Big Box Of Orpheus CDs Chronicles An Ensemble Sans Leader, Sans Need

The conductorless Orpheus Chamber Orchestra in concert. (Photo by Neda Navaee)

DIGITAL REVIEW — The performing arts make a habit of finding round-numbered anniversaries to celebrate and hang an event around, Not the least of them is the 50th anniversary of the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra next year. Orpheus is an organism that conventional wisdom tells us should not exist at all, let alone for 50 years — a real working orchestra that doesn’t have a conductor, doesn’t want one, and, improbable as it may seem, doesn’t need one. The proof is in the listening to their live performances and in a mammoth new 55-CD boxed set, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra: The Complete Recordings on Deutsche Grammophon, that gathers together every scrap of tape (or digital signal) they recorded for the label.

This is just one of the latest artifacts in a flood of huge classical boxed sets that have been pouring out in recent years from the three so-called major labels — Universal Music Group (which owns Deutsche Grammophon), Warner Classics, and Sony Music. The majors are systematically vacuuming up the deepest trenches and corners of their archives, digitizing the recordings, and putting out giant boxes of the complete this-or-that on such-and-such label for determined collectors who have plenty of shelf space (and some who don’t but won’t let that stop them). 

We’re seeing boxes of esoterica like the complete Erick Friedman, the complete Ruth Slenczynska, and the complete Anthony Collins; the complete Mercury Living Presence recordings of Rafael Kubelik; nearly all of John Barbirolli’s long-forgotten 78s with the New York Philharmonic; all of Columbia’s Black Composers Series 1974-1978 (reissued presciently two years before the George Floyd reckoning). For artists like Zubin Mehta, Leonard Bernstein, and Pierre Boulez, multiple boxes have been issued by all three majors. The all-time champ for quantity thus far is Herbert von Karajan: complete recordings for Deutsche Grammophon and Decca on 356 discs!

Social media has discussion groups for collectors of these mighty boxes — highly knowledgeable, overwhelmingly male, and middle-aged-to-older as far as I can tell — who brag about their latest massive acquisitions and urge their online friends to invest, too. Apparently there are enough of them to support such projects as the complete Columbia mono recordings of Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra on 120 discs, which did well enough to alter some of the conventional wisdom about Ormandy’s undervalued reputation. Another recent set that has turned heads and altered perceptions is a superbly executed, sumptuous-sounding, 38-disc box of the complete Decca recordings of Mehta and the Los Angeles Philharmonic. As soon as Warner’s “complete” 55-CD Wilhelm Furtwängler box was announced (it came out in October), the rooms buzzed with complaints on what was left out — like the entire EMI Rome Ring cycle. These guys know their stuff.

The price tags of the bigger boxes can be in the hundreds of dollars, but taken disc by disc, all of these sets are stupendous bargains — usually two to four dollars a disc and sometimes less — and when the limited editions are sold out, their second-hand prices go up exponentially online. The boxes can be frustrating, too, as it was for me spending 25 years assembling all of Columbia’s invaluable Stravinsky Conducts Stravinsky series on LP, only to see the whole thing turn up recently in a 22-CD box for a dollar a disc (of course, in hindsight, I had 25 years and more of enjoying the music). All of this may be the last triumphant burst of glory for the CD before streaming takes over completely — which has long been predicted but ain’t happening yet.

Which leads us to the Orpheus set, one of the more consistently interesting and listenable big boxes that have been issued so far. The brainchild of cellist Julian Fifer, Orpheus was formed in 1972 at the tail-end of a tumultuous time in which a counterculture revived the idea of leaderless communal living. With that apparently in mind, Fifer and his friends in the New York area tried to apply the practice of universal equality to classical music performance. The chaos of too many guiding hands — in other words, everyone — eventually led to partitioning interpretive decisions for each piece among “core groups” within the ensemble. They’ve long outlasted the era that spawned them, with their longevity and achievements as documented on these discs proving that the ideals of the 1960s can produce enduring results.

Most of these recordings, which with a handful of exceptions date from 1982 to 1997, were not publicized as much as CDs with star conductors on board, and so it may come as a mild surprise to some that Orpheus was so prolific in the studio. It offers a repertoire somewhat different than that of the usual conductor-led boxes, concentrating on music that is a good fit for chamber orchestras while dipping toes into the mainstream orchestral repertoire, particularly if a star soloist is involved.

The set proceeds more or less in the alphabetical order of composers with collections bringing up the rear, with the original DG front cover artwork plastered on the individual paperboard sleeves. As Orpheus runs through the alphabet, they pause for heavy concentration on a couple of composers — seven discs devoted to 16 Haydn symphonies, 10 occupied solely by Mozart — while Handel, Mendelssohn, and Stravinsky are tied for third place with three discs each. No umpteenth renditions of Beethoven symphonies here.

The astonishing thing is how often Orpheus hits the mark squarely, with absolute unity and rhythmic spring in the ensemble. It happens almost all the time in this box. The tempos are usually on the fast side regardless of what century the music was written in — with one notable, chronic exception being the first movement of Prokofiev’s Classical Symphony (again, like virtually all performances these days, too slow). But that’s an outlier in the context of this set. The Rossini Overtures disc fizzes and sparkles with humor and finesse, as do all of the Haydn symphonies. Capping the vast selection of exquisitely played Mozart — all the wind and horn concertos, several divertimentos and serenades, and three symphonies — is a laugher called A Little Light Music, a dessert of smaller, largely little-known pieces among which the Orpheus players get off on Mozart’s slapstick turns in A Musical Joke.

The young players are virtually unbeatable in 20th century music — Bartók’s Divertimento that leads off the box, a great single disc of neo-classical Respighi, two Richard Strauss discs highlighted by scintillating performances of his Divertimento and Der Bürger als Edelmann, an intimate yet lively album of Copland, both Schoenberg Chamber Symphonies, and a fun, wide-ranging collection of Ives. The best of all may be the three sparkling Stravinsky discs of several Neo-classical masterworks and miniatures, including a lovely performance of the ballet Orpheus (you know they had to attempt that one).

It is a bit disappointing that only one disc of contemporary music, Points of Departure (1990), turns up in their DG output. But it’s a good one. Fred Lerdahl’s Waves scampers pleasingly in a breezy toccata; Jacob Druckman’s Nor Spell Nor Charm is more kaleidoscopic with an electronic component. Trickster William Bolcom’s Orphée-Sérénade, with its wacky “Hurluberlu” movement, is delightfully, wryly eclectic, and Michael Gandolfi’s enigmatic, twittering suite gave the CD its title.

As is predictable in a relationship with a major label, there were compromises for the bean counters. There is a Baroque chestnut album headed by the Pachelbel Canon, the Albinoni Adagio, and J.S. Bach’s “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” and Air on the G String (the only shreds of Bach in the collection); here they seem to go immaculately through the motions. There is the 1,362nd-or-so recording of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons with a star turn by Gil Shaham, slyly coupled with Fritz Kreisler’s delicious practical joke of a Violin Concerto in the Style of Vivaldi (which, to my ears at least, sounds nothing like Vivaldi!).

The Orpheus contract with DG expired around 1997, after which the ensemble’s recorded output declined precipitously in quantity. But the DG box does not stop there. First, it skips ahead a few years to 2001 to include a crossover album on sister label Decca of mostly well-known folk songs colorlessly sung by countertenor Andreas Scholl with languorous string orchestra accompaniment by Orpheus.

From here, the box jumps all the way to 2018 where Orpheus backs pianist Jan Lisiecki in both of the Mendelssohn piano concertos live in Warsaw. It’s a different classical recording world now — the majors having long abandoned most long-term contracts and in-house production teams in favor of taking mainly freelance recording projects. Yet Orpheus maintains its remarkable cohesion, transparency, rhythm, and zest in its one-shot return to DG after more than two decades. While in Warsaw, they also knocked out a rough-yet-ready live Mendelssohn Italian Symphony that receives its first release here ‚ the only unissued recording in the set.

As is often the case with these massive boxes, there is not much in the way of written material — just a brief four-page essay by Jed Distler outlining the Orpheus philosophy in English and German, with the vast bulk of the set’s 150-page booklet devoted to recording dates, locales, and production credits for each disc. Some boxes reproduce both the front and back covers of the original LP issues, giving those with good magnifying glasses a shot at reading about the music. But since almost all of these recordings were first issued on CD, there are no back liners to replicate, so inquisitive listeners are on their own. The sound is uniformly excellent throughout, though, and the price is currently about two dollars a disc, so one shouldn’t complain too strenuously. Just get it before the price goes up.

And if you’re one of the super-collectors I referred to earlier, before the year is out you may be able to add to your sagging shelves the complete Philips recordings of Zoltán Kocsis, the complete Decca recordings of Erich Kleiber, the complete CBS Masterworks recordings of Jean-Pierre Rampal — and, coming in spring 2022, the complete Columbia recordings of Dimitri Mitropoulos (I might go for the Mitropoulos myself!). With more on the way.