Eugene Ormandy

Eugene Ormandy

(CD - Document #231058)

Review by

Anyone who ever doubted Eugene Ormandy's range as a conductor will have some reconsideration to do after listening to this 10-CD set from Documents, which is apparently referred to officially as the Wallet Box (although that phrase appears nowhere on the packaging). Drawn from recordings that are out of copyright in Europe, dating from the mid-'30s through the end of the 1940s, it captures Ormandy leading the Philadelphia Orchestra and the Minneapolis Symphony in what can now be regarded as their "lost" monaural years. Neither Sony Classical nor BMG Classics, which controlled those masters (and, in 2008, were essentially the name company), ever looked seriously at re-releasing the best of the pre-stereo sides of any of their classical artists. Many of these were intrinsically groundbreaking recordings in their time, of the Mahler Symphony No. 2 (only the second recording of the piece ever done, and the first electrical recording), the Bruckner Symphony No. 7, the Sibelius Symphony No. 1, and Schoenberg's Verklarte Nacht, all done at a time when none of these composers or works, at least in the United States, were represented as concert staples; and works such as Samuel Barber's Essay No. 1 for Orchestra, Charles Tomlinson Griffes' The Pleasure Dome of Kubla Khan, and Nikolay Myaskovsky's Symphony No. 21, which never did carve a permanent place for themselves in the standard repertory. So on historical grounds alone, this set, neatly packaged but without a booklet or any annotation, is worth a serious look. It should be cautioned that at least one CD's contents -- Rachmaninoff's own recordings of his Piano Concertos No. 1 and No. 3 -- are available legitimately, in authorized editions from RCA/BMG; but to balance that likely redundancy within peoples' collections, it also has an absolutely scintillating performance of the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 with Oscar Levant, no less, as soloist, that's worth the price of admission by itself , and that isn't common on CD (or LP) at all. And the Ravel Piano Concerto for the Left Hand with Robert Casadesus as soloist is not far behind. Casadesus is also represented in a recording of the Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 4, paired with the Piano Concerto No. 3 played by Claudio Arrau; the other notable soloists are Gregor Piatigorsky in a rather lackluster Dvorák Cello Concerto, Jascha Heifetz and Emanuel Feuermann on a blazing performance of the Brahms Double Concerto, and Artur Rubinstein in the Grieg Piano Concerto in A minor. There is also an odd recording of Mussorgsky's Pictures At An Exhibition, from an orchestration by Lucien Cailliet, a composer in his own right and the "house arranger" for the Philadelphia Orchestra, that lacks much of the color and excitement of the more familiar Ravel orchestration. The latter illustrates a key point about this set: much of what is here is more of historical than musical significance, some of the conducting and the result more prosaic than one would have hoped, but enough is worthy of serious listening. The 1940s Columbia recordings have held up amazingly well in sound quality, but the 1930s performances are a lot more problematic, dating as they do from before the advent of magnetic recording tape. Assuming that one can make allowances in the listening, this set is a serious choice for listeners with any curiosity about Ormandy, and a must-own for Levant fans who don't already have that recording. It's also the perfect companion to Sony's Eugene Ormandy Original Jacket Collection, a 10-CD set issued in 2008 featuring stereo-era recordings by the renowned conductor.

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