THE ART OF EUGENE ORMANDY.
Contents include Mahler: Symphony No. 8 ("of a Thousand"), Part 1; Richard Strauss:
Symphonia Domestica; Myaskovsky: Symphony No. 21; Menotti: Overture to Amelia Goes to the Ball; Barber:
Essay No. 1. Griffes: The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan; Harris: When Johnny Comes Marching
Home; shorter works by Brahms, Dvorak, Rimsky-Korsakov, Zador, Hosmer, Zemachson, Herbert, and
After a decade in the galleys (to borrow Verdi's metaphor for years of mass-producing operas in Italy's teatri lirichi), Judson arranged that Ormandy take over the Minneapolis Symphony in 1931 -- Minnesota today -- where Victor recorded him mostly in short pieces, yet also in the first American recording of Mahler's Second Symphony during a performance! Minnesota repertory on the first of these two Biddulph discs is yet more salon music, leavened by Griffes' Pleasure Dome and Roy Harris' take on When Johnny Comes Marching Home. Then, in 1936, came The Big Break -- Ormandy's appointment as Stokowski's co-conductor in Philadelphia by... yes, Arthur Judson who managed both that orchestra and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony. Two years later, Gene was named music director for a tenure that lasted until 1980. Disc 1 concludes with their performances of Samuel Barber's Essay No. 1 (recorded in 1940) and the fizzy Overture to Amelia Goes to the Ball by Barber's Significant Other, Gian-Carlo Menotti (made a year earlier).
Except for the last two items, Disc 1 is an embarrassment -- musically trivial, with performances that were efficient but faceless until the Barber, which remains a classic reading even today. Recordings, however, never documented the most significant oar-lock in Ormandy's first stateside decade -- musical director of Manhattan's Capitol Theater, where a concert-size orchestra in the pit played substantial programs of "classical music" between film screenings four times a day. His radio work, furthermore, on Judson's CBS network, is undocumented here (if any still exists on transcription discs).
Disc 2, however, is a revelation, almost a transfiguration. It begins with the F-sharp minor Symphony (No. 21, Op. 51) composed in 1940 by Shostakovich's friend Nikolai Myaskovsky, inheritor of the Glazunov, Rachmaninov and Medtner tradition after they left Sovietized Russia. To the manner born as it were, Ormandy and his Philadelphians (by then indisputably his) recorded the music in 1947 for Columbia, their label from1943 until the late '60s. In analog mono, it has been refurbished beyond all expectation, remembering the LP on which it first appeared.
Even more astonishing, though, and fulfilling, is the music that follows: Richard Strauss' Domestic Symphony (which he spelled Symphonia, not Sinfonia), the beginning of a decline in his concert-music after Ein Heldenleben (which already had a patch of blowzy opulence as a harbinger). A day-in-the-Strauss-life scenario, including baby Strauss in his bath as scherzo, shocked taste-making critics on both sides of the Atlantic. Audiences listened when Strauss toured it across America in 1902-03, but didn't cheer. It had mostly lain on the shelf until Fritz Reiner recorded it in Chicago, followed by George Szell in Cleveland, and most recently by Lorin Maazel. I used to have a broadcast tape of Maazel's voluptuous Chicago Symphony performance in 1985 that out-Fritzed Reiner, who had in turn out-Georged Szell by a substantial margin. (A wretchedly recorded wartime version by Furtw”ngler and the Berlin Phil did no one credit, although it continues to circulate according to Schwann/Opus.)
I'd never heard Ormandy's recording on May 9, 1938, issued in Victor album M/DM-520, hailed in its day as ne plus ultra, until this dazzling remastering by Mark Obert-Thorn. RCA once upon a time worked wonders in the Academy of Music until stereo defeated the combined efforts of it, Columbia and EMI to overcome acoustic anomalies. Irving Kolodin and David Hall -- in respective books that were Bibles for record collectors in the era of 78s and analog-LP -- praised Ormandy and his orchestra but sloughed off the piece. It was not music I cared for, even when Reiner stroked it in concert (his recording, on the other hand, lacks a comparable involvement for me; it has a touch of "morning-after" expressively). But this first electrical recording of the music is unique and cherishable: first of all, Ormandy brought the music in at 39:41 whereas Reiner took 4 minutes longer, and Gerard Schwarz on Delos more than 8 minutes longer! I don't know the timing on Maazel's recent Bavarian Radio version on RCA, but I'll guess it's in the high-40s (Ed. note: it's 49:52). Yet Ormandy didn't cut, hurry, or overlook details; obviously he loved the challenge, and posthumously, 62 years later, makes us love it too, even the pomposity of a triple fugue at the end. David Hall in The Record Book called it "magnificent." Hear, hear!
The second disc ends with an off-the-air recording of a Hollywood Bowl performance on July 29, 1948 -- on acetate discs with varying volume levels, writes Obert-Thorn -- of "Veni, Creator Spiritus," the first movement of Mahler's humongous Eighth Symphony. The eponymous (Los Angeles Phil) orchestra never played better back then, or for a long time after; the chorus is large and hearty, the kids' choir can be heard, and the soloists include several winners: soprano Frances Yeend, contralto Eula Beal, tenor Charles Kullman, baritone Mack Harrell, and bass-baritone George London, the latter two along with Ms. Yeend in their prime. Listening requires a suspension, not so much of disbelief but of irritation that nothing better could have been done as late as 1948, in a community where sound was a major component of its chief industry: the movies.
There exists only this movement, evidently, yet it is enough -- a performance by a master Mahlerian, going back to summers in and around Vienna, where Ormandy kept a year-round apartment -- after seasons in New York, conducting movements of Mahler symphonies at the Capitol Theater -- until Hitler and the Anschluss. It may be, from what gets through the distortion, a performance as interesting, committed, and insightful as any we've had on commercial discs. You won't hear the luxuriant sound of Strauss, and probably ought to listen separately. But it opens another door on a career centered in Philadelphia from 1936 until Ormandy's death there in 1985, yet significant on a world as well as local scale.
More, please, Mr. Obert-Thorn, without the kitsch.
R.D. (March 2000)