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.