The Firebird [1919 Suite]
Symphony No.2 in E minor, Op.27
Filmed interview with Eugene Ormandy
Recorded in Academy of Music, Philadelphia – Stravinsky in 1977, Rachmaninov in 1979
Reviewed by: Mike Langhorne
Reviewed: June 2010
CD No: EUROARTS 2072258
Duration: 81 minutes
These performances were filmed at concerts towards the end of Eugene Ormandy’s 44-year tenure as music director of the Philadelphia Orchestra. The Rachmaninov is from 1979, the year prior to Ormandy vacating the music-director’s office in favour of guest-conducting.
Ormandy’s professional relations and friendship with Rachmaninov began before his appointment to the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936, at Minneapolis when he accompanied the composer in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. Their friendship was warm and mutual and lasted until the composer’s death in 1943. It also led to Rachmaninov seeking former-violinist Ormandy’s technical advice on bowing the string parts for what would prove to be his last orchestral work, Symphonic Dances, Ormandy conducting the premiere and recording it in 1960. We can therefore regard the Ormandy’s recorded performances of the works of Rachmaninov, along with those of Leopold Stokowski (Ormandy’s predecessor in Philadelphia), as having historical importance.
This performance of Rachmaninov’s symphony is cut, as the conductor disarmingly confirms in a filmed interview on the DVD. He justifies the cuts through having discussed them with the composer and that Rachmaninov had approved most of them if reluctantly. Ormandy (1899-1985) made four audio recordings of Rachmaninov 2: the first in Minneapolis in 1934 and the other three with the Philadelphians – in 1951 and 1959 for Columbia, and for RCA in 1973. This last version is uncut – perhaps following the lead made by Paul Kletzki (Decca, 1967, the first complete recording of this symphony) and then André Previn (EMI, also 1973).
It seems strange then that Ormandy should then revert to a cut version for this performance, but this is evidenced by the pasting-over in the players’ parts clearly visible as the camera pans across the orchestra! The performance is very similar in conception and timings to the 1959 audio recording, a well-proportioned, muscular reading with drive and impetus where necessary. The more-tender passages, particularly in the Adagio, are on the beefy side with a paucity of really quiet playing, although the opening clarinet solo is eloquently taken. This filmed performance scores over Ormandy’s 1973 LP/CD version in that it is a live account and generates a sense of occasion that a recording session often does not. If cuts do not worry you then this is probably the Ormandy performance to go for in this work.
It’s not the same verdict for the 1919 Firebird Suite in which both orchestra and maestro seem to be on automatic pilot – a dull performance lacking in characterisation and, again, and essential for this music, really quiet playing.
The sound on the DVD when played through large loudspeakers is fair-enough and the picture quality is excellent. Kirk Browning’s direction is exemplary with a variety of shots of the orchestra though rather fewer of Ormandy.