Steve Schwartz wrote:
>I've never understood the preference for bland Beethoven over fine
>Tchaikovsky. And you're being terribly unfair to Ormandy, who had one
>of the finest recordings of the Beethoven Fourth Concerto, as well as
>an affinity for Berlioz and the neoclassic Moderns.
Ormandy has been terribly underrated in his stewardship of the
Philadelphia Orchestra. He certainly maintained Stokowski's sound
somewhat, and for a long period. There was a period, maybe in the 50s
through the 60s where the Philadelphia may have been the best orchestra
in the world or close to it. Admittedly, most of Europe's orchestras
were down because of the war, but this is still saying something. During
this period, the Chicago Symphony was deified, as was Cleveland. So,
to some extent was Boston, at least in the strings. But Philadelphia
was as good as any of them and maybe better.
Part of the problem is that many of us knew all these orchestras
solely through recordings. Chicago had the best of that venue during
this period. Cleveland and Philadelphia were poorly served in comparison.
RCA did magnificently by Chicago, and Orchestra Hall at the time was
great for recording (if not so great for concerts). RCA had more trouble
recording Boston, partly because of the difficulties they met in Symphony
Hall (which is much better for concerts) and partly because RCA didn't
always put their best people in Boston. Even then, who could tame that
Cleveland and Philadelphia suffered a different fate. Of the three, I
heard only Cleveland during this period, and I was shocked at how warm
the orchestra sounded compared to its recordings. There was nothing
cold about the sound whatsoever. Nothing. One story I heard may help
explain this. (I have had told this before.) Supposedly, Szell had
bookshelf speakers in his home, which he placed on the floor, thereby
exaggerating the bass. Apparently, he had input into the recording
process, and reacted to what he heard in his home by demanding a reduction
in the bass. If true, this would explain some of the problems with the
Cleveland recordings--but not all of them.
Philadelphia was also ill treated by Columbia. Toward the end of Ormandy's
tenure (during which he was reported not hearing very well), Philadelphia
was recorded by RCA. Neither RCA nor Ormandy's declining powers helped
much. EMI also recorded with Philadelphia, and those are among the best
*sounding* of the Ormandy/Philadelphia years. They give us an idea.
(Cleveland made at least one record for EMI, but I've never head the
British pressing--I'd never evaluate an EMI recording from an American
Years later, I discovered that German and Japanese pressing plans did
much better with Columbia tapes than the Americans did--big surprise.
Some Columbia recordings are actually very good if pressed decently.
Unfortunately, I've not found any German or Japanese pressings of Cleveland
or Philadelphia. CD is probably the way to go, but I've not really
looked deeply into this. I should.
All that said, Philadelphia may have wavered in Ormandy's last years,
but it was a great orchestra in his prime if you can listen around the
recordings. And many of those are underrated.
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