Ormandy’s Sumptuous Take on Rachmaninoff’s Second Symphony

by Glenn on July 3, 2016

Until this past week, one of the things I haven’t done during this symphony study is to go back to a symphony I’ve checked off the list. I listen to particular symphony, obsess for a few days/weeks, and then move on to the next one. But after a particularly frenetic day with busy work ahead for the evening, I decided a listening to Rachminoff’s Second Symphony was in order as the perfect decrompession and accompaniment.

I have André Previn’s recording of the Royal Philharmonic on my Desert Island playlist, not that I expect ever to be stranded on a desert island and certainly don’t know how it would happen, in that circumstance, that my Desert Island CD collection would conveniently happen to be with me or that I would have a means to play any of the CD’s in it.

Nevertheless, listening to Eugene Ormandy’s recording with the Philadelphia Orchestra the other night made me rethink my decision.

If this is the 1959 version, then I am in accord with David Gutman of Gramophone who references “its sumptuous, burnished string tone already evoking a bygone age.” One potential problem with this recording could be the cuts used, although I clearly don’t know the work well enough to notice what is missing.

I’m not used to recordings where the strings are so central to the recording. The brass are accent devices and aren’t allowed to dominate the overall tone of the orchestra. Of contemporary orchestras, Iván Fischer and the Budapest Festival Orchestra comes to mind for taking that approach.

The Ormandy strings play  warmly, cohesively, and lively. Somehow the generous portamento in the second and fourth movements is just right for this post-Romantic masterpiece. The first one I noticed was at 1:16 into the second movement, followed by more at 1:28 and 1:38. It’s worth taking the trouble to include that passage here.

Surprisingly, the Adagio has these sorts of slides, but they are much faster, which I found rather surprising. Perhaps Mr. Ormandy didn’t want to guild the lilly.

Orchestras don’t play like this anymore. Somehow I think we’d label it quaint. Here is the same passage by the Los Angeles Philharmonic, with Simon Rattle conducting from (I believe) October 1984. No value added schmaltz here—only the slightest hint of portamento near the end.

In the David Gutman article in Gramophone, he picks the André Previn recording with the London Symphony Orchestra as his first choice recommendation. This was the recording I listened to when I approached this symphony early in this study. I will need to go back to it at some point.