Eugene Ormandy (born Jenö Blau; 1899-1985) is most associated with the Philadelphia Orchestra, a stint of forty-years-plus as music director from 1938. Beforehand, once arrived in the States as a jobbing if versatile musician from Hungary, including as a violinist, he occupied the conductor’s office in Minneapolis (the Minnesota Orchestra today) from 1931 to 1936, with recordings made for RCA Victor during this period, displaying playing traits of the day, such as portamento. They are all here in this splendid box.

Critics hate Ormandy. It must be the first “fact” they teach at critic school- always work in an Ormandy slam into every article your write. Record collectors hate him, too.  I just don’t get it. The film of him looks pretty impressive- classical and classy conducting technique, not at all showy. His Philadelphia Orchestra was the only real rival to Karajan’s Berlin for sonic beauty in the 50s-70s, but was also a tighter and more versatile band.

PROS- Incredible memory. Listen to something like the Shostakovich 1st Cello Concerto with him, Rostropovich and the Philly Orchestra. Everything is perfectly balanced, perfectly voiced, totally together. Listen to the blend and power of the woodwind, the cohesion of the strings. It’s about as good as orchestra playing gets, and in a concerto- how many conductors on this list come up short as accompanists? Not Ormandy. Let’s face it, there is no orchestra or conductor on earth that can currently make a sound to rival the playing on Ormandy’s Shostakovich 10 or Sibelius performances. Before we slag him off, show me any band that sounds that coherent, lush, vibrant and powerful.

CONS- Since he never gets a good review and seems to carry no street cred with anyone, I’m going to spare him. He was, however, very, very short.” Kenneth Woods

“Critics hate Ormandy. … Record collectors hate him, too.” Ken’s words surprised me, although I am not arguing with him, and we have discussed Ormandy over coffee with enthusiasm. As Ken knows, I have long been an Ormandy fan, and am delighted to have this Minneapolis set.

There are plenty of delectable short works included, some now faded from the repertoire; those that I have listened to are stylishly performed and with as much panache and sympathy as the ‘big’ works – not least Enescu’s Romanian Rhapsody No.1, brought off scintillatingly. And of the ‘big’ things, there’s an impassioned, atmospheric and vividly detailed Sibelius First Symphony, an impressive Mahler ‘Resurrection’ Symphony (a few fluffs aside, it’s live) – not its first recording BTW (that was 1924, Oskar Fried in Berlin) – that is very involving and idiomatic, often exciting.

I found that Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht and Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony make for a fine ‘concert’ coupling, the former given as a vibrant narrative and with a depth of string tone that points to Philadelphia, and the latter strikingly coherent, also spacious, especially the twenty-five-minute slow movement, profoundly expressive; Albert J. Gutmann’s 1895 publication is used, and surprisingly includes the suspect cymbal clash at the Adagio’s climax (patiently built to), which may be an Ormandy addition, anticipating Nowak’s edition (the intervening Haas score does without).

Other Symphonies include the Fourths of Beethoven and Schumann – both excellent and engaging, the Schumann vigorous if poised and with a singing line, the Beethoven pensive and fiery but good to have the Finale not rushed off its feet: further evidence of Ormandy’s wide-ranging considerations and expertise. And Rachmaninov’s Second, Ormandy’s first of it (he would record it a few more times, as he would much of his chosen repertoire; indeed his discography is extensive), with cuts, yes, but fewer than with other conductors (until Kletzki and Previn, his second version, got to it complete) and he would also sign-off this work complete late in life. This Minneapolis Second is totally fluent (and followed a Cleveland Orchestra version, under Sokoloff, 1928) – Ormandy had a notable relationship with Rachmaninov, recording his Piano Concertos, the composer as soloist, and premiering the Symphonic Dances (great Philadelphia taping of the latter for CBS) – and this recording expresses a depth of understanding for the music that is palpable. Respect, too – no touching-up, not least at the end of the first movement.

Owning the RCA catalogue these days, Sony Classical’s remastering is excellent – including very little surface noise and seamless side-breaks from the 78rpm originals. RCA Red Seal 19439952392 [11 CDs]. [complete contents]