It is impossible to separate Eugene Ormandy from the Philadelphia Orchestra, and vice versa. He conducted the orchestra for almost fifty years, with forty-two of those years as Music Director. The orchestra was brought to national prominence by Leopold Stokowski in the 1920's and 30's, but Ormandy continued to refine the sound after taking the helm of the orchestra in 1938, until it became one of the pre-eminent orchestras in the world. The orchestra became known for the "Philadelphia Sound". Actually, the "Philadelphia Sound" started when Stokowski had the violins bow freely rahter than in unison, in order to compensate for the very dry acoustics of the Academy of Music, the orchestra's concert hall. Ormandy further refined the sound by doubling certain instruments, and by retouching the orchestration of pieces he conducted.
Eugene Ormandy as an interpreter was conservative, and very much middle-of-the-road. It's not that he was unexciting, but rather that he was only as exciting as the score dictated. There were few surprises in his conducting. What he was, however, was an excellent orchestral tactician, with a superb ear for balance. He also had a lengendary memory for memorizing new music.
The music on these discs are, for the most part, works that were a standard part of Ormandy's repertoire. He had a very large repertoire, but he was at his best in Russian music, particularly Tchaikovsky, Rachmaninov, Prokofiev, and Shostakovich. He was also a very fine Sibelius conductor.
As I have stated, this box contains mostly Ormandy standards, and most of them are re-makings of music that Ormandy had recorded in stereo for Columbia in the 1950's and 60's. There are a few curious selections, however. The Columbia recordings of the Barber Adagio for Strings, the Prokofiev "Classical" Symphony, and the Strauss Rosenkavalier Suite were chosen, even though those recordings were remade for RCA in the 1970's. I also find the inclusion in the set of Stravinsky's Petrouchka Suite and the Rite of Spring to be a bit puzzling. Ormandy never recorded the complete ballet Petrouchka, as most conductors did, and he never recorded the Rite of Spring in stereo, even though he led the orchestra for another twenty-five years after this recording. There should also have been a way to include the entire Das Lied von der Erde, instead of just two movements. I personally would have passed on the Stravinsky for a complete Das Lied. This also would have left room to include perhaps Debussy's Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun, another Philadelphia Orchestra staple. Technically, "Prelude" is not a 20th century work (it was written in 1892-93), but it was written by who most people consider to be a 20th century composer, and the work is newer than the included Rimsky-Korsakov Capricio Espagnol, written in 1887.
Other works that I would have liked to have seen included in this set are Rachmaninov's Symphony #2, a work long associated with this conductor, some Sibelius symphonies, and maybe some Respighi tone poems. Also nice would have been Prokofiev's Alexander Nevsky, Mahler's Symphpony #2 "Resurrection", and the last three Shostakovich symphonies. Ormandy made the American recording premiere of these last named works, and all were recorded or remade by RCA in the 1970's. Perhaps Sony will see fit to follow this box with another one.
Recordings of the Philadelphia Orchestra have always been known for their great sound, and these 20-bit remasterings have further enhanced these recordings. This is especially noticeable on the older Columbia recordings. The remasterings are a definite upgrade to those that were issued in the Essential Classics series.
By the way, Ormandy smokes the Rite of Spring. The performance is really too fast and is rather breathless, but is very exciting nonetheless. The 1955 mono sound from the Academy of Music is very good.