EUGENE ORMANDY'S latest recording of Tchaikovsky's Fifth Symphony with the Philadelphia Orchestra has just come out, not on RCA or Angel, but on one of those fanatically quality-conscious "independent" labels based in California. The company, Delos, records repertory staples in the Soundstream digital system and goes to JVC in Japan for superior pressings.
A phrase in Delos' promotional literature refers to "artists who have lived with the music they perform." This is a concept by no means to be taken for granted in today's world, but it certainly applies to Ormandy, especially in the case of the late Tchaikovsky symphonies. He had recorded the Fifth on no fewer than four occasions since 1941, and must have performed it at least a hundred times in the last four decades. One may sense in hearing the Delos recording (DMS-3015) the veteran conductor's determination to surpass his earlier recordings and produce a definitive version.
In the new recording the familiar music seems infused with more vitality than ever. The well-loved phrases are molded with both affection and dignity in a balance few interpreters strive for, let alone actually achieve. And the great orchestra itself is at the very top of its form. Alec Wilder once remarked, "I like Tchaikovsky; he always takes me where I like to go." That's the way it happens here. Over the decades Ormandy has shown himself to be the least ostentatious and most reliable of musical guides by never imposing a gratuitous interpretive overlay, but always letting the composer's own voice be heard. This approach works so well as to obviate the whole idea of choice in such matters as tempo, phrasing and dynamics.
Delos' gorgeous-sounding recording was produced by Harold Lawrence, who supervised so many memorable sessions for Mercury and Philips before he became manager of the London Symphony Orchestra and then of various U.S. orchestras. Lawrence produced the recording in the "Old Met," which has been the venue for Angel's Philadelphia sessions. The Japanese pressing is characteristically impeccable; the only nits I could find to pick in the entire presentation were a dropped comma in the annotation and an erroneous reference to Herbert Kupferberg's book "Those Fabulous Philadelphians" as "The Fabulous . . . "
Ormandy has recorded Tchaikovsky's last symphony, the "Pathetique," as many times as the Fifth. It was, in fact, the first work he recorded with the Philadelphians, in 1936, and now Delos is about to release his fifth recording of it. In the meantime, an interesting "Pathetique" has just been issued by the other of those California independents. This company, Varese Saraband, got into the digital swim a bit earlier than Delos and on a somewhat larger scale, also using soundstream and pressing in Japan. On this disc (Varese Saraband VCSM 1000.140), the London Philharmonic is conducted by the young Mexican Enrique Batiz.
At first Batiz's interpretation struck me as tidy yet unexceptional, but the marvelous sound kept drawing me back (it is surely one of the two or three most beautifully realistic recordings of an orchestra I have ever heard), and I found that Batiz's straightforward, well-detailed approach wears extremely well.
There is not the slightest hint of self-indulgence here. Batiz's knowledge of the score and his ability to draw the most disciplined playing from a fine orchestra both seem beyond question. No distortions, no exaggerations, but everywhere the most profound respect for the score -- rather like Markevitch in general approach, though by no means a carbon copy of his performances of this work.
The more intense and more expressively shaped interpretations by Carlos Paita (Lodia digital LOD 778) and Rostropovich (Angel S-37299) are not likely to lose their hold on this listener's loyalty, and neither is Markevitch's brilliantly contrasting one (Philips Festivo 6570.046). But there is always room for a version as handsomely done as this one by Batiz and Varese Saraband, with its cogent point of view and outstanding sound. Try to hear it.