Eugene Ormandy, while very popular during his lifetime, is one of the most underrated conductors of the past century. There, I've said it, uncool as it might be. His LPs generally have been reissued casually – when they have been reissued at all – as budget-priced CDs, and one dealer of used LPs told me that there is very little demand for this conductor's recordings. I predict that there will be an Ormandy revival one of these days, and that a new generation of listeners will be in awe of his musicianship, and of the sonorities he drew from the Philadelphia Orchestra for 44 years, beginning in the 1930s. During his tenure, the "Philadelphia Sound," as it was then called, was not only distinctive, but as thick and juicy as an expertly prepared steak. Since Ormandy, the Philadelphia Orchestra, fine as it is, has sounded much like many other orchestras, more often than not, and the steak has more and more taken on the characteristics of a chain-restaurant entrée.
Lately, we have had the opportunity not only to hear Ormandy but to see him in action, late in his career, but still at the top of his form. The selections on this DVD were recorded during the summer of 1978, with the exception of the Handel, which was recorded the previous summer. I don't know what the occasion was, but because each piece has its own opening and closing credits, my guess is that this was not a concert broadcast per se. The camera-work is close and not always smoothly tracked, and there are some unflattering close-ups of Philly's musicians, but the effect is very immediate and visually warm. We are given ample opportunities to assess Ormandy's style of conducting, which is straightforward and not at all histrionic. Watching his face, one is struck by its benignity; here is a conductor who didn't rule through intimidation, but through respect for his orchestra and through love for the music. Also, it is worth noting that he conducted everything from memory here – not bad for someone who was 77 (or 78) at the time of these concerts.
These are tremendously enjoyable performances, and opulent through and through. Now, one could argue that Handel's Concerto in D (an early version of the Overture to The Royal Fireworks Music) shouldn't sound like a birthday cake covered with rich icing, candles, and marzipan cherubs to boot. Even so, the results Ormandy achieves here, while musicologically suspect, are sensually fulfilling. Ormandy and the Philadelphians were particularly effective in the Russian repertory, and Schéhérazade couldn't be more alluring and colorful if she were telling a bedtime story … in one's own bed. Concertmaster Norman Carol gives a star-quality reading of the "title role," without turning the work into a violin concerto. Many of the orchestra's first-chair players play an almost equally prominent role, and all of them display not just their quality but also their character. Ruslan and Lyudmila is exciting but not rushed, and never driven the way it was by Georg Solti (another Hungarian), for example. Wolf-Ferrari's overture is delightfully mischievous, yet Ormandy allows it to be genial as well. In the suite from Der Rosenkavalier, Ormandy shows his mastery of the Viennese idiom, and the strings play with the richness of an entire Viennese confectionary store. Ormandy's reading doesn't give schmaltz a bad name. All in all, the music-making on this DVD is supremely enjoyable. It might not give us any new insights into the repertory, but it is so affectionate and honest that it solidly wins one's heart.
The video format is full-screen, and the images look very good in spite of their age. The sound also is very fine, although one detects a few moments in which the aural perspective suddenly (but subtly) changes – probably because different performances were spliced together.
This is more than an exercise in nostalgia. This is great and deeply satisfying musicianship, and it has nothing of the routine or generic about it.
Copyright © 2008, Raymond Tuttle