Sure, this 10-CD set, gathering early recordings of Eugene Ormandy, from 1935 (still Ormandy's Minneapolis years) to 1949 (his early Philadelphia years), is a musical treasure trove. It is in fact the straight reissue, by Membran (a German label specialized in budget-price reissues) of a similar box released in 2000 by another German publisher, The International Music (or TIM) company, on their History label (Ormandy: Maestro Brillante (Box Set)), part of a series devoted to the great conductors of the past (Koussevitzky, Furtwängler, Stokowski, Klemperer, Schuricht, Barbirolli, Beecham, Toscanini..), all listed and still offered on this website. It is the History box that I bought some years ago.
It reminds you of an Ormandy that you had entirely forgotten about, before he mellowed and seemed intent at revelling in the Philadelphia's sonic splendor and lushness rather than underlining the music's edges, muscles and sinew. Startlingly, this early Ormandy is the exact opposite (to make you wonder what alien could have later taken hold of his mind, and when), a conductor of unsurpassed drive and bite, that could easily be confused with his Hungarian compatriot George Szell. In some of the standard repertoire (Beethoven's Piano Concertos No. 3 & 4 with Arrau and Casadesus, both from 1947, the famous 1939 Brahms' Double Concerto with Heifetz and Feuermann - only the second recording ever of the piece, by the way, after Thibaud-Casals-Cortot conducting in 1929 -, Tchaikovsky's Piano concerto with Oscar Levant in 1949 and Symphonie Pathétique from 1936/7), this will come as a surprise to those who know Ormandy through his later years. The Brahms Double is one of the most thrilling versions ever recorded, not quite equalled in its passionate urgency by Heifetz' own 1960 remake (with Piatigorsky), despite the stupendous sonics, because of Alfred Wallenstein's less biting conducting in the first movement. Arrau's Beethoven 3rd will come as a startling shock to those who know him only through his subsequent recordings with Galliera, Haitink and Colin Davis. This can be compared only to Schnabel (in both his recordings, with Sargent in 1933 and Dobrowen in 1947, ASIN B00005K3PG and B000003XI4, sorry, I need to keep my 9 remaining authorized product links for later), Rubinstein-Toscanini (B000003EWT) or Serkin-Bernstein (B0000029XE): it is uniquely urgent in the outer movements, with muscular utterances and biting accents from the Philadelphians, powerful and even martial in the finale in a way that points to the Emperor. Arrau favors a slightly percussive touch, closer to Serkin than to Schnbael, with trills that are rather dry and don't come near the expressivity of Schnabel's, and digs deep in the keyboard in the first movement cadenza, making it sound almost like a Bach Fantasy adapted by Busoni. But his slow movements strikes a perfect balance between the flowing and the dreamy. I haven't heard Casadesus' 1959 stereo remake of Beethoven's 4th Piano Concerto with Van Beinum and the Concertgebouw (it was reissued on Sony's Casadesus edition with the same performers' 1st, B00005KKNR, and is now difficult to find at reasonable prices) but I hope he hasn't changed his interpretive options. His recording from December 22, 1947 with Ormandy is one of my favorite versions, precisely because it strays from the accepted, more pastorale and bucolic approach to the 4th. It is a performance of great dynamism in the outer movements, with a recording that lets you hear with remarkable clarity Casadesus' transparent and muscular touch. Another feature that makes this recording stand out is that Casadeusus plays what I suppose are his own cadenzas in the outer movements - not only are they interesting, but I find them quite convincing. The two Beethovens sound fine for their vintage, much better, for instance, than Testament's reissue of the contemporary Schnabel recordings.
But, other than the languid 1934 Schoenberg Transfigured Night and the very "normal" Dvorak Cello Concerto with Piatigorsky from 1946, the same kind of urgency and muscularity imbues Ormandy's conducting of the 20th Century repertoire: the Ravel Left-hand Concerto (Casadesus 1947) and the Sibelius First (1936) are intense and outstanding performances. The Mussorgsky Pictures is interesting for featuring not Ravel's famous orchestration, but one by a Lucien Caillet, in fact very popular before World War II.
Second, the set also reminds you that Ormandy was quite daring in his choice of repertoire, making the world or US premiere recordings of many new works - Barber's Essay No. 1 (1940), Schoenberg's Transfigured Night (1934, premiere recording of the version for string orchestra - the original version for sextet had its recording premiere in 1925), Mahler's Second Symphony (1935, second recording after Oskar Fried's in 1924). For Griffes' Pleasure Dome of Kublai Khan (1934) and Myaskovsky's 21st Symphony (1947), I'm not sure, but I suspect it must be a premiere for the former, and possibly a US premiere for the latter. For Sibelius' First Symphony, Ormandy did indeed record the US premiere, but that was with the Minneapolis Symphony in 1935, and what we get here is his remake from a year later, with Philadelphia - a performance of "impassioned drive" (as the liner notes of the Biddulph release rightly put it). Too bad History didn't include Bartok's Piano Concerto 3 with Gyorgy Sandor, a premiere recording from 1946 (that's on Pearl, Bartók Premières). Incidentally, all the material gathered on this set can or could be found on other labels.
And precisely, here comes the hitch. In the course of writing this review, I compared History's transfers with those of other CD reissues that I happen to have in my collection (which I purchased recently, as my interest for historical recordings has considerably increased lately, either for the pairings not included on this History set, or because I was hoping for better sonics from more established labels like Biddulph, or because I had simply forgotten that I had the specific recordings already). That's when it really struck me how much the History set had been simply plundered from these other releases.
Take the Mahler 2nd, which is on Biddulph WHL032 (Symphony 2). The two transfers run exactly at the same speed, which would be highly unlikely in the case of independent transfers from 78rmps (given the slight differences in revolving speeds between various turntables). There is, in the History CD, a kind of soft electronic high frequency that you can hear over headphones in the softer passages, and that is not in the Biddulph, which first led me to think that the two labels might have used as their source the early LP release of Ormandy's recording, DMM 4 0 260 (information from Peter Fulöp's 1995 Mahler discography). But then, the Ravel left-hand Concerto sounds so undistinguishable from the transfer on Sony's Masterwork Heritage Ravel-Casadesus set, Complete Piano Music of Maurice Ravel (with an uncanny absence of any surface noise) that I began suspecting that History had simply pirated it. The suspicion was confirmed by certain surface clicks on Sibelius' First, that are exactly the same as on Biddulph's transfer, WHL062 (and the inclusion, like Biddulph, of Lemminkainen's Return, is another pointer, Symphony 1 E Minor Op 39 / Berceuse Tempest Op 64). From the surface swish I can say that it was Biddulph's Barber Essay, WHL064/5, that was History's source (Art of Eugene Ormandy - Orchestral works including: Myaskovsky: Symphony No. 21 in F sharp minor, Op. 51 / R. Strauss: Sinfonia Domestica / Mahler: Symphony No. 8 in E flat major - Part 1 (2 CDs)), not Pearl's (Barber: Premiere Recordings). It comes as no surprise then that Miaskovsky, Griffes and Strauss' Sinfonia Domestica also sound identical with those of that Biddulph 2-CD set, a conclusion derived not only from the general ambience but also from various and unmistakable clicks and swishes. On the other hand, based on the same kind of sonic clues, it is evidently RCA's transfer that was used for their Brahms' Double Concerto (Heifetz Collection, Volume 5 (1939-1946)) and not Biddulph's, LAB041 (Brahms: Violin Concerto; Double Concerto). To shorten this story, I've made the same observations with Mussorgsky/Tchaikovsky (Symphony 6 / Pictures at an Exhibition), Strauss' Don Quixote (I'm now out of authorized product links, I'll provide them in the comments section, this one is ASIN B000001ZEV), both from Biddulph, and Dvorak's Cello Concerto on Sony Masterworks Heritage (ASIN B0000029VD). I don't have the RCA Rachs (ASIN B000003FGS) and Grieg (B000003F6Y), but I think the evidence is conclusive enough.
It becomes ironic when History/Membran pirates an alleged pirate: the only other "non-78rmp" reissue of Schoenberg's Transfigured Night was by Dante Lys, in 1996, which I don't have (ASIN B00000G4MH), but Wayne Shoaf's Schoenberg discography (available on-line) shows that the timings of both releases are identical, not only overall but section by section, which does hint to direct borrowing. This leads me to suspect that it was also Dante's release of the 1935 Minneapolis Bruckner 7th that was History/Membran's source (ASIN B00000G1H2), although I don't have the Dante for confirmation, and same with the two Beethoven concertos: B00000HZF6 and B000026CK3 (the latter is not listed here but available on the European sister companies) and the Levant Tchaikovsky mentioned above (ASIN B00000G2KI, badly listed, the name of the pianist doesn't even appear, it is paired with Grieg's Piano Concerto conducted by Efrem Kurtz). Now Dante Lys is a label that, while it existed, had that kind of bad reputation with collectors, so maybe there is a moral to that story, like "he that killeth with the sword must be killed with the sword"; but I happen NOT to share that negative opinion of Dante, and this is a good case in point: who would THEY have pirated their Schoenberg from, since there was NO other non-78rmp reissue? I've seen other cases with Dante, where obviously they published their own transfers direct from the 78rpms.
The release dates (the History box came out in 2000, these various other releases in the 1990s, and no later than 1999) make it possible. And so, now I understand why they didn't include Ormandy's 1946 Bartok 3rd Piano Concerto: the Pearl CD came out only in 2002.
Obviously, such pirating is not honest, and it is not even legal (I was tempted to turn the phrase around). Still, what the History/Membran set offers that the others don't, is gathering all these early Ormandy recordings in a single, cheaply priced box, in transfers that, as dishonest and unfair as it may be, are, for obvious reasons, rarely inferior to those of these other releases. Another consideration is that many of the original CDs have not been maintained in the catalog by their publishers (Dante is dead anyway and Biddulph died, and although they resurrected recently, they have not reissued most of their early releases), and they are either not offered or offered for steep prices on the secondary market. But then: count the sales History then Membran deprived those publishers of. How much was that a factor in their demise?
So, what is going to prevail: your refusal to encourage dishonest and illegal enteprises, or your concern for your bank account? Of course, you could have claimed ignorance before you read this review (which was my case when I bought the History set, but anyway I made up by subsequently buying all those original CDs). Well - not anymore. So this one REALLY deserves the "unhelpful" votes you are going to give it.
And a post-script from September 2013. I now suspect that Membran reissues might be even worse sonically than the original piratings from TIM/History. I've purchased the Membran reissue of the Mitroupoulos set, and the sound was awful, not equivalent but much WORSE than any of the earlier and "legitimate" CD reissues on Sony or Dante that TIM might have pirated, because of Membran's indiscrimate use of filtering to suppress any surface noise, which results in sound that is horrendously metallic and threadbare. See my review of ASIN B000VX1RFI Dimitri Mitropoulos: Maestro. I'm not 100% positive because I don't have the original TIM/History publication to compare, but certainly my TIM/History Ormandy set doesn't sound as awful, and I have other cases that show that when reissuing older recordings, Membran applies excessive filtering to get rid of surface noise. So if still interested by this Ormandy set, I'd suggest you go for TIM/History.