The Ormandy Mystique Captured In A Box, But Then Again, Not Really

Eugene Ormandy rehearsing the Philadelphia Orchestra and Mormon Tabernacle Choir in 1958 (Photo courtesy of the Philadelphia Orchestra Archives)

PERSPECTIVE — Whatever conclusions arise in the ever-evolving reputation of Eugene Ormandy and his Philadelphia Orchestra era, the 88-CD Columbia Stereo Collection (1958-1963) is likely to prove everybody to be absolutely right and dead wrong. Ormandy the musician was so intertwined with his high-up spot in the marketplace of 60 years ago that there can’t be any consensus on Philadelphia’s longest-serving music director, given the semi-classical Mormon Tabernacle Choir albums alongside musical Everests such as the Bach Mass in B-minor.

One of the most extensively documented musicians of his time, the Hungarian violinist-turned-conductor reigned in Philadelphia from 1936 to 1980 during one of the classical-music industry’s peaks, spanning several generations of recording technology. While Leonard Bernstein and Dmitri Mitropoulos insistently played with fire on New York Philharmonic recordings, the objectivist Ormandy was more comfortable, moderate, sometimes perfunctory, and inclined to meet the market halfway, even recording the music soundtrack to the long-forgotten TV show Air Power. He had such a knack for light music that he was called a “cafe conductor.“ But outside his Beethoven-Brahms-Tchaikovsky comfort zone, strengths and weaknesses surface more clearly, making this box set of Ormandy’s heyday complicated and fascinating.

As always with Ormandy, the quality is up, down, and sideways. Plusses are where there should be minuses — and vice versa.

Ormandy made the first U.S. stereo recordings of the Mahler 10th, Shostakovich 4th, Prokofiev 4th and Tchaikovsky 7th Symphonies, featured in the massive collection of 88 CD pressings.

The zeal to be first is a Philly civic pride thing, and Ormandy indeed made the first U.S. recordings of the Mahler 10th, Shostakovich 4th, Prokofiev 4th, and the Tchaikovsky 7th symphonies — writ large by the Philadelphia sound but proceeding without the safety net of performance history.

But the greatest organizing factor in Ormandy’s recordings was probably Bernstein. As the main conductors on the Columbia records roster, they seemed to divvy up the repertoire, with Bernstein getting the first pick. Bernstein got Nielsen symphonies 2-5, Ormandy got 1 and 6. Bernstein got the St. Matthew Passion, Ormandy the St. John Passion. Bernstein got Ives symphonies 2 and 3; Ormandy had Ives Symphony No. 1. Most things American — Gershwin and Copland — belonged to Bernstein. Anything including narrator Vera Zorina (wife of Goddard Lieberson, Columbia president) went to Ormandy. Both conductors got Scheherazade and Messiah. Such patterns are most obvious in the Ormandy recordings made after the current box set’s 1963 cut-off date.

Across the 1958-63 years documented in the box, Ormandy ventured into choral recordings as never before, which no doubt had to do with an entity known as Singing City — one of several choral jewels in Philadelphia at that time. The steely founder Elaine Brown was known as “God in a skirt.” And without her, the Philadelphia Orchestra’s knockout recording of Walton’s Belshazzar’s Feast (included in the new box) might not exist. Seldom heard since its LP release, it’s one of the great choral recordings out there. By the end, one pictures the singers collapsing in a heap, so robustly do they meet the piece’s strenuous demands. Not included in the box (but long available at budget price) is the same chorus in a similarly supercharged reading of Beethoven’s Missa solemnis.

Among the period collectibles — Debussy’s “Martyrdom of St. Sebastian” Walton’s “Balshazzar’s Feast” and an expansive Handel’s “Messiah” with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir.

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s meeting with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir — both entities famous for a big, gorgeous sound — must have been an answer to a marketer’s prayers. But what sound picture was big enough to hold the two of them? The choir was more expansive and less disciplined than now, so the already-muted orchestration of the Brahms German Requiem didn’t really need an A-list orchestra. Ormandy had important interpretive points to make with Brahms to the end of his days, as shown by the intense Symphony No. 1 that’s also included in the stereo box. The rogue feature, however, is that this German Requiem is not in German but in English. I once welcomed this recording when first getting to know the piece, but even then the English words had little visceral value and sat clumsily on the vocal lines. Credibility is further sapped by the filler: Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Handel in an unconvincing orchestration by Edmund Rubbra.

Similarly, Bluebeard’s Castle lacks the tang of the original Hungarian language, though Rosalind Elias and Jerome Hines are often thrilling singing in their native English. Bartók’s lush score makes the piece as much of a tone poem as an opera, though Ormandy’s deeply agitated winds capture the opera’s conflicting fatal obsession with the truth. Some in the current organ community dismiss E. Power Biggs as an un-nuanced historic figure in the first digital release of the Poulenc Organ Concerto. But the orchestra meshes beautifully with what was then the imposing resident Philadelphia organ, while Biggs sets the tone for a stark, tragic view of the concerto.

Shostakovich’s wild child, suppressed until 1961, recorded by Ormandy in 1963.

The Philadelphia sound is a saving factor in the more challenging titles of the box set. The rambling, unfinished Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 7, as completed by Semyon Bogatyrev, sounds like the composer’s outtakes, but is given the energy, comprehension, and charisma that’s customary with the composer’s other well-established symphonies. Among the problem works in the set, the main beneficiary is Prokofiev almost-never-heard Symphony No. 4, which has the grandeur, detail, and intimacy of a major work, aided by a subtle buoyancy from Ormandy’s cafe-conductor side.

The 1963 Shostakovich 4th recording was a puzzler for decades. The symphony itself was finished in 1936 but suppressed until 1961; the composer knew the music’s recklessness would get him in even more trouble with Stalin & Co. Even now, it stands out as Shostakovich’s wild child. But not until the 2008 Leonard Slatkin recording (RCA – 60887) did I realize exactly what Ormandy and much of the rest of the world missed: Other Shostakovich symphonies have tight thematic construction, though the 4th‘s unifying factor is rhythmic. Everything is a division of the opening rhythm — excepting some explosive parentheses. If that continuity isn’t clear in performance, all the Philadelphia sound in the world can’t make it coherent.

The main blind spot in the box set is solo singers — the choices and the way Ormandy handled them. He conducted almost no opera, and in his Mass in B Minor recording, the lack of instinct shows. The great soprano Eleanor Steber has all the necessary notes but often sings them like they’re from Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West. The other soloists are mismatched in duets and ensembles where they seem to be operatically out-singing each other, leaving the over-taxed Temple University Choir to create the recording’s best moments in the “Crucifixus” section.

Ormandy on the Philadelphia podium in 1950. (Orchestra Archives)

The best-selling 1959 Ormandy Messiah, however, resists exile though its large-voice forces are so at odds with what we hear now. It’s a law unto itself. The notes are mostly there — with gargantuan sonorities — but conviction is also heard on all sides, including in the Mormon choir. Because all arias are solos, the soloists can be their individualistic selves (I especially love bass-baritone William Warfield). Wagnerian soprano Eileen Farrell was still at a point when she could sing almost anything. But casting missteps do creep in. Tenor Davis Cunningham, who had a perfectly credible New York City Opera career, sounds mildly strangulated. But in contrast to the Otto Klemperer Messiah, this recording has aged well.

The jewel of the set is Debussy’s Martyrdom of St. Sebastian, a late-period hybrid religious parable often heard as an orchestral suite but is here in an hour-long version with the Gabriele D’Annunzio verse narrated by Vera Zorina. Conveying the muted mystery of this piece is not what Ormandy was known for. But his objectivity and Debussy’s contemplative abstraction are a good fit. The other-worldliness of the choral writing works well, but the lynchpin is the always-worth-hiring soprano Hilde Güden.

One can never accuse Ormandy of overthinking music, and in this brainy era of Simon Rattle, we can look forward to the next box set (not yet announced) with the enigmatic wackiness of the 1966 Nielsen 6th refreshingly turned into a modernized Symphonie fantastique. But then there’s a Nielsen 1st with the kind of uninvolved cruise control that gave Ormandy a bad name. And also an Ives 1st with an emotional depth Gustavo Dudamel’s recent recording couldn’t touch.

Anyone who can find a consensus in there is doing better than I!