Eugene Ormandy (from Japan)

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Eugene Ormandy & The Philadelphia Orchestra – Edition III

Volume 18
Symphony No.2
Symphony No.3 (The Camp Meeting)

BVCC 38301

64 minutes

Volume 19
Holidays [Washington’s Birthday; Decoration Day; The Fourth of July; Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day]
Three Places in New England (Orchestral Set No.1)

BVCC 38302

59 minutes

Volume 20
Utrenja (The Entombment of Christ)
Sinfonia: Janiculum, Op.113 (Symphony No.9)

BVCC 38303

64 minutes

Philadelphia Orchestra
Eugene Ormandy

All recorded in the Scottish Rite Cathedral, Philadelphia except Ives’s Symphony No.3 (Academy of Music) on 3 October 1968; Ives’s Symphony No.2 recorded on 7 February 1973. Holidays recorded on 7 October 1974; Three Places on 11 December 1974. Utrenja – 28 September & 1 October 1970; Janiculum – 16 March 1971

Soloists in Utrenja:
Stefania Woytowicz (soprano)
Kerstin Meyer ((mezzo-soprano)
Seth McCoy (tenor)
Bernard Ladysz (bass)
Peter Lagger (bass)
Temple University Choirs


Reviewed by: Richard Whitehouse

Reviewed: January 2005
CD No: See above
Duration: See above

These three releases are from the Third Edition of Eugene Ormandy recordings that BMG Japan has been issuing over the last few years in local terms (the booklet notes and texts are only in Japanese). At a time when most conductors are making few, if any, recordings, BMG Japan’s Eugene Ormandy/Philadelphia Orchestra Edition comes as a reminder of the Hungarian-born American conductor’s sheer productivity in the studio. Having recorded mainly for Columbia/CBS for over two decades, Ormandy (1899-1985) switched to RCA (BMG) in 1968 – until 1980 making the recordings that comprise BMG Japan’s 50-plus CD Edition. Like that of Leonard Bernstein, Ormandy’s hectic schedule (as a perusal of dates confirms) embraced both re-recordings of his ‘core’ repertoire, and a willingness to take on-board new and unfamiliar music – a catholicity evident in the discs under consideration here.

Hard to credit now, but back in 1970, Krzysztof Penderecki was the trendiest Classical composer alive – his blend of avant-garde procedure and sonic immediacy offering a visceral thrill. “Utrenja” is a 40-minute evocation of Christ’s entombment which laminates Penderecki’s trademark microtonal dissonance onto a format derived from the Old Slavonic service, and whose measured timelessness can be heard through the texture. Not the sort of piece one would expect to go down well in Philadelphia, but whatever Ormandy thought of the music, his instinctive professionalism ensures a disciplined response from chorus and orchestra alike. It helps that the soloists, including Penderecki specialists such as Stefania Woytowicz and Peter Lagger, project the vocal writing with uninhibited expression. 35 years on, and greater familiarity with such ‘contemporary’ choral works as Ligeti’s “Requiem” and Zimmermann’s “Requiem for a Young Poet” make “Utrenja” seem an often-shallow experience (though the composer was sufficiently pleased with his efforts to add a follow up part depicting the Resurrection of Christ, the whole work being recorded by Marek Janowski for Philips in 1974 and so far unissued on CD), but this performance makes its revisiting a far from uninteresting experience.

It would be good to report that the coupling, Vincent Persichetti’s Ninth Symphony, has stood the test of time better, but this is not really the case. Best known for his symphonic wind music, such as features in the repertoire of all self-respecting US collegiate bands, Persichetti (1915-1987) was active in all main genres, and the present work was a Philadelphia Orchestra commission in 1969. Its subtitle, ‘Janiculum’, refers to the Italian region immortalised by Respighi in The Pines of Rome, but anyone expecting a similarly blissful evocation will be disappointed. The symphony’s single movement is essentially an introduction and four sections which conflate the functions of both sonata and symphonic form. Persichetti opts for the non-functional tonality then prevalent on America’s East Coast: one whose coherence is implied by the cadential placement of harmonies and rhythms rather than any long-range tonal follow-through. Virtuosic in its writing for an expanded orchestra, and superbly played here, it leaves a curiously detached, even manufactured impression – as though its composer had studiously thought out every bar without meaning a note of it. Not that Persichetti was alone, of course, in such establishment Modernism; only that other symphonies of the period, such as Peter Mennin’s Eighth and William Schuman’s Ninth – also a Philadelphia commission and the LP coupling for the present work – manage both to sound contemporary (sic) and have an intrinsic musical interest.

Which latter quality you could never deny Charles Ives – the first American composer of true stature and one who features prominently, if selectively, in Ormandy’s discography. Indeed, his 1968 account of the First Symphony for CBS (last available on Sony Essential Classics) remains the best recording of this deceptively conventional work by some margin. Five years on, Ormandy set down the Second Symphony, but the result is not nearly so convincing. There is a dourness to the opening Andante – strings insufficiently graded dynamically – carried over into an imposing but heavy-handed Allegro which, some felicitous woodwind contributions aside, smoothes out the quirkiness of Ives’s scoring. Best is the Adagio, its synthesis of Brahmsian reverie and folksy nocturne achieved with no false sincerity and with a raptness that few other recordings have equalled. The Lento introduction to the finale (nominally in five movements, the symphony is best heard as a central slow movement flanked by two allegros, each with a slow introduction) strikes the right note of anticipatory pathos, but the ensuing Allegro again suffers from overt studiousness – while, in terms of orchestral balance, the coda’s Americana melée is often obscure. The present transfer sounds more refined than that once available on BMG’s High Performance transfer, but the performance is not one to return to often.

What makes the disc worth acquiring is the 1969 account of Ives’s Third Symphony – originally coupled with Schuman’s New England Triptych, and a reading which captures the almost Classical poise of Ives’s most intimate symphonic utterance without denying the nostalgia that haunts its three movements in subtly different ways. To hear the polyphonic intricacy of ‘Old Folk’s Gatherin’’ so patiently worked, the whimsical vivaciousness of ‘Children’s Day’ so deftly maintained, and the wistful resignation of ‘Communion’ so unsentimentally rendered is to appreciate the range of expression (not to mention the tonal fluidity) beneath the surface of this music: something that Mahler picked up on but did not live long enough to conduct, and which Ormandy realises so tellingly here. A performance to cherish.

One might denote the recordings of the Ives works on the other disc as coming in-between the above as regards overall interpretative insight. Certainly the 1975 Three Places in New England – originally issued with an uncut recording of Roy Harris’s Third Symphony – does not supersede that which Ormandy made for CBS almost a decade earlier. Described at the time as being the first recording of the “Original Full Orchestration”, it creates merely a passive emotional intensity in ‘St Gaudens’, nor does it set the pulse racing in ‘Putnam’s Camp’ – its rhythmic and textural overlays are precisely if self-consciously delineated – or fully convey the sense of overwhelming grandeur at the close of ‘The Housatonic at Stockbridge’. The orchestral playing is uniformly excellent – richer, more burnished than on the previous account – but this First Orchestral Set has always been the best served of Ives’s major orchestral works on disc, and Ormandy’s remake cannot quite compete with the best.

The 1975 recording of the Holidays Symphony, on the other hand, is Ormandy at – or very near – his best in this composer. More a symphonic suite in terms of its formal integration, the work benefits from a cumulative approach to the distillation of atmosphere such as it receives here. The coming-together of nocturne and barn dance that is ‘Washington’s Birthday’ is managed with no appreciable break in musical continuity; similarly, the ticker-tape outburst merges naturally out of and back into the prevailing pensiveness of ‘Decoration Day’, while the convulsive rhythmic shifts that give ‘The Fourth of July’ its impact are precise and unflashy in realisation. The earliest movement in terms of its thematic constituents, ‘Thanksgiving and Forefathers’ Day’ emerges as the inevitable outcome of what has gone before. Ormandy draws a powerful, Ruggles-like implacability from the opening section, and builds unerringly to a magisterial climax in which the brief but defining choral contribution (the excellent Temple University Concert Choir) emerges organically out of the orchestral texture rather than sounding added on. This is a work which has come into its own on disc over the last two decades,but Ormandy’s account – never widely available outside the US on LP – can hold its own with the finest.

So, a mixed bag interpretatively, but one which is rarely less than fascinating in terms of music and generally absorbing as regards performance. My advice would be to seek out the Holidays/New England coupling and hope that BMG Europe sees fit to issue Holidays with the Third Symphony. The present issues are simply but attractively packaged, with reproductions of the original LP sleeves at either end of the booklet and full recording details. Notes are in Japanese only, but as these discs are primarily conductor-orientated, this is very much a secondary consideration. Ormandy’s manifest prowess as both conductor and interpreter is only now being re-acknowledged, and BMG Japan’s contribution to that process is one that deserves full and open-handed appreciation.

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