Remembering Ormandy – In Case You Were There, Too

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Eugene Ormandy Rehearsing

Eugene Ormandy Rehearsing

The Original Jacket Collection: Eugene Ormandy (Sony Classics)

Even before this 10-CD commemorative set was issued, I noticed a wash of nostalgia for Eugene Ormandy among baby boomers. He was inescapable for that generation, the progenitor of hundreds of LPs, only a sampling of which are contained here. Ormandy became Leopold Stokowski’s associate conductor at the Philadelphia Orchestra in 1936 and succeeded him two years later, beginning an unparalleled run of 44 years as music director before retiring in 1980, a reign no one will ever duplicate, or would want to. During that time Ormandy led the orchestra between 100 and 180 times a year. That, too, is a staggering statistic given that modern music directors, in their eagerness to spread themselves globally, are essentially long-term guests who drop in to visit their home orchestras for as little as a quarter of the regular season.

What is so remarkable about Ormandy, who became the last of his kind by the time he died in 1985 at the age of 85, is the huge disparity between his public standing and the opinion in which he was held by other elite musicians.  In some circles (like the American Record Guide, a fortress of pro-Ormandy enthusiasm, strictly enforced by a militant editor-in-chief) he is lionized to this day, but in general Ormandy was an entry-level conductor whom serious listeners quickly outgrew. Why? Because as heard on these ten discs, he was relentlessly glossy and without depth. The famed “Philadelphia Sound” was all there was. At any given concert presided over by him, the canon of Western music was reduced to emotional flatness. The more gorgeous the outer shell, the emptier its contents.  That’s why his staunchest advocates are those who prefer an interpretation-free zone. Ormandy was a great conductor who negated the very role of a great conductor.

The orchestra’s musicians knew his shortcomings, but the Ormandy touch made them rich and therefore mollified. Being himself a virtuoso violinist, he understood technique and elicited great, if empty sonorities. I recall a group interview with some of the old Philadelphians. As they complained about Ormandy’s failings, the distressed interviewer interrupted. “Aren’t you being too harsh? After all, the man is dead.” “Not good enough,” one musician growled.

The PR department at Columbia Records worked overtime to polish a gleaming image for him, and Ormandy became, at his best, an envoy of culture to the masses. That role accounts for the super-abundance in this collection of crossover hits like Scheherazade and the Pines of Rome, Pictures at an Exhibition, plump and gaudy Bach transcriptions (2 CDs worth, and mostly Ormandy’s orchestrations, not Stokowski’s more famous ones), and a final disc of pops bonbons like Sibelius’ Valse Triste and Londonderry Air. There was another side, however. Ormandy recorded Beethoven and Brahms, and to a lesser extent Mozart and Schubert. He even occasioned bug eyes when he released an LP of the Second Viennese School, although as I recall, only a few minutes of its contents were actually atonal.  For a more serious look at his repertoire, one can turn to a 2-CD collection issued by EMI as part of its Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century series, now out of print, on which Ormandy leads a surprisingly energetic and effective Brahms Fourth.

Repertoire hardly mattered, however. Put up against the likes of George Szell, Bruno Walter, and Leonard Bernstein at his own label, Ormandy didn’t stand a chance. But only Bernstein came close to his stellar commercial sales. At the time, Szell and Walter were for the cognoscenti. Perhaps it’s poetic justice that both have received far more attention than Ormandy in the digital age.

The present recordings date from his heyday in the postwar era, 1957-67, exactly paralleling when my generation grew from childhood to college age. Therefore, we all knew each and every recording if we happened to be blossoming into music lovers. We had no knowledge of the vast output of 78 rpm records that Ormandy made before the LP era, most of it still out of print – unlike other eminent conductors, he has benefited very little from the boom in historical reissues. We also had no idea of the shallowness of the interpretations we were exposed to. There are moments, as in the Rachmaninov Sym. #2 and Tchaikovsky Sym. #5 included here, two of Ormandy’s staples, when I can relive the magic — just barely – of hearing those works on my family’s Motorola console as I lay on the shag carpet in our living room. For the best of Ormandy from the postwar years, one has to turn to a few select recordings not included here, such as the premiere recording of the Mahler Tenth in Deryck Cooke’s performing edition.  It made a sensation on its initial release in 1965 and has been reissued in a handsome remastering by Sony BMG. On a budget Sony line there’s a rousing version of Charles Ives’s “Three Places in New England” and a smattering of Sibelius (Symphonies #1, 5, and 7), a composer Ormandy was closely associated with for decades – – his supporters consider these classic recordings. The rest of us may demur.

What’s best musically on these discs? Far and away the American premiere recording of the Shostakovich Cello Concerto #1 with the blazing Mstislav Rostropovich, and the aforementioned Rachmaninov Second, a work Ormandy recorded three times. He was a strong advocate of both composers, and it would be fitting for Sony BMG to release his many Shostakovich recordings. (Staunch fans often throw up to naysayers the fact that Rachmaninov chose Ormandy in 1939-40 as accompanist for a legendary cycle of the four piano concertos with the composer at the keyboard. Those recordings have not been out of print for seventy years and can still be found on their original label, RCA, as well as a number of smaller historical labels. Tellingly, the two most popular works, Piano Concerto #2 and the Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, were assigned to Stokowski.) Another high point in the present collection is the Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, which gets a splashy reading, recalling the affinity of a Hungarian conductor for his compatriot, but it’s the Miraculous Mandarin Suite that emerges with surprising bite and force.

Columbia turned to Ormandy as their accompanist-in-chief, as represented here by the Mendelssohn and Tchaikovsky violin concertos with a young Isaac Stern, but he did better work with Rudolf Serkin, none of which is included — those recordings can be sought out here and there at Amazon, generally in their used department, and they are all rewarding (mostly for the soloist, admittedly). Neither of the Stern recordings ranks at the top. But none of this deters Ormandy fans, and since Sony has kept him in the budget bin for twenty years, there are legions of young listeners still thriving on his CDs. This box set is the first time that remastering has rendered the old LPs in decent digital sound, which is a major improvement. In general, these recordings now sound better than they ever have. The Bach transcriptions are now as luscious as caramel toffee pudding.  If you want to follow Ormandy’s arc to the bitter end, he spent his declining years on RCA and then EMI, neither of which reaped the flood of gold he earned for Columbia.  Sticking gamely to his familiar repertoire, Ormandy produced lesser accounts of them.  A landmark recording of the Shostakovich Symphony #15 on RCA proves lackluster. For a touching overlap of generations, however, you might seek out the Kabalevsky Cello Concerto #1 from 1984, in which the octogenarian Ormandy accompanies the rising young Yo-Yo Ma.  It was his last recording, and Ma plays brilliantly.

And then silence, except that no one will ever be silenced as long as old recordings can be endlessly recycled.  Outclassed, outdated, but never outplayed, Ormandy and the Philadelphians recall a more innocent age. Bright as their image was, serious musicians groused big-time in the background. I suppose I’m grousing now, but then, of how much real value is nostalgia?

About the author

Huntley Dent

Huntley Dent is a freelance writer and editor who lives in Santa Fe.

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