Sibelius: Symphony No. 2 (CD review)

Eugene Ormandy, Philadelphia Orchestra. HDTT remaster.

Eugene Ormandy (1899-1985) was the conductor of the Philadelphia Orchestra for about as long as any conductor has ever been the conductor of any one orchestra: He was at the helm for forty-four years. He took over the orchestra from Leopold Stokowski in the mid 1930's and recorded for several labels thereafter: primarily Columbia/CBS, RCA, and EMI until the late 70's. It was 1972 that Ormandy made the RCA recording under review, using the short-lived technology known at the time as Quadraphonic. HDTT (High Definition Tape Transfers) translated the Quadraphonic tape to various newer formats in 2015.

When I started acquiring recordings at the beginning of the stereo age (mid 1950's), Ormandy had already well established himself as one of the world's leading conductors. But I didn't really take much notice of him and bought very little of his work because he always seemed a rather foursquare conductor to me. That is, while I never found anything wrong or deficient about his conducting, I usually never found much spark to it, either. He appeared to give the public exactly what they wanted, which wasn't bad: that is, reliable, straightforward interpretations of popular classical music from a world-class orchestra. Unfortunately, too, in the vinyl days his record companies weren't always good to him, producing LP's that sounded thin, noisy, compressed, sometimes harsh, and bass-shy. By the time EMI started recording him, things got a little better; and then when the CD era arrived in the early 1980's, it surprised me to hear how good some of his early stereo work sounded when properly transferred to the new medium. Apparently, Columbia and RCA had not always been kind to the sound when translating the original master tapes to LP. While Ormandy's performances still didn't impress me too much, at least I could hear them in improved sonics. This HDTT transfer gives us some idea of what Ormandy and his Philadelphians really sounded like back then.

Anyway, the Finnish composer Jean Sibelius (1865-1957) wrote his Symphony No. 2 in D, Op. 43 in 1902, and over the past hundred-odd years it has become probably his most-popular work. The listening public dubbed it his "Symphony of Independence," although musical scholars are as yet unsure whether Sibelius meant to attribute any symbolic significance to the piece. Whatever, it ends in a splendidly victorious finale that certainly draws out a feeling of freedom and self-reliance.

The work begins in a generally sunny mood, building to a powerful a climax, with a flock of heroic fanfares thrown in for good measure. Ormandy had recorded the symphony once before in stereo (for Columbia in the late 1950's, if memory serves), and this '72 performance is much as I remember the first one. Ormandy takes a fairly relaxed view of the opening movement, building the excitement in smoothly articulated stages with no jarring transitions. It's popular music made even more palatable in Ormandy's essentially idiocyncratic-free approach.

Eugene Ormandy
Sibelius marked the second movement an Andante (moderately slow) and ma rubato (with a flexible tempo) to allow a conductor more personal expression. This second movement begins with a distant drumroll, followed by a pizzicato section for cellos and basses. Again Ormandy handles the music with his customary, gentle evenhandedness, with the insistent staccato rhythms made more comfortable in the process.

The third-movement scherzo displays a fair degree of orchestral pyrotechnics, interrupted from time to time by a slower, more melancholy theme before seamlessly making its transition into the Finale. Sibelius labeled the movement "Vivacissimo," meaning a tempo taken in a lively and vivacious manner. Under Ormandy, the music moves along at a reasonably quick gait without seeming in any way hurried, rushed, or hectic. He judges his rubato well, too, so again we get no incongruous shocks to the senses as the music moves from one contrasting element to the next.

Then, the Finale should burst forth in an explosive radiance--thrilling and patriotic. Ormandy maneuvers his way into this big fourth-movement victory celebration with a kind of polished cushiness that doesn't quite inspire a listener the way, say, Karajan does. Yet it suffices, and one could hardly call it dull. And he does build up to the score's several rousing climaxes with an appropriate amount of success. So, if Ormandy's interpretation is hardly pulse-pounding, it's also hard to fault.

As I say, Ormandy is good at what he does, and there is nothing about the recording that anyone can point to as inadequate or lacking, especially with an orchestra that plays so wonderfully and with such precision at the Philadelphia. It's just that there are already any number of fine recordings I find more rewarding from people like John Barbirolli and the Royal Philharmonic (Chesky Gold), Barbirolli and the Halle Orchestra (EMI), Pierre Monteux and the London Symphony (HDTT),
George Szell and the Concertgebouw Orchestra (Philips), Herbert von Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic (EMI), Colin Davis and the Boston or London Symphony Orchestras (Philips or RCA),
Thomas Sondergard and the BBC National Orchestra of Wales (Linn), Osmo Vanska and the Lahti Symphony (BIS), among others. Nevertheless, I doubt that Ormandy would disappoint too many people.

Producer Max Wilcox and engineer Paul Goodman recorded the music for RCA in 1972. In 2015 HDTT transferred it to various formats including two-channel CD, DVD and DVD-A Audio physical disc, DSD or PCM FLAC download, or four-channel surround Blu-ray from an RCA discrete Quadraphonic tape. I listened to the two-channel CD.

The sound is a little closer than I like and a trifle too rounded and soft for me. Still, it beats by a long shot the old sound I remember from Philadelphia, which was often hard, bright, and brittle. Here, we get a most-listenable sound, with strong, wide dynamics and a decent if not wholly satisfying sense of orchestral depth. It seems a good sound for most of the music here--sunny, open, big, and bold, with a warm hall bloom to the instrumental setting. Although midrange transparency suffers a bit, it's a good trade-off for the added ambient glow.

Moreover, for those of you interested in what the original four-channel Quadraphonic sounds like, HDTT also make the recording available in Blu-ray 4.0 surround.

For further information on HDTT products, prices, discs, and downloads in a variety of formats, you can visit their Web site at http://www.highdeftapetransfers.com/.

JJP

To listen to a brief excerpt from this album, click here:

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John J. Puccio

John J. Puccio

About the Author

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.

Mission Statement

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.

So, if Classical Candor can expand one's awareness of classical music and bring more joy to one's life, more power to it. It's done its job.

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"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa

"Their Master's Voice" by Michael Sowa