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Raymond Tuttle
Fanfare, July 2010

For those of us too young or too distant to have enjoyed Eugene Ormandy in person, this DVD is a particular delight. I began appreciating Ormandy’s conducting when I was in high school. I am almost as appreciative 30 years later, even though it continues to be thought a sign of superior taste to denigrate his work. Some know better, though. Ormandy’s later recordings for RCA are readily available on Japanese CDs, and can be more easily acquired via custom ArkivMusic reprints. Releases such as those and the present DVD help keep the torch burning.

It is easy to underestimate the man and his orchestra. An unattentive look and listen to the Stravinsky might leave one thinking, “Yup, that’s The Firebird, all right. Nice predictable performance, but nothing special.” Listen again, though, and with all your ears and eyes, and you might find yourself impressed by the gorgeousness of the sounds Ormandy draws from the Philadelphians, and with the sensitivity of the phrasing. Ormandy does nothing unusual with Stravinsky’s score, but he gives it to us on a bed of velvet, and it is hard not to be seduced.

These performers had a special affinity for the music of Rachmaninoff, and so the prospect of not only hearing but watching them play the Russian composer’s Symphony No. 2 is enticing. One’s expectations are not disappointed by this performance, which has all the sweep, atmosphere, and ebullience of the studio recording from 1973. There’s a little catch, however. The booklet notes and a brief interview with the conductor before the performance both lead one to expect that Ormandy will perform the score without cuts on this occasion. In fact, he does open up most of the cuts that were usual in the 1960s and earlier, and that hardly would be countenanced today. Even so, he retains a large cut in the third movement… Supposedly this is the one cut of which Rachmaninoff approved, or at least tolerated, but it is a shame to hear Ormandy still observing it in 1979. Apart from that, this is a gloriously played and passionate reading—right up there with Previn’s Telarc version in its application of the “swoon factor.”

Between the two works, there is a 10-minute featurette in which Ormandy shares vignettes about his collaborations with Rachmaninoff, and about the so-called “Philadelphia sound.” I’ve never read anything to suggest that Ormandy was anything less than a helluva nice guy, and these vignettes do nothing to change that impression. No storming and screaming in the manner of Toscanini and Reiner for him, but is he really not worthy of being mentioned in the same breath?

Judging from Ormandy’s appearance, the sound quality, and the video quality, I would have guessed that the Rachmaninoff predated the Stravinsky, but the opposite is true. In both works, the orchestra has been captured cleanly and we have been given a taste of the acoustics in Philly’s Academy of Music, but the sound in the Stravinsky is palpably clearer and better balanced. The cameras spend little time on Ormandy, preferring instead to dwell—sometimes rather closely—on the performers. I enjoyed seeing them at work, though. A full-screen 4:3 format has been used.

Younger listeners should give this a try and see what was so good about the “good old days.” Like Hamlet, we shall not look upon their like again.

David Patrick Stearns
The Philadelphia Inquirer, February 2010

Though captured in 1977 and ’79, his tremulous last years as music director, Ormandy isn’t just in good form but generates electricity not always heard in Rachmaninoff recordings he made when younger. While a tad rough around the edges, the orchestra is inspired and sounds gorgeous, giving many glimpses of great principal players whom current orchestragoers know only from recordings or from their later, less distinguished years.

Also featured is a good Firebird performance, but it’s the bonus interview with Ormandy that’s fascinating. After years of taking full credit for the orchestra’s sound, he confesses here that he’s not at all sure how that sound is made. He also recalls accompanying Rachmaninoff in his Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini when the composer improvised entirely new music on the spot. And in one of his famous slips of the tongue, Ormandy refers to Rachmaninoff’s “Symphonic Variations” (obviously the “Symphonic Dances”).

John J. Puccio
Classical Candor, February 2010

Some years ago, a friend asked me if I was one of those guys who sat in front of his speakers and simply listened to music. I said yes. He said, “That’s sort of like meditation, isn’t it?” I hadn’t thought about it that way, but it did remind me that most folks don’t actually listen exclusively to music. Instead, they’re reading a book or a magazine; eating their lunch or dinner; doing their homework; working around the house, etc., when they’re playing music. One of the important things that surround-sound in home theater systems has done for music listening is that it has often forced people to sit in the optimum listening position in front of the television and actually listen. At least, sometimes.

Which brings us to the point of the review: This EuroArts disc is a audio-video DVD for people who enjoy watching something while they’re listening. On the disc, Eugene Ormandy conducts the Philadelphia Orchestra in live 1977 and 1979 performances of Igor Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite and Sergei Rachmaninov’s Symphony No. 2. They are not the greatest performances in the world, nor is it the best sound in the world, but it is a nice change of pace seeing a world-famous conductor leading a world-class orchestra.

Things begin with the Firebird music, which, of course, is colorful and characterful, with Ormandy doing his best to maintain the mystery and excitement of the piece. Then we get about nine minutes of Ormandy introducing the Rachmaninov, in which the conductor reminisces about his long friendship with the composer, complete with amusing anecdotes.

Lastly, we get to the Second Symphony, one of the most overtly Romantic pieces of music ever written. Rachmaninov premiered the work in 1908, making it one of the last vestiges of traditional Romanticism.  (Regardless, any number of twentieth-century composers as diverse as Aaron Copland and Alan Hovhaness carried on the Romantic tradition.)

Anyway, while there is much talk in the booklet notes about how neither Ormandy nor Rachmaninov liked the cuts often taken in the score by so many other conductors, it appears that Ormandy took a few here himself. That and the fact that Ormandy rather races through some of the movements makes his interpretation somewhat shorter than most complete versions.

Insofar as the sound is concerned, the DVD provides three formats: PCM stereo, Dolby Digital 5.1, and DTS 5.1. Of the three, the PCM comes across as the most natural, Dolby Digital seems to provide the most orchestral depth, and DTS appears to be the most dynamic (although also the brightest). I reviewed the disc on two separate systems:  First, in my home-theater setup using 7.1 speakers and a widescreen Sony XBR television (the disc’s video derives from a typical, standard-def, 1.33:1 ratio broadcast of the Seventies) and afterwards in my living-room music setup in ordinary two-channel stereo, sans TV. In both instances and in all three audio formats, I thought the sound lacked much bite, detailing, transparency, treble extremes, deepest bass, and transient impact. Worse, I found the audience noise so intrusive, I was aware of it at all times. This constant background noise is mitigated somewhat when one’s mind is centered on the video, but it’s still present.

Nonetheless, as I’ve said, you don’t buy these kinds of classical music videos for their audiophile sound qualities but to see and hear a live event. In this regard, the disc works fine.

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3:48:16 PM, 3 September 2015
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