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Eugene Ormandy - The Columbia Legacy
Author: Richard Osborne
This collection is certainly a colourful affair, an old curiosity shop of a box among whose 120 CDs (selling for about £287) are 179 recordings new to CD and no fewer than 139 receiving their first authorised release. For enquiring minds tired of receiving third-hand opinions about Ormandy’s conducting, there will be much to explore.
The set’s subtitle is ‘The Columbia Legacy’, though a paper strip pasted to the box’s protective shrink-wrap reveals that these are mono recordings from the years 1944-58. Nothing from the final (stereo) decade of the orchestra’s 24-year relationship with Columbia.
A historic label dating back to Edison’s time, Columbia had been subsumed by media conglomerate CBS in 1938. Looking to be top dog there, rather than a bit player with RCA Victor, the Philadelphians had jumped ship in 1944. As we can hear, the relationship began well, thanks in part to Columbia’s securing the services of the vastly experienced former head of A&R at Victor, Charles O’Connell, a man who’d worked closely with Stokowski, Toscanini (whom he much disliked) and a 35-year-old Hungarian-born firebrand in Minneapolis, Eugene Ormandy.
After O’Connell’s departure in 1948, things began to go downhill. Lack of knowhow in dealing with Philadelphia’s acoustically challenging halls, time-pressured recording sessions and slapdash editing appear to have been one set of problems. Another was the kind of repertory CBS thought it commercially prudent to record in Philadelphia: popular classics and operatic arrangements, alongside the occasional gesture towards 20th-century American music (brilliantly articulated performances of William Schuman, less sympathetic ones of the more classically inclined Walter Piston) and a certain amount of more locally directed material.
Blessed with a young orchestra and a revered music academy, the Curtis Institute, Philadelphia offered rich pickings, not least from among the many world-renowned musicians who taught at the Institute: the likes of Rudolf Serkin and Gregor Piatigorsky, heard here in a superb, and at the time unpublished, account of Dvořák’s Cello Concerto. There were also local composers such as Richard Yardumian and orchestra manager Harl McDonald to whom Ormandy was understandably loyal.
The collection also reminds us of some exceptional though nowadays little-remembered Philadelphians. Soprano Margaret Harshaw, for instance, Helen Traubel’s successor at the Met and a notably ‘human’ Brünnhilde under Rudolf Kempe at Covent Garden in 1954, heard here in the Immolation Scene from Wagner’s Götterdämmerung.
Sony’s introductory essay, headlined ‘Creator and Creation’, perpetuates the myth (encouraged by Ormandy) that it was he who created the modern Philadelphia Orchestra. In reality, it was an orchestra he inherited and largely let be. No need, in conservative Philadelphia, to remake and renew, as Szell would do in Cleveland or Karajan in Berlin.
The orchestra contained some wonderful players. One thinks of the long-serving Principal Flute William Kincaid, or cellist Lorne Munroe, whose playing of the death of Quixote in a 1955 recording of the Richard Strauss tone poem had me hearing the epilogue twice over. Equally there are others, such as oboist Marcel Tabuteau, who joined in 1915 and left in 1954, who might best be described as an acquired taste. Not unlike those Philadelphia horns and what, on record at least, is their strangely occluded sound.
The playing, at best, can be spectacular. The 1953 recording of Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition is the perfect catwalk for such gifted instrumentalists, as is Stravinsky’s Rite, with Ormandy’s 1955 recording every bit as thrilling as the Stokowski that preceded it (HMV, 4/31) or the Muti that followed (HMV, 11/79).
It’s in the symphonic repertoire that things become problematic. Unlike fellow émigrés from Austria-Hungary – Reiner, Szell, Antal Dorati – Ormandy had no first-hand concert or opera-house training. A gifted violinist with a fine ear and a photographic memory, he’d found himself stranded in New York in the winter of 1921-22 during an ill-advised solo tour. He quickly landed a position in the 80-piece orchestra of a Manhattan movie palace, from where he would be catapulted into the orchestral big time on the hunch of America’s musical kingmaker, Arthur Judson.
It’s interesting to recall that Ormandy’s first appearance in Gramophone has him conducting the Eugene Ormandy Orchestra in waltzes from the films Married in Hollywood and The Gold-diggers of Broadway (Parlophone, 1/30 – nla). This, barely a year before Judson invited him to stand in for Toscanini in a series of concerts in Philadelphia. (‘Gene, there’s a vacancy in Philadelphia but it could be suicide.’)
As Ormandy’s 1944-45 recordings of Beethoven’s Seventh, Dvořák’s New World and the César Franck amply demonstrate, he was a skilled assimilator, well able to direct such pieces with vitality and rigour after the manner of his god Toscanini. He’s also difficult to pigeonhole. It’s possible to despair of his ineffectual and over-cosseted Brahms-conducting, only to be struck dumb by a 1950 recording of the First Symphony whose very directness puts to shame the doubts and insecurities of many a more admired Brahmsian.
He was, nonetheless, an unpredictable musician. Reviewing a Mozart concerto recording made with Rudolf Serkin in 1951, Andrew Porter complained of poor accompaniment: rhythm not firmly set, the phrasing of second subjects sentimentalised, a tendency to push on in orchestral ritornellos and an absurdly fast tempo in the finale. Not that this was always the case. His 1954 recording of Beethoven’s early B flat Concerto with Serkin is a minor classic. Such inconsistencies baffle.
It’s fascinating to hear his account of Chopin’s E minor Concerto with fellow Hungarian György Sándor. Their 1946 world-premiere recording of Bartók’s Third Piano Concerto is nothing special, the music as yet poorly assimilated by both men; but the Chopin is superb, not least in the way Ormandy shapes Chopin’s free recitatives in a way that both accommodates his soloist and keeps a firm grip on the moments of harmonic change.
That’s real conducting. Yet at other times he can be both careless and pointlessly interventionist. There’s a 1953 recording of the Romeo and Juliet Overture in which he wilfully alters Tchaikovsky’s phrasing of the muted strings’ response to the first statement of the love theme, yet doesn’t notice – or isn’t bothered by the fact – that at the recapitulation his wind section phrases the music exactly as Tchaikovsky suggests.
It’s a dreadful performance, with Tchaikovsky’s relatively discreet use of cymbal clashes in the fight scene ruthlessly overridden. Such rewritings were not uncommon at the time. The fact remains, though: Ormandy was a musician of strong passions and uncertain taste. His Stokowski-style Bach orchestral transcriptions have to be heard to believed. ‘For those who really know and love Bach, the spectacle is one to make angels weep’, wrote the normally reserved Alec Robertson in these columns in May 1949.
Nor was AR much enamoured of a batch of Strauss recordings – Johann and Richard – that was also under review. Ormandy could be terrific in the kind of light music he had come to know and play in New York. There’s a superb disc here of music by that great benefactor of American music (and friend of Dvořák) Victor Herbert; but Ormandy’s conducting of the music of the Strauss family tends to be brittle and hard-driven. As for his only complete opera recording, a 1950 English-language version of Die Fledermaus, here the carelessness of the conducting beggars belief.
During his early years with Columbia, Ormandy (or, perhaps, O’Connell) programmed some interesting modern rarities. Debussy’s Rossetti-inspired gem La damoiselle élue, for instance, recorded with soprano Bidù Sayão, who had made her New York debut in this very work under Toscanini in 1936. There was also an ongoing relationship with Soviet Russia. (In 1944 the Philadelphians had sent bows and reeds to their beleaguered colleagues in Leningrad.) Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky is here – crudely done in English but with Jennie Tourel in the great lament – as are Ormandy’s pioneering Western recordings of Prokofiev’s Sixth Symphony and his valedictory Seventh, the latter especially fine.
To be fair to Columbia’s new A&R director, David Oppenheim, he was not alone among international recording executives in the 1950s in shying away from Mahler (whose Second Symphony Ormandy had recorded in Minneapolis in 1935 and whose Tenth Symphony he would later record for Columbia in the Deryck Cooke completion) or from Shostakovich, six of whose symphonies had been given their American premieres by the Philadelphians. The omissions are disappointing, nonetheless.
Rather more baffling is the delay (until 1960) of a recording of Rachmaninov’s Symphonic Dances, a work that had been written for Ormandy and the orchestra in 1940. Yet time could be found to schedule Honegger’s oratorio Jeanne d’Arc, a gift, it turns out, from CBS executive Goddard Lieberson to his wife Vera Zorina, the German-born ex-wife of George Balanchine and a former member of the Ballets Russes, who is cast (not entirely successfully) in the Ida Rubinstein role of Speaker.
The set has some intriguing fillers, with Sony’s editors giving us a handful of recordings by the orchestra under conductors other than Ormandy: Bruno Walter in Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, Beecham in a highly entertaining rendering of music from Lord Berners’s Diaghilev ballet The Triumph of Neptune.
Slightly more mischievous is the inclusion of some of the original LP couplings made by artistic rivals at Columbia. Take disc 44, where a 1952 recording of Morton Gould’s Fall River Legend by the New York Philharmonic under Dimitri Mitropoulos – a musician Ormandy feared and Oppenheim did his best to ignore – is prefaced by Ormandy and the orchestra having a high old time in the Gottschalk-derived ballet Cakewalk, devised by legendary Philadelphia-born arranger Hershy Kay.
A flawed legacy, then, but nothing if not colourful.
Music Chat: The Ormandy Columbia Legacy--How Not To Review It