Has any musical reputation in the classical music world suffered more than Ormandy's? I doubt it. Collectors can sneer all they want at the outdated styles of playing that Karajan and Bernstein brought to the party, but they buy the endless reissues all the same. Toscanini still sets a gold standard for many, and Stokowski is weird and famous enough to continue capturing hearts and minds. I'm not sure what Ormandy did wrong; he was a champion of new music, possibly the world's greatest accompanist, and loved the world over. And then he died. Maybe that was it. In all seriousness, his musical achievements are worth hearing, and he was a persuasive advocate of Sibelius, among others. Credit ArkivMusic for allowing us to acquire these great readings again.
Even in Ormandy's vast Columbia/Sony discography, the present discs stand tall. Some may prefer his RCA recordings of the Second and Seventh, but you really can't go wrong here. The playing is superlative and the sound is perfectly acceptable. Those looking for Szell's razor sharpness in the Second won't find it here, but the end result is just a great Sibelius disc. If you can find it used, it's probably dirt cheap and may very well be the least expensive and most rewarding Sibelius purchase you can find. In the Seventh especially, this was a reference then and still towers over many well-known versions.
The second disc is even better. Ormandy coaxes playing from his Philadelphia forces in the First that should frankly be illegal. It's a fine compliment to Stokowski's, also on Sony's "Essential Classics" line. But it's more than a mere recording for comparison, for Ormandy compliments the singularly great sound of his orchestra with a truly exciting reading. Better yet, it's coupled with Leonard Bernstein's amazing New York Fifth. Bernstein was a staunch advocate for the composer as well, and unlike his late Sibelius on Deutsche Grammophon, nothing is mannered or over-personalized. No, what we have here is a wonderfully conducted and vibrantly played performance, very different in style from Ormandy, but also completely valid and faithful to the score. The brief filler features George Szell's seemingly forgotten assistant Louis Lane, here in a little piece for strings. It's lovely, but not essential. Lane conducts beautifully all the same, and it ends the disc nicely. If you want to know what Sibelius was all about, these two 1990's reissues certainly justify the "Essential Classics" billing.
Copyright © 2014, Brian Wigman