I’ve always enjoyed the theme-and-variations format, and hearing composers re-work material, as in the Barhms Haydn Variations I’ve written about before. It’s a bit different in this case, with Hindemith drawing on varied short theme of Von Weber in his “Symphonic Metamophosis.” I confess to having heard none of the original Weber pieces in their original piano format. It would make an interesting experiment — how the composer here went from short piano works to this explosive showpiece. I am reminded of
It’s a bravura work, and the one time I heard it live is completely unforgettable, despite not being able to take my seat (late arrival) and having to stand in the back row of the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C. as Slatkin and his vastly improved National Symphony drove the piece home in a spectactular fourth movement.
By comparison I have two favorite Philadelphia recordings, one on Vinyl, EMI 37536, one of his last recordings (1979). Alongside this is Sawallisch from 1995. The acoustic is comparably warmer, less precise than Ormandy on vinyl. Horns are prone to more European vibrato, and placing Ormandy alongside makes the Bavarian maestro seem just a bit looser and rhythmic, more Romantic (sounding almost like a French impressionist in the slow movement) — than Modern. The entry of the horns in the final movement is more measured, with less bite. The effect is complete and effective, if perhaps a too much Hollywood-soundtrack in its feel. Until 3:09, that is, when the bouncy woodwind re-entry makes its appearance, crescendo and descrescedo flowing in wave upon wave until the final sweep of melody and most memorable of concluding passages in the last 60 seconds. If you listen to Sawallisch, have patience and wait for him to get here. He delivers in the end. No one I’ve heard manages the undulating tuba and trombone lines better in those last bars.
Ormandy’s 1979 displays a gusto that clearly shows his inside-and-out knowledge of the piece and the composer, which he featured throughout his long tenure in Philadelphia. It also boasts top rate sonics, as best an example of vinyl of this era as one could find. (I know his contemporarily recorded Sibelius disc made TAS; this one deserved it too if it did not. Though perhaps they have a rule against duplicating permances, with Ormandy’s earlier CBS MS-6562, which I discarded after finding the later EMI here.) Compared to the Sawallisch digital CD from 1995 Ormandy’s 1979 sound is cleared, more vivid, and richer in range. It also lacks the Hollywood sheen that blurs Sawallisch’s Philadelphians. Ormandy rollocks along, playing the music for what it is (Gebrauchsmusik, after all) giving us vim and vigor and energy, rather than romantic storytelling.
Lastly, a recent acquisition that probably makes the first time I have every truly responded to a record by George Szell. In reading up online, I found that critics including David Hurwitz have indeed said it places in their top ten tier for both performance and sonics. I was lucky to find an original dark 2-eye CBS 7166, a superb copy. The 1964 sound is crystal clear, though (to my ear) limited in its acoustic range compared to the 1979 Ormandy, but understandably so. I’ve never been to Severance Hall, and perhaps the difference in reverberation and that all-elusive “warmth” is simply less than Philadelphia where both of the above recordings were set down.
Szell always has seemed too stern for me in his famed Mozart and Beethoven symphonies, too much a perfectionist and working with an orchestral sound which my (admittedly perfectionist) other favorite von Karajan also was criticized for. But compared to Berlin under HvK, who never recorded this work, Cleveland sounds too analytical. In this composition, though, the modernist aesthetic its composer desired fits the sound of the band. It is an energized performance which, to my surprize, bounces and snaps along almost playfully at times. Szell moves quicker than either of the Philadelphians and the orchestral response is indeed a marvel. The finale is propelled not just by energy but, in after the woodwind entry mentioned above, by a genuine joie de vivre that is totally unique and makes for a happy, not just a powerful, close to a spectacular composition.
As a footnote, the work is featured on an early Mercury mono LP ( I reviewed here some weeks ago for its other side, Bloch’s Concerto Grosso. Kubelik and the Chicago Symphony give a good performance, but to my mind it is decidedly pedestrian compared to any of the competitors here (or to the superb Bloch on side 2). Tempi are slower and almost entirely uniform; crescedi are ineffective, and fortissimos are overused. Plus…in some cases, you simply cannot fully experience an orchestral showpiece in monophonic sound.