Sunday, November 22, 2015

Sibelius at 150 (Part 3): Eugene Ormandy conducts Sibelius

Sony (Masters Series) 88875108582 (8-CD box set) (2015 compilation)
Eugene Ormandy conducts Sibelius
Isaac Stern (violin)
Dylana Jensen (violin)
Louis Rosenblatt (English Horn)
Mormon Tabernacle Choir
Philadelphia Orchestra
Eugene Ormandy

Released in 2015, just in time for the 150th anniversary of the composer's birth on December 8, this very-welcome entry in Sony's on-going Masters series features most--not all-- of Ormandy's Sibelius
recordings made for Columbia/CBS in the 1950s and '60s and for RCA in the 1970s and '80s. The new 8-disc box set comprises all the material found on Sony Japan's 3-disc set from 2012 (Ormandy conducts Sibelius (SICC 1581-3)) along with the later RCA issues, offering, for the first time under one cover, a fascinating--and properly contextualized-- overview of the beloved maestro's interpretive evolution vis-á-vis some of the greatest and most-familiar music in the standard repertory.

Sony's packaging is the same by-now familiar bare-bones affair found throughout the Masters series. Each disc comes in its own sturdy cardboard sleeve with essential information on artists and recording dates. There are no liner notes and no accompanying booklet. Re-mastered in Sony's 24-bit high-resolution audio, the spruced up sonics are magnificent, giving these performances their due as seldom before. I was particularly impressed by the greatly-improved sound of the early-digital RCA recordings, which originally struck me (back on early-80s-era LPs) as rather underwhelming with harsh trebles, raucous basses, and bewilderingly muddy middle ranges. No more! Listen, particularly, to the surprisingly well-turned 1980 reading of the Violin Concerto with the young Dylana Jensen, a vital, probing, beautiful, richly-detailed recording that impresses on many levels.

A virtual treasure trove for the comparative listener, the set includes multiple recorded versions of several works to which Ormandy returned time and time again. There are two iterations of the Violin Concerto; Issac Stern's 1969 reading for CBS along with the 1980 Jensen rendition for RCA--though, rather surprisingly, not David Oistrakh's far-superior 1959 performance (available for a time on Sony Essential Classics, and more recently in the Sony Originals series (88697858162 (2011 re-issue)). Two readings each of the First Symphony (CBS, 1962; RCA, 1978), the Second (CBS, 1957; RCA, 1972), and Seventh (CBS, 1960; RCA, 1975); two complete readings of the Karelia Suite (CBS, 1968; RCA, 1975), two versions of The Swan of Tuonela (CBS 1960; RCA 1973), Valse Triste (CBS 1959; RCA 1973), and En Saga (CBS 1963; RCA 1975), as well as no fewer than three different versions of Finlandia (CBS, 1968; RCA, 1972, and the version with mixed chorus, recorded with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir (in a rather prissy-sounding English translation) for CBS in 1959). In addition, the set includes Ormandy's very-fine stand-alone RCA renditions of the Fourth and Fifth symphonies (1978 and 1975 respectively), and tone poems Pohjola's Daughter and The Oceanides (both from 1976). These latter works, along with the Fourth and Seventh symphonies were released together on a highly-regarded album from 1983 (RCA 38124), subsequently re-issued by RCA Japan and later by Arkiv Music.

One comes away from these recordings with a sense that Ormandy approached these very-familiar works with a constant freshly-renewed, and often very different attitude, never settling on or sticking to one 'definitive' interpretation. The early CBS recordings of the Second and Seventh symphonies emphasize drama over introspection, coming off as passionate, powerfully driven, virtually explosive. No other conductor's interpretation of the Seventh is quite like Ormandy's 1960 reading--not even Ormandy himself in 1975, which feels, if not more 'conventional' by comparison, certainly more inward looking, autumnal and deliberate, yet still eminently musical at every turn. The classic 1957 recording of the Second (available for many years on CBS' budget imprint Odyssey, and later on CD in a commodious coupling with the Seventh as part of the Sony Essentials series) still trumps the 1972 RCA reading for drive and energy, though the later reading is highly detailed with its own moments of beauty and awe.

Wholeheartedly recommended!!!

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