprentices and Entry of the Masters exploit the virtuosity of the Philadelphia brass choir, their homogeneity of tone, and the precision in various, tongued effects. The transition to the music of Act I Prelude in C occurs in smooth figures, and the Philadelphia strings once more exert a silken gloss throughout the pageant. 

Ormandy leads a sonically luxuriant Brahms Symphony No. 2 recorded in two sessions, 21 December 1939 and 27 March 1940. The emphasis remains on the lyrical aspect of this music, here projected in bucolic, optimistic terms. Once Ormandy mastered a score, he prided himself on its exact reproduction in all future encounters, a glib view antithetical to a dynamic notion of an artist’s personal evolution. The tempos, rather brisk, still manage the Brahms cantabile that defines his particular nostalgia. A touch of portamento invades the second movement Adagio non troppo, almost welcome, given Ormandy’s often prosaic literalism. The last two movements proceed in a detached aether, more like a lovely canvas seen at a distance. As sheer, sonic experience, the Ormandy Brahms works for its seamless legatos, its admirable workmanship in details – like Marcel Tabuteau’s oboe – almost an exact but more domesticated definition of his Austrian contemporary, Herbert von Karajan. 

Two of the Johann Strauss waltzes date from 15 March 1941, Wiener Blut and Frühlingsstimmen, and each basks in the virtues of this ravishing orchestra’s sense of ensemble. The 1873 Wiener Blut has hearty competition from Clemens Kraus, but for singing transparency of effect, the Richard Strauss assessment stands. The 1883 Frühlingsstimmen had been a lyric, with words by Richard Genée, and one of its fine, recorded performances as a purely orchestral work comes from Thomas Beecham and the London Philharmonic. Ormandy’s rendition sparkles like fine champagne, the lark, the nightingale, and the balmy breezes of the lyric preserved in a lush, sonic amber. The 1889 Kaiser-Walzer, recorded 1 August 1941, exhibits some Viennese niceties: a strong rubato, a pomp and dignity of the occasion as a toast of friendship between Austria-Hungary and Germany. Only Wilhelm Furtwaengler in his VPO recording brings a sense of tragedy to the majesty of the moment. The sound transfers in these waltzes, from eighty years ago, sound wonderfully pert and incisive.

Ormandy made a specialty of Paul Hindemith’s 1934 symphonic arrangement of his opera Mathis der Maler, a fictional account of the life of Mathias Grunewald (c. 1475-1528), inspired by Grunewald’s famous paintings for the altar of the abbey at Isenheim in Alsace. The theme of the peasants’ war against their feudal masters likely had strong undercurrents for the composer’s resentments towards the Nazi administration of his Germany. Ormandy’s vivid performance from 20 October 1940 already dates this second recorded document of the music – the first had been made by the composer – barely a year after the invasion of Poland in September 1939. Despite the pictorial representations of Grunwewald, the music remains fundamentally abstract, an emotional impressionism that often sets key relations in contrary or cross motion. Like G Minor and G Major in the opening sequence, “The Angelic Concert.” The second movement, “Entombment,” might well depict Germany’s great intellectual tradition, as well as Jesus, laid to rest. The last movement, regarding two incidents in the life of St. Anthony, achieves striking coloration, especially in the Philadelphia brass, which grandly intones the 13th-century chant “Lauda Sion Salvatorem” and responsory, concluding alleluias. 

Ormandy takes credit for the first electrical recording (9 May 1938) of the Richard Strauss 1898 expansive tone-poem Symphonia Domestica. Strauss himself noted at the time of composition, “My next tone poem will represent a day in my family life. It will be partly lyrical, partly humorous – a triple fugue will bring together Papa, Mama and Baby.” The expansive main theme intends to extend the “heroic” sentiment of Ein Heldenleben while simultaneously permitting the diurnal commonplaces of family life their prosaic and sometimes droll, polyphonic expression. The music plays as a colorful, even erotic, divertimento in various tempos and textures, a homely idyll expanded into scenic tableaux. Bits of Viennese melodies appear, waltz gestures, moments of rapture, indications of family spats and reconciliations; and throughout, there persists an eminent emotional security. As a display piece for the Philadelphia Orchestra, one could hardly improve on this music as a vehicle, excepting perhaps the works of Respighi. In this quietly superior restoration, the period effects have their ideal realization.

—Gary Lemco

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