Famous Marches (CD review)

Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra. HDTT HDCD251.

When I was growing up in the late Forties and Fifties, the most-prominent names in the classical world were Arturo Toscanini and Leopold Stokowski; but not far behind was Eugene Ormandy. Ormandy took over the Philadelphia Orchestra right after Stokowski and continued in the post for well over four decades. Yet, even as a youth I didn’t consider Ormandy a “great” conductor.” As odd as it seems, I (and I’m sure many others) viewed Ormandy as simply a workaday conductor, somewhat foursquare, competent but never special. It was an unfair evaluation, to be sure; after all, Ormandy excelled in many areas, particularly in the music of Bartok, Nielson, Orff, Rachmaninov, Shostakovich, and others. Still, there was this image we had of a fairly ordinary conductor that millions upon millions of people just happened to love. Oh, well....

Anyway, this album of Famous Marches from Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra tends to put the lie to his being straightlaced; in these marches we see a meticulous conductor who presented the music almost exactly as we always imagined it. This was no letter-perfect Toscanini or wild-eyed Stokowski; this was a man who tried to put as little of himself into the music as possible, letting it speak for itself. Which is to say, these marches are not the most creative, distinctive, or scintillating around, but they are probably pretty close to being everything most listeners would hope they’d be.

Each of the thirteen selections on the disc is a genuine “famous” march. You name the march, it’s probably here, starting with Sousa’s “Star and Stripes Forever,” which you might have expected to close the show, but it makes a nice curtain raiser. Ormandy gives it an appropriate flourish.

Among my own favorites on the program are Gounod’s “Funeral March of the Marionette” (think Alfred Hitchcock Presents); Verdi’s “Grand March” from Aida; Bizet’s “March of the Toreadors” from Carmen; Schubert’s regal “Marche Militaire”; and Elgar’s first and best march, “Pomp and Circumstance No. 1,” known to high-school graduates the world over.

Musically, Ormandy takes the “March of the Marionette” at a slow and stately pace. Gould’s “American Salute” exhibits a great thrust and vigor. The Aida march shows much splendor, even if Ormandy doesn’t seem particularly imaginative about it. Bizet’s “Toreadors” enter with a speedy rush as though already chasing bulls around the ring; while it’s probably a tad too fast for my taste, there’s no doubt it generates quite a lot of excitement. Victor Herbert’s “March of the Toys” has a genuinely magical appeal to it. In Prokofiev’s satiric march from “The Love for Three Oranges,” Ormandy provides a wonderfully faux-noble pomposity. Johann Strauss Sr.’s “Radetzky March” displays an impressive strut. And, finally, for sheer pomp and circumstance, you can’t beat Edward Elgar’s “Pomp and Circumstance March No. 1,” in which Ormandy goes all out to impart as much grand enthusiasm as possible; he may not capture all the drama of the music as well as Sir Adrian Boult or Sir John Barbirolli did, but it’s close.

In terms of the remastered sound, it comes to us from HDTT, High Definition Tape Transfers, the company that uses high-quality open-reel tapes in the public domain as its source material. I found the sonics, recorded by Columbia to a 4-track tape between 1959 and 1963, excellent, as I have found everything from HDTT. However, it was only after listening to the entire disc that I began thinking I’d heard it all before. I had. I checked out my own collection afterwards and found myself amazed to find I already had it in my collection! Well, close: What I had was a two-disc set of the same marches and more from Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra remastered by Japanese CBS/Sony in 1983, a set I’d bought some thirty years ago and hadn’t had the chance to listen to more than once or twice since. So not only did I have my notes on the sound of the HDTT disc, I had another, different remastering of the same material from Japan (presumably taken from the master tapes) for a side-by-side comparison. I’m happy to report that the HDTT sound was just as good as or better than the Japanese remaster.

The HDTT sound, which Columbia recorded in the Academy of Music, Philadelphia, at various times, is at times massive and warmly reverberant and at other times close and slightly dry. In any case, it’s always big, big, big, as it should be in these marches, with a modest-to-strong dynamic impact and a superwide frequency range. Highs are quite prominent, maybe a little forward at times; midrange transparency is more than adequate; transients sound quick and lively; stage depth is realistic; highs are gleaming; and bass is evident when needed (that big bass drum is a band staple, no?).

And compared to the Japanese import? The HDTT disc sounded a touch more open and airy and perhaps just a hair brighter, with a touch of pre-echo between tracks. The CBS/Sony discs sounded maybe a shade warmer and smoother. It was so close, though, that one could argue a case for either side. However, the point seems moot because the Japanese discs appear to be out of print and unavailable even in Japan, just as the domestic Sony product has disappeared from the catalogue. No matter; the HDTT disc holds its own quite nicely.

As always, the folks at HDTT make their music available in a variety of formats for a variety of pocketbooks, from Redbook CD’s, 24/96 DVD’s, and HQCD’s to 24/96 and 24/192 (on select titles) Flac downloads for playback on high-end computer audio systems. For details, visit http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/storefront.php.


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Meet the Staff

Meet the Staff
John J. Puccio, Editor, Publisher, Reviewer

Understand, I'm just an everyday guy reacting to something I love. And I've been doing it for a very long time, my appreciation for classical music starting with the musical excerpts on The Big John and Sparkie radio show in the early Fifties and the purchase of my first recording, The 101 Strings Play the Classics, around 1956. In the late Sixties I began teaching high school English and Film Studies as well as becoming interested in hi-fi, my audio ambitions graduating me from a pair of AR-3 speakers to the Fulton J's recommended by The Stereophile's J. Gordon Holt. In the early Seventies, I began writing for a number of audio magazines, including Audio Excellence, Audio Forum, The Boston Audio Society Speaker, The American Record Guide, and from 1976 until 2008, The $ensible Sound, for which I served as Classical Music Editor.

Today, I'm retired from teaching and use a pair of bi-amped VMPS RM40s loudspeakers for my listening. In addition to writing the Classical Candor blog, I served as the Movie Review Editor for the Web site Movie Metropolis (formerly DVDTown) from 1997-2013. Music and movies. Life couldn't be better.
Karl W. Nehring, Contributing Reviewer

For more than 20 years I was the editor of The $ensible Sound magazine and a regular contributor to its classical review pages. I would not presume to present myself as some sort of expert on music, but I have a deep love for and appreciation of many types of music, "classical" especially, and have listened to thousands of recordings over the years, many of which still line the walls of my listening room (and occasionally spill onto the furniture and floor, much to the chagrin of my long-suffering wife). I have always taken the approach as a reviewer that what I am trying to do is simply to point out to readers that I have come across a recording that I have found of interest, a recording that I think they might appreciate my having pointed out to them. I suppose that sounds a bit simple-minded, but I know I appreciate reading reviews by others that do the same for me -- point out recordings that I think I might enjoy.

For readers who might be wondering about what kind of system I am using to do my listening, I should probably point out that I do a LOT of music listening and employ a variety of means to do so in a variety of environments, as I would imagine many music lovers also do. Starting at the more grandiose end of the scale, the system in which I do my most serious listening comprises an Onkyo C-7030 CD player, Legacy Audio StreamLine preamplifier, Legacy Audio PowerBloc2 amplifier, and a pair of Legacy Audio Focus SE speakers augmented by a Legacy Point One subwoofer. I also do a lot of listening while driving in my 2016 Acura RDX with its nice-sounding ELS Studio sound system through which I play CDs (the ones I especially like I rip to the Acura's hard drive so that I can listen to them whenever I want) or stream music through the system using my LG G7 ThinQ cell phone, which features surprisingly sophisticated audio circuitry. For more casual listening at home when I am not in my listening room, I often stream music through the phone into a Vizio soundbar system that has remarkably nice sound for such a diminutive physical presence. And finally, at the least grandiose end of the scale, I have an Ultimate Ears Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker for those occasions where I am somewhere by myself without a sound system but in desperate need of a musical fix. I just can't imagine life without music and I am humbly grateful for the technology that enables us to enjoy it in so many wonderful ways.
Bryan Geyer, Technical Analyst

I initially embraced classical music in 1954 when I mistuned my car radio and heard the Heifetz recording of Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto. That inspired me to board the new "hi-fi" DIY bandwagon. In 1957 I joined one of the pioneer semiconductor makers and spent the next 32 years marketing transistors and microcircuits to military contractors. Home audio DIY projects remained a personal passion until 1989 when we created our own new photography equipment company. I later (2012) revived my interest in two channel audio when we "downsized" our life and determined that mini-monitors + paired subwoofers were a great way to mate fine music with the space constraints of condo living.

Visitors that view my technical papers on this site may wonder why they appear here, rather than on a site that features audio equipment reviews. My reason is that I tried the latter, and prefer to publish for people who actually want to listen to music; not to equipment. My focus is in describing what's technically beneficial to assure that the sound of the system will accurately replicate the source input signal (i. e. exhibit high accuracy) without inordinate cost and complexity. Conversely, most of the audiophiles of today strive to achieve sound that's euphonic, i.e. be personally satisfying. In essence, audiophiles seek sound that's consistent with their desire; the music is simply a test signal.

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It is the goal of Classical Candor to promote the enjoyment of classical music. Other forms of music come and go--minuets, waltzes, ragtime, blues, jazz, bebop, country-western, rock-'n'-roll, heavy metal, rap, and the rest--but classical music has been around for hundreds of years and will continue to be around for hundreds more. It's no accident that every major city in the world has one or more symphony orchestras.

When I was young, I heard it said that only intellectuals could appreciate classical music, that it required dedicated concentration to appreciate. Nonsense. I'm no intellectual, and I've always loved classical music. Anyone who's ever seen and enjoyed Disney's Fantasia or a Looney Tunes cartoon playing Rossini's William Tell Overture or Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 can attest to the power and joy of classical music, and that's just about everybody.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa