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Holst: The Planets; Debussy: La Mer / Ormandy

Holst / Debussy / Phl / Ormandy
Release Date: 03/25/2008 
Label:  Euroarts   Catalog #: 2072268  
Composer:  Gustav HolstClaude Debussy
Conductor:  Eugene Ormandy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philadelphia OrchestraMendelssohn Club Chorus Philadelphia
Number of Discs: 1 
Recorded in: Stereo 
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Notes and Editorial Reviews

HOLST The Planets. 1 DEBUSSY La mer Eugene Ormandy, cond; Philadelphia O; Philadelphia Mendelssohn Club Ch 1 EUROARTS 2072268 (DVD: 81:00)

This and the other EuroArts DVD of Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra (Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, reviewed in 30:6) comprise the only commercially available video record of this magnificent 44-year musical partnership—indeed, of the Philadelphia Read more Orchestra period . Ormandy led “The Fabulous Philadelphians” from 1936 to 1980, and cultivated the famous Philadelphia sound, a luxuriant sonic bath featuring what was generally agreed to be the world’s best string section.

Both DVDs come from the late 1970s, by which time the magic was pretty much gone from the relationship and Ormandy was taken for granted by audiences in Philadelphia and record collectors around the globe; the word was that he was conducting on auto-pilot and the great music machine was coasting on its reputation. In the heyday of extroverts like Bernstein, Solti, and Mehta, Ormandy did appear sedate. But shortly after he retired, audiences developed a taste for more objective, analytical interpretations. The performances on this DVD suggest that Ormandy was a few years ahead of his time. Like many older artists, he seems to be in a “late style” marked by calm, clarity, effortless expertise, and no need to show off.

Ormandy had recorded La mer twice before (1959 and 1972), but he didn’t record The Planets until late 1975, just six months before these sessions. (His Planets LP came from those earlier sessions, not from the video, as I erroneously stated in 30: 6. But the performances are similar.) I’ve been waiting for 32 years to see this Planets , because I was at the taping by German television in June 1976. The entire evening was devoted to The Planets. I remember that the first order of business was to record plenty of applause, because the director expected that much of the audience would depart before the end of the session. And he was right—it ran for more than three hours. You can see the result on the first half of this DVD.

Based on the performances assembled here (I use that term because of all the retakes I observed in the Holst), if you think Ormandy is dull, then you’re not listening. If you watch with the sound turned off, you do see that he moves very little above the waist and his legs not at all. His facial expression almost never changes. But when he flashes the little grin that I noted in 30:6, it’s rather cute, and at one climax in the Holst, I palpably shared his satisfaction. It draws your attention to whatever he could have been so happy with. A fleeting grimace at the very end of the Debussy and a silent howl in “Uranus” are startling.

Of course, the proof is in the music. The Holst receives a lean, brisk, but not lightweight performance, similar to the 1975 LP. I enjoy hearing the piece without the monumental moments being milked for effect. “Uranus” is supposed to be the bringer of old age, but here’s Ormandy at 77 saying, “Old age? I don’t feel no stinkin’ old age!” And he flashes his mischievous grin. The musical texture is crystal clear; it’s a rare pleasure to hear every line of the score. Is this clarity due to the Academy’s legendary dryness? Or perhaps the way the winds and brass are seated on steep risers, which they never were otherwise? (The arrangement reminded me of those old photos of acoustic-horn recording sessions where the players are crowded around the horn on stools and ladders.) Or is the clarity a cognitive illusion because we can see the players—even when we distinctly hear players we’re not seeing? Either way, I love it! And this isn’t to imply that the sound is clinical or that the distinct strands don’t blend: at appropriate volume levels (not the setting you use to watch TV), the blended sound of this magnificent orchestra shines forth. On my modestly nice equipment in my modest living room, the PCM Stereo sound is excellent. The disc also has Dolby Digital 5.1 and DTS 5.1. It makes me very eager to hear it in 5.1.

Ormandy is similarly dégagé about Debussy’s splashy pictorialism and sensuous harmonies. As I remarked in 30:6 in a different context, it reminds me of Susan Sontag’s distinction between erotica and pornography: erotica very calmly allows you to get excited, whereas pornography does all the exertion for you. This DVD should provide some fresh impetus to the nascent revival of interest in Ormandy’s enormous recorded legacy.

The orchestra sounds fantastic. However, the players sit like lumps. Not since the Sphinx have statues produced such sounds. Their stiff posture and vintage 1970s eyewear make them look very old-fashioned. Most orchestras that look like this were taped in black-and-white (see, for instance, the accompanying trailer for Karajan/Berlin, dating from 1966), but this DVD’s vivid, realistic color and immaculate picture could convince you that they were filmed last week, which makes the dated visual elements more jarring.

The video direction is rather stodgy and literal: it’s mostly close-ups of whatever instrument is most prominent at the time, and the mouth playing it. Frustratingly, there aren’t too many full faces. On the other hand, we do get some nice glimpses of the bass oboe in the Holst. There are few wider sectional orchestra shots, and no auditorium or audience shots. La mer feels particularly claustrophobic, even clinical, because of the cramped video style. It also bothers me that there’s no personnel listing, even though this is the only visual documentation of a great period of a great orchestra. We get the names of all the camera people—onscreen as well as in the booklet—but really, who cares?

Another occasional annoyance is that the sonic image doesn’t always match the visual. In one notable instance, the camera faces Ormandy from stage right, so we expect the winds and brass to come from the left; but the sound image is front-on, so the solo trumpet is on the right. I know that the audio image isn’t supposed to shift with the camera angle, but I don’t recall noticing it as I do here. Perhaps other directors try to avoid shooting from one side when the most prominent instrument sits on the opposite side. And then there’s the little gaffe in the Debussy during a brief trumpet solo when the onscreen trumpet player’s fingers are mysteriously still—for a moment it looks like a dubbed foreign movie.

The DVD package is pretty basic. The bare bones titling is stylistically inconsistent between the two parts of the program. I chuckled a bit over the macaronic “Das Philadelphia Orchestra.” The only additional material is four trailers: three minutes each of a Bernstein/VPO Bruckner Ninth, Karajan rehearsing the Schumann Fourth, the other Ormandy DVD, and Rostropovich doing Haydn Cello Concertos. They’re all worth watching. Lenny looks great—it’s old Lenny, so his face does what his whole body used to do; and Rostropovich’s fingered run at the end of one of the concertos is by itself worth the price of the disc.

But overall, this is strongly recommended to all for Ormandy, the Holst, and a heavenly x-ray of the Philadelphia Sound. For Philadelphians and fans of the Orchestra, this is also of immeasurable documentary value.

FANFARE: Eric J. Bruskin
BOOKLET: English, German, French
RUN TIME: 81 mins Read less

Works on This Recording

The Planets, Op. 32/H 125 by Gustav Holst
Conductor:  Eugene Ormandy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philadelphia Orchestra,  Mendelssohn Club Chorus Philadelphia
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1914-1916; England 
La mer by Claude Debussy
Conductor:  Eugene Ormandy
Orchestra/Ensemble:  Philadelphia Orchestra
Period: 20th Century 
Written: 1903-1905; France 

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