Tag Archives: Ormandy

Saint-Saëns: A Grump Who Wrote Some Perfectly Delightful Music

One of the mysteries of all art is often the disconnect between the artist and their works (or conductors and theirs), a discussion that will never end and isn’t my focus here — except to say that sometimes it’s not all super serious conversations like Wagner and his antisemitism, or Ansermet and his, or people like the lately departed James Levine, who despite being a pretty well confirmed chronic sexual criminal, was inexplicable lauded in obits by people like Tim Page (whose editor, Marty Baron, should have spiked this piece, which aside from the headline, and a couple of sentences, whitewashed Levine’s horrid lifetime of pretty well substantiated criminal abuse).

But enough about that. Here I thought I’d offer some lighter material, but also concerning a composer whose temperament, by all accounts, didn’t really match the tenor of his works, which range of course. From the weighty 8B6F80DB-423A-40C6-BBF5-139476D4E6C1_1_201_aand powerful, but also to the downright jolly and delightful, which is where I’d like to focus for a little. With Saint-Saëns you have to acknowledge the biggies, of course, mostly the monumental Organ Symphony, which deserves all its accolades for being both a bravura showpiece and just a good fun listen. I’ve got a few favorites (this is a piece where it’s really hard to talk about a “definitive” recording — but forE8C9FB9E-55E5-437F-A22E-4E7FA44A0BC7_1_201_a me the Paray and the Pretre, both pretty early recordings with astounding sonics, which this piece almost demands, especially given the whopper finale where the organ pipes in (sorry). Karajan’s digital record is also pretty fantastic, especially for its final 3C5F512D-8C95-4B3B-B255-42CAF3F6B01A_1_201_aquickening at the very end — and despite that the Organ used, which was the Notre Dame — was recorded separately and edited in (it sounds fine to me, and it’s a little curmudgeonly to bemoan such things, but oh well). It really should be a burst of joy, not a misplaced Also Sprach opening, and ironically I really do think it’s HvK who gets this right for all the claptrap about him and his one-size-fits-all approach (a total canard, obvious to anyone who takes the time to actually listen to his records.

This symphony, with all its sonic boom, made for a natural choice for the quadraphonic format, and it was RCA that387A2C95-3012-434C-AAA7-3D1630512796 put it down in 4 channel, using Ormandy and the Phildelphians (a natural choice) with good old E. Power Biggs on organ. I’ve got in on 8 track, where the channel separation and the overall impact are great fun. (And you have to love the wacky circus cover art.) Ormandy returned again to the piece in one of his last records for Telarc, which is another audiophile favorite, though it doesn’t stand up for me as a performance. If you want audiophile for this work, and you want boring old stereo, go with Paray. That one, from decades earlier (1958!) holds up and sounds just as fantastic on my original FR1. 22A81361-936A-4A41-A8D5-ACD951D4F18E_1_201_aMartinon also recorded a quad version an disc for EMI, which is perfectly good, and plays great, although the separation — as ironically is almost always the case — is better on 8 track, disastrous design aside!

The piano concertos include both a similarly weighty popular work, the Second, which is not alone in the cycle in 0EBFFC68-6A21-4EE8-BB0C-C46A8A8C9C81_1_201_ahaving some delightfully airy movements. Here I favor Dutoit and Rogé, and I have a German Decca box that sounds great. In the Second we get this side of the composer’s style in the second movement, but it’s found throughout the other concertos all over the place. Rubinstein recorded the9C6C21C0-D5E8-474F-A4C9-19B21711BFBE Second (only) for RCA, and I’ve also got that on quad 8 track, in one of the odd examples of how these early Living Stereo records were recorded in multichannel before the

engineers actually understood how stereo would work, and so years later we actually got those recordings in true multichannel. The recording above, though, is from an interesting live performance he gave of the work at almost the same time as the RCA studio one, and is even a bit more spontaneous.

And speaking of piano works, of course there’s the Carnival of the Animals, which (case in point) despite probably being the composer’s most well known piece, was suppressed by him, ostensibly because it was written only to be performed by his friends — but also probably because he deemed it insufficiently serious for his persona (which E0580D85-47CB-4994-AE08-8FD507C8D2E1_1_201_agrew ever more grumpy as he aged and his contemporaries abandoned the classical forms he preferred). My favorite here is an unusual choice, the Peter Katin and Philip Fowke version on EMI/Classics for Pleasure, still available on CD apparently. It beats any of the big name recordings, including Previn and Argerich and all the rest, for its sheer delight and joy. The dinosaurs never sounded to jolly, nor the aquarium so shimmering and other-worldly. The finale is an outburst of joy from players, channeling something from this composer who otherwise seemed almost afraid to let us know he had this in him. (I’ll leave the who closeted-sexual orientation business out of it.)

Another example of how Saint-Saëns let his guard down and just wrote good old fashioned happy music is on one of his most prized discs among audiophiles, the 1980 Dutoit Danse Macabre on Decca/London, which totally deserves its reputation for amazing pre-digital (barely) sound and acoustics, but also a completely seamless ensemble8206F797-4873-444D-9E3A-14D43FC6B511_1_201_a performance throughout and flawless direction in east of the pieces. My pick isn’t the Danse, though, and not because it’s recorded so often, but the first track, Phaeton, which has only been put down on disc (vinyl or CD) a handful of times. I haven’t bothered with any of the others because Dutoit’s is such a joy, real joie de vivre material if ever there was. And since I mentioned the Danse, I should mention my favorite there, which is a classic early

stereo, on a Martinon Decca/London 6ABA3348-5787-4AF6-BFD6-9E6EE02A5AD5_1_201_acompilation of French works. Mine’s a UK Treasury reissue but sounds great.

Lastly an almost completely unknown, and almost completely unrecorded piece, also a pure delight, the old grump’s Piano Trio No. 1. He wrote two, but the first it more coherent and just a better piece overall. The first movement in particular captures the same spirit in the Carnival and in some of those piano concerto allegros and prestos. I’m pretty sure there only one (!) version on disc, a totally

disappointing and clearly underrehearsed recording on Vox. But this one on Naxos shows what the work can be, and why it deserves to be heard more often.


Hindemith’s Symphonic Metamorphosis

I’ve always favored the theme-and-variations format as a way for composers to showcase their virtuosity and creativity, from Brahms (in the Haydn Variations) to Britten (in his Variations on Frank Bridge). The Hindemith “Metamorphosis” on Weber is another great example of how the interpretive mind can work with a melody and turn it around.

Hindemith’s 1943 composition is infrequently performed and recorded, but is a glorious thing, in full romantic splendor. I Hindemithrecently acquired a wonderful copy of the composer’s own 1950’s Berlin Philharmonic recording, which is — like Stravinsky’s recordings of his own works — rather modest and workmanlike. The romantic impact is downplayed in favor of neoclassical tidyness. Say what one may about composer’s intent.

Georg Szell with Cleveland plays it up a bit more, and the stereo sound packs more of a punch. Szell is precise as always, punching home the finale with memorable panache. I am using a fist pressing SzellColumbia 2-eye; the sound on the CD is a bit dry.

My favorite readings come from Philadelphia, where Ormandy in particular championed the work, recording it multiple times from the early LP era into the digital age and his final years. The Columbia 2-eye (MS 6562) is a favorite of the TAS list for its superb sonics, though I actually prefer his 1979 EMI photo-4record (37536). It is fantastic, bristling with energy and verve. The CD transfer loses some of the warmth, as is expected for this era. It’s a pity MFSL never transferred these masters as they did with his recording from the same year of the Sibelius Suites.

Sawallisch, Ormandy’s successor in Philadelphia, has the benefit of outstanding modern sound and a Sawallischgenuinely inspired performance in his 1995 EMI CD (55230). The drama of the final variation is unmatched here and the digital sound as good as it gets. Sawallisch is known as a master of Schumann’s rich textures, and in the fourth Weber variation there are echoes of the Schumann Rhenish Symphony, in its dramatic pauses, soaring and voluptuous crescendos. It is a far different rendition from the composer’s own sparse rendering. And one to treasure!

There are a few other noteworthy records, including a recent issue of a Jochum BBC Live CD with the LSO (1977) which delivers great impact, if lacking the full fervor of the Ormandy or Sawallisch. You can hear the performance

on YouTube here. Tortelier also recorded the work with superb sound for Chandos on CD, as part of his cycle, as did Blomstedt, though neither is that memorable.

Albéniz’s Iberia

I’ve always enjoyed Spanish classical music, ever since I was indoctrinated as a child to the bustling excitement of de Falla’s Three Cornered Hat, which remains a favorite still today. Among the pieces I came to know later was Isaac Albéniz’s masterpiece Iberia, a piano suite written in the first decade of the 20th Century. As with much of this underrated composer’s works, it is known mostly in transcription form; probably his most popular works are commonly performed on guitar, though first written for the piano (“Asturias,” originally titled “Leyenda” for piano, as the prime example).

Iberia is a suite of 12 short pieces, each evocative of Spanish folk themes or regions. I favor the piano version(s) recorded by


the great Alicia de Larrocha, who did so much to popularize Spanish piano works over the years. She recorded the full suite three times, 1962 (EMI/Hispavox), 1973 and 1986 (both London/Decca). I favor the 1973, which won the Grand Prix du Disque that year. It is a rich and lilting performance free of affect that too often infects folk music-inspired works. The CD transfer is eminently acceptable.

The orchestrations of Iberia are a hodgepodge, but nevermind. Two of Albéniz’s next-generation colleagues, E.F. Arbós and Carlos Surinach, provide a combined orchestration (Arbós also created a shorted Suite of five movements). A much more contemporary orchestration was completed by the Slovak musician Peter Breiner in the 1990s. I’m not familiar with it, though guess it would sound foreign after coming to know the Arbós/Surinach version.

As a piece of orchestral music Iberia is opulent and spectacular, in keeping with the moods of Ravel, de Falla, and other romantic impressionists of the time. There are only a handful of recordings of the full orchestration — single movements from the suite do crop up more often on Spanish-themed collections.

100_6475The first full recording on LP was Ormandy’s 1956 set with Philadelphia (M2L-237). Hardly hampered by mono sound, it is spread out generously over four sides with no filler, and on my pristine 6-eye copy is as sonically rewarding as any of the later stereo competitors, if not more so. Compared to the RCA Living Stereo favorites Jean Morel and Fritz Reiner, Ormandy is to my ears even more rhythmically interesting and compelling, eschewing the olé!-let’s-dance-a-flamenco stereotypes that are hard to avoid in music like this. The mono sound is opulent and, though I’ve not heard it myself, is now finally available on CD in a masters transfer from Pristine Classical label and engineer Mark Obert-Thon. The vinyl was never reissued on LP after its original release in 1956.

The lush drama of the piece easily lent itself to the early Living Stereo showpiece selections, and Jean Morel’s 1961 version100_6474 with the Paris Conservatoire is among the most sought after of the series (LSC 6094; my copy used for this analysis, loaned by a friend, is 1S-1S-3S-3S). While the sound is crisp and light, I find it to be reedy, lacking in depth and bass, as is the case for me with so many of these highly touted LSCs. Unlike Ormandy, the Morel set is squeezed onto three sides, with Ravel’s Rapsodie Espagnole on side four, and the sonic depth suffers. Ironically, though Albéniz lived and composed in Paris, and was hugely popular there, Morel’s French élan doesn’t quite suit the work, which has too much romantic brooding and drama in it for this snappy, showy interpretation. In its mono issue, the Morel is even more thin and one-dimensional. Morel’s Living Stereo version is currently unavailable on CD, though his later London/Decca remake is, on the Eloquence label in the European market. I’ve not heard that later version on LP.

A few years earlier, in 1958, Fritz Reiner had recorded three of the more popular Iberia selections with Chicago for the travelogue Living Stereo album “Spain.” While my admittedly ruddy 5S-1S has some ticks and pops, the sound is to my ears more acoustically pleasing than Morel. Perhaps it had to do with recording venues? But Reiner too lacks the depth of the 100_6472Philadelphia version, or for that matter of later digital incarnations including Enrique Bátiz’s shortened Arbós Suite with the opulent London Symphony on EMI (1981, DS-37878), or Jesus López-Cobos’ complete 1998 Cincinnati version on Telarc. If Bátiz is a 100_6473bit wayward in his pacing, the early digital sound is extremely dynamic and belies many of the critiques of this period. It is out of print on CD but still available — I can only speak to the sonics on the vinyl pressing. López-Cobos benefits from theatrical Telarc Direct Stream Digital engineering, and if anything overdoes the symphonic fireworks. On CD, however, there is no better way to experience the theatrics of this relatively unknown Spanish masterpiece.


100_6464There are so many versions of The Messiah the it rather rejects criticism, but there is still one that rises above all: Ormandy’s classic 1959 Philadelphia performance with the Mormon Tabernacle. The sound, on my first pressing 6-eyes is astounding, besting anything I’ve heard on later digital work, CD or vinyl. The richness and depth of sound is unsurpassed.

That said, I was wedded to this recording until I discovered Raymond Leppard’s 1975 English Chamber Orchestra recording with Erato (my pressing is a special club issue, in an EMI German licensed pressing). The Leppard performance is straightforward and passionate, if not as vivid as the Philadelphians. It was also recorded in quadraphonic sound, providing a surround-sound experience that reproduces in wonderful form. In performance, it comes out a bit dainty compared to Ormandy’s opulence, which is how some of us liek to hear this work performed. Still, spread out over three discs as opposed to the usual two, Leppard gives us a spaciousness to the sound that lacks in many other contemporary recordings. None of which is reproduced on compact disc.100_6463

All of this said, Ormandy takes the day. Whether in the Hallelujah chorus or otherwise, the sheer enthusiasm of the band is infectious. One can have a direct, authentic performance as with Leppard, but Ormandy finds something more, bigger and louder and more magnificent. Even if it was recorded in 1959.

Hindemith’s Metamorphoses

I’ve always enjoyed the theme-and-variations format, and hearing composers re-work material, as in the Barhms Haydn Variations I’ve written about before. It’s a bit different in this case, with Hindemith drawing on varied short theme of Von Weber in his “Symphonic Metamophosis.” I confess to having heard none of the original Weber pieces in their original piano format. It would make an interesting experiment — how the composer here went from short piano works to this explosive showpiece. I am reminded of

It’s a bravura work, and the one time I heard it live is completely unforgettable, despite not being able to take my seat (late arrival) and having to stand in the back row of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. as Slatkin and his vastly improved National Symphony drove the piece home in a spectactular fourth movement.

By comparison I have two favorite Philadelphia recordings, one on Vinyl, EMI 37536, one of his last recordings (1979). Alongside this is Sawallisch from 1995. The acoustic is comparably warmer, less precise than Ormandy on vinyl. Horns are prone to more European vibrato, and placing Ormandy alongside makes the Bavarian maestro seem just a bit looser and rhythmic, more Romantic (sounding almost like a French impressionist in the slow movement) — than Modern. The entry of the horns in the final movement is more measured, with less bite. The effect is complete and effective, if perhaps a too much Hollywood-soundtrack in its feel. Until 3:09, that is, when the bouncy woodwind re-entry makes its appearance, crescendo and descrescedo flowing in wave upon wave until the final sweep of melody and most memorable of concluding passages in the last 60 seconds. If you listen to Sawallisch, have patience and wait for him to get here. He delivers in the end. No one I’ve heard manages the undulating tuba and trombone lines better in those last bars.

Ormandy’s 1979 displays a gusto that clearly shows his inside-and-out knowledge of the piece and the composer, which he featured throughout his long tenure in Philadelphia. It also boasts top rate sonics, as best an example of vinyl of this era as one could find. (I know his contemporarily recorded Sibelius disc made TAS; this one deserved it too if it did not. Though perhaps they have a rule against duplicating permances, with Ormandy’s earlier CBS MS-6562, which I discarded after finding the later EMI here.) Compared to the Sawallisch digital CD from 1995 Ormandy’s 1979 sound is cleared, more vivid, and richer in range. It also lacks the Hollywood sheen that blurs Sawallisch’s Philadelphians. Ormandy rollocks along, playing the music for what it is (Gebrauchsmusik, after all) giving us vim and vigor and energy, rather than romantic storytelling.

Lastly, a recent acquisition that probably makes the first time I have every truly responded to a record by George Szell. In reading up online, I found that critics including David Hurwitz have indeed said it places in their top ten tier for both performance and sonics. I was lucky to find an original dark 2-eye CBS 7166, a superb copy. The 1964 sound is crystal clear, though (to my ear) limited in its acoustic range compared to the 1979 Ormandy, but understandably so. I’ve never been to Severance Hall, and perhaps the difference in reverberation and that all-elusive “warmth” is simply less than Philadelphia where both of the above recordings were set down.

Szell always has seemed too stern for me in his famed Mozart and Beethoven symphonies, too much a perfectionist and working with an orchestral sound which my (admittedly perfectionist) other favorite von Karajan also was criticized for. But compared to Berlin under HvK, who never recorded this work, Cleveland sounds too analytical. In this composition, though, the modernist aesthetic its composer desired fits the sound of the band. It is an energized performance which, to my surprize, bounces and snaps along almost playfully at times. Szell moves quicker than either of the Philadelphians and the orchestral response is indeed a marvel. The finale is propelled not just by energy but, in after the woodwind entry mentioned above, by a genuine joie de vivre that is totally unique and makes for a happy, not just a powerful, close to a spectacular composition.

As a footnote, the work is featured on an early Mercury mono LP ( I reviewed here some weeks ago for its other side, Bloch’s Concerto Grosso. Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony give a good performance, but to my mind it is decidedly pedestrian compared to any of the competitors here (or to the superb Bloch on side 2). Tempi are slower and almost entirely uniform; crescedi are ineffective, and fortissimos are overused. Plus…in some cases, you simply cannot fully experience an orchestral showpiece in monophonic sound.

Alexander Nevsky, Warhol, Ormandy, et al.

I recently discovered a thrift shop gem, a first generation 1949 Columbia LP of Ormandy leading the Philadelphians in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky. I almost didn’t buy it because these early mono LPs are often beat up beyond reclamation and sound awful — and they don’t sell among collectors. But the vinyl here looked exceptionally good, and I saw it was a blue label, clearly copyright dated 1949, the first year of the LP.

What I did not know was who the artist was who had sketched the small battle scene present on the front cover. The sketch is not signed and there is no notation on the back cover. I listed the LP on eBay for $4, after cleaning it and hearing some minor surface noise. One of my friends/colleagues in the world of eBay Classical music emailed me a few days later. “You know that’s a Warhol cover, right? It’s worth some money!”

I told Gus I had no idea. It doesn’t look like the Warhol I know, but sure enough, this was Andy Warhol’s second published piece of artwork. From what my research shows, his first paying gig was indeed with Columbia records, where he produced three small pieces of album art before moving to RCA Records, where he did much more. This French website lists the album covers in sequence; the Nevsky displayed is a second pressing with a pink cover, rather than the original blue which my copy reflects. Wikipedia has it wrong, stating that his first gig was with RCA. The three 1949 Columbia covers, including Nevsky, pre-date them.

The 1949 Nevsky is bright and airy, more rhythmic than Ormandy’s shock-and-awe 1975 remake. Unfortunately, it appears that the recording has never been issued on CD.This version is probably my favorite, though the more contemporary Järvi SNO is also stunning in its impact and richness. Still, Philadelphia’s sound from the mid-’70s was something special, and suited to the drama of a film score with battles on ice and choral odes to Mother Russia.

I have the 1975 Ormandy in two interesting incarnations, a stereo LP and a quadraphonic 8-track. I believe the LP was also issued in CD-4 quadraphonic, but this is equipment I don’t have. The difference between the LP and the quad 8-track are very interesting musically, and illustrate what quad sound was (or was trying to be) in clear form. The LP is brilliantly recorded, rich, direct, with a huge dynamic range that does every credit to Prokofiev’s dramatic, dynamic score. The quadraphonic sound — even on my new-old-stock tape which was opened by and has only been played a handful of times, by me — is less precise and more rounded. But the separation of orchestral sections among the four speakers, especially the choral segments, is astounding. The LP puts you in a front row seat. The quadraphonic version puts you in the center of the orchestra.

Järvi is often criticized for fast tempos and lack of dramatic/emotional weight. One can see some of that on dispilay in his 1987 Nevsky, as passages seem pumped along — no lack of energy, to be sure — but a sense at moments of just trying to get to the next movement. The Chandos sound is amazing, with its typical reverberation and sense of depth. But it lacks the richness of the Philadelphia LP. But we are deep into apples and oranges here; Chandos digital produces a completely different effect from either the stereo or quadraphonic Ormandy on RCA in 1975. Recorded performance always exists in two dimensions, the interpretation itself and then the technology that allows us to re-hear it.

One final note on the choral contributions. The 1949 Ormandy uses a rather trite English translation (popular at the time); the 1975 is in the original Russian, with a local Philadelphia choir. Järvi has another non-native choir, from Scotland. But for whatever reason, he gets his voices to bellow with noticeably more fervor. It makes a big difference in the big choral passages. Ormandy, one might say, was treating this as a Cantata, which technically it is — Järvi was playing it as the film score, which it also is.

Who knew if Andy Warhol even listened to the piece, or saw the film? I might guess he did.