Just possibly, the Philadelphia Orchestra is the most treasured musical institution in the world. Some would argue for the Metropolitan Opera, the Vienna Philharmonic, or even the Juilliard String Quartet. But for several generations now, the Philadelphians have been the pet of countless musical hearts. Statistics on such matters are somewhat sketchy, but the Philadelphia is probably the most recorded orchestra in history, and also the most traveled. Isaac Stern likes to say of Jascha Heifetz, “He was the sound that every violinist had in his ear as we were growing up.” Similarly, the sound of the Philadelphia Orchestra—the fabled “Philadelphia Sound”—has long been, for many, the ideal sound of an orchestra.

The Philadelphians are now celebrating their centennial, having given their first concert in November 1900. As part of their celebration, they have released a boxed set of twelve discs, commemorating their extraordinary century of music-making.[1] This set comes directly from the orchestra— without the middleman of a proper record label—as has increasingly become the fashion. Orchestras find that they can do this fairly cheaply, and it is a smart way of getting relative rarities into circulation. Perhaps the most successful of these sets is the collection issued by the Cleveland Orchestra in honor of its former music director, the incomparable George Szell. These discs include music that Szell never recorded commercially, notably a Beethoven Missa Solemnis. The Philadelphia set, too, is highly gratifying—intelligently selected, intelligently organized, intelligently produced. With its array of conductors, singers, and instrumentalists, it is a grand tour through music and musical performance in the twentieth century. Quite simply, these are dream discs, a box of wonders.

One of the things that make the Philadelphia Orchestra remarkable is the fewness of its music directors. In its hundred years, it has had six. From 1912 to 1980, it had two: Leopold Stokowski and Eugene Ormandy. The latter was on the podium for forty-four years, making his tenure the longest of any conductor in America. (Evgeny Mravinsky led the Leningrad Philharmonic for a full fifty years.) The orchestra likes to boast of its “firsts,” and who can blame it? To name only a few, it was the first orchestra to make a commercial recording via the electrical method (1925); the first to secure its own commercially sponsored radio broadcast (1929); the first to appear on national television (1948); and the first to offer its members a fifty-two-week performing contract, which it did in 1963. (Before then, orchestral musicians did odd jobs in the off-season to keep themselves and their families afloat.) Let us not forget the orchestra’s starring role in the 1940 film Fantasia, in which Stokowski shook the hand of Mickey Mouse.

Ah, Stoki and Mickey: there were some who never forgave him (Stokowski, that is). His talent for publicity has always colored his reputation, but suffice it to say that he was a great—truly a great—conductor and musician, no matter that he loved cameras (as they him) and married the likes of Gloria Vanderbilt. Born a Londoner in 1882—the Continental accent was just part of his act—he became a church organist, then turned to conducting in his late twenties. He began his amazingly prolific recording career in 1917, when he took his Philadelphia players across the Delaware River to the headquarters of the Victor Talking Machine Company in Camden, New Jersey. He went on to make recordings until shortly before his death in 1977, at age ninety-five.

Fittingly, the centennial set begins with that first recording, made about six months after the United States entered World War I. It is of a Brahms Hungarian Dance, which at under three minutes was about all the Victor company could handle. The sound is as you would expect—crude, scratchy, distant—but the music is nonetheless there, conveyed with Stokowski’s unmistakable panache. Volume I of the set continues with a 1931 account of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The sound here is only a modest improvement on that of 1917, but, again, the conductor’s power is evident. It is not surprising that Stokowski engages in some unusual things, such as a ritardando at the end of the first movement, but his idiosyncrasies are tolerable—sometimes even welcome—because they always work musically.

We then jump to 1964, when Stoki returned to Philadelphia for the Symphony No. 2 of Sibelius. The great Finn was one of the orchestra’s “special” composers, along with Rachmaninoff and Shostakovich. Those three had many of their works premiered in Philadelphia, under either Stokowski or Ormandy. Stokowski is relaxed and sunny in the Sibelius, although he propels the Finale with its necessary drive. The recording has an immediacy, a liveness, which transports us back to the hall. In every bar, the Philadelphia Sound is gloriously apparent: lush, romantic, irresistible. The brass, too, is gleaming and even, with none of the blaring that can spoil an orchestral performance. Later, we are treated to a Romeo and Juliet Fantasy-Overture, a work, you might say, that was made for Stokowski and this orchestra. Their 1962 account is almost impossibly beautiful. It soars and sighs and aches as the story of the lovers unfolds. Each part comes through with utmost clarity. Though this is a fantastically luxurious performance, it is a precise and disciplined one, too. In the final measures, Stokowski makes the music truly breathe and Tchaikovsky’s old warhorse is newborn.

Recent years have not been especially kind to the reputation of Stokowski’s successor, Eugene Ormandy—but he deserves better. Many critics dismiss him as a lightweight, which is perhaps a price he has had to pay for his enormous popularity with the public. He seldom conducted music written before the romantic era. But he had any number of gifts, including judgment, leadership, musicality, and a famously good ear.

Born in Budapest as Jenö Blau, Ormandy began as a violinist, then found success as a conductor in America. He took Stokowski’s gleaming and beautiful machine and kept its gleam and beauty—even enhancing them. The first of his recordings on offer here is a 1950 traversal of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, a piece made for glorying in strings, and thus another piece ideally suited to these forces. The Schoenberg is an exquisite work, exquisitely played. We also hear Ormandy in Rachmaninoff’s strange and haunting tone poem The Isle of the Dead. This is one of those performances that critics like to describe as “unabashedly lush.” But it is also shrewdly managed, not swimming aimlessly in gorgeous sound or emotion.

Like Stokowski before him, Ormandy conducted a great many contemporary works, and the set includes the premiere performance of Walter Piston’s Symphony No. 7 (1961). This is neither the most popular nor the best Piston symphony—Nos. 5 and 6 are superior—but it is surely a creditable work, for which Ormandy makes a strong case. He had a particularly fine hand over modern music: he was crisp, self-effacing, and cool. The playing here is strikingly clean—rich, of course, but with nothing wasted. Ormandy had the important ability of finding the thread of a piece and keeping it going. The execution of the Piston is astonishingly cohesive—a benefit, probably, of so long a collaboration between conductor and orchestra. Ormandy is similarly excellent in the Sixth Symphony of Shostakovich, recorded in 1969. His focus is totally on the score, and perhaps on the personality of the composer, but never on his own. “He had none,” some would snort. Actually, he had personality in spades, but he also had a true sense of the conductor’s role. Small wonder composers loved him.

The game of “Who Will Replace Ormandy?” took place for—oh, twenty years, at least. When the end finally came, in 1980, the successor turned out to be a young Italian, Riccardo Muti, who is represented here on one disc. The set’s producers have taken care to feature him in music that shows him off: Berlioz, Verdi, and Respighi, among others. His account of Berlioz’s Roman Carnival Overture is very tightly controlled, in true Mutian fashion. And the Philadelphia Sound is … something other than the Philadelphia Sound. It is brighter, though still refined and distinctive. Some used to complain that everything Muti did sounded like Verdi—but at least his Verdi did, and his reading of the overture to I vespri siciliani is splendid. So too his Pines of Rome (Respighi), which Muti makes the sonic spectacular it ought to be. As we listen, we think, This is what virtuoso orchestras do.

When Muti left Philadelphia in 1992—his tenure had not been altogether happy— he was replaced by a veteran but little known German, Wolfgang Sawallisch, who remains the orchestra’s music director today (though he is expected to depart in a year or two). Sawallisch restored some of the sound that Stokowski and Ormandy had established and burnished, and he is a well-liked citizen of Philadelphia. He is, however, an uneven conductor—capable of outings that leave no impression at all, and ones that are quite unforgettable (such as a Shostakovich Fourteenth at Carnegie Hall last October). He, too, is accorded one disc in the set, on which the major work is Beethoven’s Choral Fantasy. Sawallisch not only conducts the piece, but assumes the piano part as well. The results are respectable, but nothing more—which is a shade disappointing in the context of so monumental a collection.

The fourth volume is devoted to guest conductors, and the roster is duly appetizing. We begin with Fritz Reiner and a 1931 account of Wagner’s Transformation Music from Parsifal. Reiner is in the early part of his career, but he is completely himself. His Wagner is brisk, no-nonsense, and stirring. We also have a Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune conducted by Bruno Walter in 1947 —dazzling, beguiling, utterly enrapturing. Walter was not renowned for his Debussy, but, by the evidence here, he should have been. Of note is the solo playing of William Kincaid, principal flutist of the orchestra from 1921 to 1960. In fact, it is a pleasure in these discs to get reacquainted with all of the Philadelphia’s first-deskmen, including the clarinetist Anthony Gigliotti, the cellist Samuel Mayes, and the percussionist Charles Owen.

Predictably impressive is the Ravel of Charles Munch. He leads a Daphnis et Chloé Suite No. 2 from 1963, and he simply puts on a clinic of French conducting. The Philadelphians respond to everything he does. Their playing seems untethered to the earth, floating in some impressionist other-world. The orchestra is stunningly nimble and fleet, giving Munch—who is music’s grand Charles—a hair-raising finale. Among the other guest conductors are István Kertész, who was a “next Ormandy” for a while, until his tragic death in 1973 at forty-four, and Arturo Toscanini, who is heard both rehearsing and recording the “Queen Mab” Scherzo from Berlioz’s Roméo et Juliette—a shimmering, gossamer delight.

One of the most imaginative and satisfying of these volumes is dedicated to composers as conductors. Thus we have Zoltán Kodály leading the U.S. premiere of his Peacock Variations (1946). It is touchingly obvious that the conductor is fond of this creation, and it seems to rise from the Hungarian soil. Igor Stravinsky was a balky conductor, but he was in excellent and charming form for his Baiser de la fée suite in 1947. At the end of this disc, we get Aaron Copland in his Lincoln Portrait, performed outdoors in the summer of 1976, America’s bicentennial year. The narrator is Marian Anderson, “The Lady from Philadelphia,” then seventy-nine years old. Lincoln, the Philadelphia, Copland, Anderson: a more star-spangled lineup is impossible to imagine. Copland turns in a relatively quiet, restrained performance, going light on the inevitable bombast. And the voice—which is to say, the spoken voice—of Anderson is, in a word, perfect.

Another inviting volume is given over to some of the greatest singers of the century, including Anderson. There is Beverly Sills in 1974, singing one of her specialties, Mozart’s Exsultate, jubilate. She was a tremendously appealing Mozart singer, and we are reminded what a remarkable instrument she had. Next is her great rival, Joan Sutherland, in the mad scene from Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, followed by Franco Corelli (pouring on voice), Dorothy Maynor, George London (with Stoki in “Mephistopheles’ Serenade” from Gounod’s Faust —a couple of old devils on stage), and other immortals. To finish off the disc is the thrill of a 1962 Immolation Scene with Birgit Nilsson and Stokowski. For those who admire this singer, this is the summit—a mouth-watering document.

The set’s final volume belongs to the instrumentalists. The pianists: Josef Hofmann, William Kapell, and Sviatoslav Richter. The violinists: Heifetz, Michael Rabin, and Leonid Kogan. At the last, there is a sad appearance by the cellist Jacqueline du Pré, shortly before her career was brought to a halt by illness, with her husband, Daniel Barenboim, on the podium.

Hofmann is presented in a 1938 performance of Beethoven’s Fourth Concerto with Ormandy. The sound is shaky, but the poetry of the pianist is unhindered. Not ever will you hear the Andante rendered with greater poignancy. Kapell is heard in the Brahms Concerto No. 1, a work that he did not have the time to record commercially. (He died at the age of thirty-one. There seems, however inadvertently, to be an emphasis on tragedy in this set: Kertész, Kapell, du Pré, Rabin, Kogan. We may ask where Guido Cantelli and Dennis Brain are.) Kapell’s reading is characteristically athletic and muscular, and if his Rondo is sloppy, it is at least exuberant and daring. The Heifetz selection is one of which the collection’s promoters are especially proud. It is a 1934 studio recording of the Sibelius Concerto, and it would have been the very first recording of this work. Heifetz, though, refused to permit its release, having quarreled with Stokowski (as he did with virtually everyone). The Philadelphia flacks are right to be proud: this Sibelius is icy, probing—definitive.

The eye-rubbing praise for this set could go on indefinitely. Over and over, the listener gasps at what has been let loose from the Philadelphia’s vaults. The temptation to resort to clichés is strong—to say, for example, that the collection is a feast (that inescapable word) for the ear, mind, and soul. The “Fabulous Philadelphians,” as they were dubbed, may have seen their best days; orchestras rise and fall, depending on their leaders and personnel. But of their past, there can be little arguing. It may not be unmatched; but it is certainly unsurpassed.

Go to the top of the document.

  1. “The Philadelphia Orchestra: The Centennial Collection: Historic Broadcasts and Recordings, 1917– 1998” may be obtained through the orchestra’s website (www.hilorch.org) or by calling (800) 457-8354. It is also available in certain Tower Records stores. The cost is $200. Go back to the text.

This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 18 Number 10, on page 53
Copyright © 2020 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

Popular Right Now