Few prominent conductors have such fleeting claims to greatness as Eugene Ormandy — but as the Japanese recording industry is proving, those fleeting moments are unquestionably there.
Throughout booms, recessions, and mergers in the music biz, there has been relatively little Ormandy on CD, especially considering that he was an extremely prolific recording artist.
Was that artistically justified? Sony’s often-enjoyable Ormandy box, issued only a year ago, emphasized lighter-weight stuff that doesn’t address the open-ended questions that dogged Ormandy’s reputation near the end of his 1936-80 music directorship of the Philadelphia Orchestra: Was his position in the symphonic world about being feared by musicians, adored by boards of directors, and covering his artistic blind spots with the orchestra’s plush sonority?
Only in Japan, where America’s musical past sometimes seems venerated indiscriminately, do Ormandy reissues abound — unfortunately not from his pre-stereo discography, when he was in his prime, but from the 1970s RCA period. This is what’s being imported by the Bryn Mawr, Pa.-based ArkivMusic, which has built a library of 40 Ormandy titles including Mahler, Ives, Beethoven, Sibelius, Dvorak, and Prokofiev.
“The perception is that Ormandy ... was hot and cold,” says ArkivMusic general manager Jon Feidner. “I think he’s been dismissed more than is appropriate. The fact that he was around so long and produced so much could be part of the reason.”
What’s truly new is the 21st-century business model that makes Japanese imports possible. With Ormandy demand difficult to determine, ArkivMusic.com produces discs itself, service-on-demand, with discs burned and booklets printed when ordered.
The ArkivMusic customer base is serious enough that the top Ormandy seller is Sibelius’ Symphonies 4 and 7 — two lesser known works the conductor did extremely well — though we’re talking about sales of around 400 copies. Since on-demand distribution requires no stock or warehouse space, that’s just fine. Not dissimilarly, the U.K.-based www.pristineclassical.com offers Ormandy’s 1951 Metropolitan Opera recording of “Die Fledermaus,” both on disc and download.
Though the ArkivMusic recordings were made when Ormandy was in various states of infirmity, they have positive revelations. His inability to conduct complex meters (he had “The Rite of Spring” rewritten in 4/4) isn’t contradicted, but is perhaps what gave a magisterial gait to most things he did, with particularly ennobling effect in Ives symphonies that Ormandy was asked to record when the composer was in fashion.
His reputation as a great concerto accompanist is enhanced in Bartok’s Piano Concerto No. 2, in which he’s more like pianist Alexis Weisenberg’s partner in crime. With so many hairpin turns, telepathic anticipations, and such unadulterated fierceness, the recording had to have been made under a full moon. The Bartok Concerto for Orchestra, which shares the disc, initially got short shrift on technical grounds: The first American classical disc to be digitally recorded, the LP sound was considered dry and disappointing. Not now. Ormandy reveals all sorts of rustling details that give the piece sinister undercurrents untapped by anyone else.
Like his predecessor Leopold Stokowski, Ormandy was no intellectual; unlike Stoky, he wasn’t a visionary. Works where the heavens should open up seem merely posh, such as the Mahler Symphony No. 2 (“Resurrection”), coupled with downright dull excerpts from Wagner’s “Parsifal” and Brahms’ “Alto Rhapsody” with Shirley Verrett.
He is guilty of depending too much on the Philadelphia sound in a breezy but overly deluxe pair of Dvorak symphonies (Nos. 7 and 8). His Sibelius was different: Though he didn’t connect so much with the composer’s nature painting, Symphonies Nos. 4 and 7 show how he used sound not just as an exterior luxury but also as a powerful vehicle of highly specific expression.
Ormandy’s Ives recordings downplay the raucous Americana invasions of the Symphony No. 2 and Holidays Symphony, preferring stylized enshrinement of Ives’ Connecticut-Yankee world. His case for doing so would have been better made had he not missed many of Ives’ impressionistic qualities.
The two standouts are Prokofiev Symphony No. 5 and Beethoven Symphony No. 3, (Eroica) — the former being one of the great recordings of the piece with the orchestra’s glittering sonority at its very best. The Eroica, made the year Ormandy retired as music director, could have been an occasion for an Ormandy snooze with its second-movement funeral march. Instead the music laments with passion and eloquence.
The great symphonic monologues are less successful; his Bruckner, Mahler, and Wagner feel strangely impersonal. The psychology and detail of the theater weren’t for him, though his “Fledermaus” is a bubbly exception, reflecting his love of light music. He was best with music that speaks to matters that can only be addressed on a purely symphonic canvas. The Sibelius Fourth, for one, enters the soul of Finland in famine. He relates best to pieces that speak for masses, whether a nation or a generation.
At least that’s one theory — contradicted by Ormandy’s relationship with the ever-confessional Tchaikovsky. The best recent Ormandy surprise is a 1954 live recording of the Symphony No. 4 in a rare guest engagement with the RIAS Symphony Orchestra Berlin (Audite). Far more penetrating than his Philadelphia Tchaikovsky, it makes you ask how different history might have been had he left his Philadelphia comfort zone more often.
Hear Ormandy conduct the third movement of the Tchaikovsky 4th Symphony at http://go.philly.com/ormandy.