Summary for the Busy Executive: It's about time.
George Szell is one of the few major conductors of the Twentieth Century who doesn't have his own society. Even in his lifetime, he seemed more like a well-kept secret among cognoscenti (and Clevelanders), despite a very nice career. For my money and so far as one can reasonably assert such a thing, he was the interpreter for standard, German and Central European repertory during the postwar period, the real deal as opposed to Karajan, a conductor manqué. I see many reasons for this relative neglect, some of them having to do with Szell's intimidating personality, others having to do with interpretive fashion.
As to the first, Szell made enemies. After a certain point, he had no career in opera because Rudolf Bing (excuse me, Sir Rudolf Bing), a musical Philistine single-handedly responsible for the artistic decline of the Met and Covent Garden but nevertheless powerful in the operatic world, hated his guts. I'm sure Szell reciprocated. Because of Bing, the Met kept out the great Wagnerian of his generation. Those lucky enough to have seen Szell's Wagner in the Forties talked and wrote about it for years afterwards. Szell also had a tongue. Of a German conductor in post-war trouble because of his activities during the Third Reich, Szell remarked, "A Nazi? He was never a Nazi. Only a prostitute." The wit could also turn against himself. After a story on him appeared in Time, he called his cronies and crowed, "It's official! I'm a bastard."
As to the second, we can usefully divide interpretive approaches in two: literalist and subjective, Apollonian vs. Dionysian. The categories aren't really distinct, like paint chips, but blur into one another along a spectrum. I would call a conductor like Stokowski "subjective" even though he approached a score with the idea of being true to the composer's spirit, if not to the letter: what Bach would have done, had he only known the instruments. This tradition goes back at least to the latter part of the Nineteenth Century. Mahler tinkered with Beethoven's Ninth. People have been silently mucking about with Tchaikovsky symphonies ever since they appeared. The literalist view – do at the very least what the composer tells you – owes its ascendance primarily to Toscanini. But even Toscanini fiddled with scores, and no musical score intended to be played by humans is complete. William Steinberg, at the time head of the Pittsburgh Symphony, once had a guest gig in Cleveland. When he got back, his players asked him how it went. "Awful," he said. "They did everything I asked them to." Every conductor, and by extension composer, depends on the skill and taste of individual musicians. You can't specify everything, although I get the impression that Mahler tried in the detailed instructions in his scores. I think the test lies in a listener's impression. After a performance, do you say, "This is Mozart's Haffner," or "This is Beecham's Mozart"? Each approach has its rewards and its dangers. At their best, literalists create the illusion that you have snuck inside Mozart's head. At their worst, you get nothing but dead music. The successful subjectivist gives you a unique view of a score that illuminates it. When he or she fails, you get a distortion, a grotesquerie.
I must admit I've changed over the years. I began as a rabid fan of literalists. Toscanini could do no wrong. Conductors like Mengelberg and Stokowski struck me as pure corn. Now, however, Toscanini often bores me, while Mengelberg and Furtwaengler invite me on voyages of intellectual and emotional discovery. Nevertheless, the major constant in my listening has remained George Szell. He has never lost his fascination.
Szell stood out among the crowd mainly because of his precision. Every note cleanly articulated, every rhythm accurate, every line in its proper place in the texture. The Berlin Philharmonic itself (especially under Karajan) could not match the Cleveland in this regard. Even Szell's Debussy emphasized the contrapuntal – heresy at the time (some called his recording of La Mer, Das Meer, even La Merde), but today more and more the norm. However, his detractors used this very precision against him by equating it with coldness, as if some degree of sloppiness guaranteed inner soul. I think it fairer to say that the emotion in Szell's readings roamed over a range of warmth. There was generally one, and one only, loudest point in a movement. We've all encountered conductors who've never met a forte they didn't want to smash and consequently have nowhere else to go. They specialize in momentary jolts and jabs until eventually you no longer care, like listening to a marathon political harangue. They deliver a monochromatic reading. While Szell had his flaws, I wouldn't call coldness one of them. After all, he was known for his Brahms, Wagner, Dvořák, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss, none of whom really flourish in flat readings. He gave live (though unfortunately never commercially released) the great postwar readings of Verdi's Requiem.
Like Stokowski, Szell had a vision, quite different from Stokowski's, of orchestral sound and playing. He began with the idea of wanting to combine the technical accuracy of American orchestras with the suppleness of European. I would argue that to some extent he separated technique from musical perfection. Two qualities distinguish Szell for me. The precision alone fails to move me. If Szell's performances were merely precise, I wouldn't care either. The precision provides lagniappe – I admit I get a kick when I hear what a composer actually wrote. However, precision is a byproduct of Szell's approach rather than its reason for being. Far more important are the rhythmic excitement and shaping of a long movement, the mastery of dynamics, the shading of individual lines, and the sensitivity of each player in the orchestra not merely to his section, but to all other players. You don't get any of these things without precision. You have only to see the Cleveland Orchestra live and watch body language to realize that these people play like a string quartet – that they listen to and watch one another, sending out exquisitely sensitive tendrils that shape the music before your eyes and ears. All this while watching the conductor as well. They did this under Szell; they do it now. The Cleveland, despite the tenure of high-powered directors like Boulez and Dohnányi, remains an ensemble close to Szell's blueprint – the orchestra as super-chamber ensemble – and the man's approaching forty years dead. Rhythmic attacks and articulation are electric and electrifying. Not only does the orchestra get louder, it masters diminuendo. The balance among sections, changing of course throughout a piece, never falls short of superb. You simply don't get orchestral mud or "swirlies" in a Szell performance. Because of all this, you hear in scores not only elements that you hear nowhere else, but familiar moments so right that you hear them newly-minted.
I've encountered quite a few great Mozart performances, live and recorded, over the nearly fifty years of my serious-listening life. I've also heard many more bland ones. Especially with Mozart, simply playing the notes doesn't cut it. The notes by themselves often don't pique interest, in the way that a more chromatic line, an obviously startling counterpoint, or a more sensual harmony might. Musicians often say that Mozart is the hardest composer to play successfully. The notes – at least for professionals – come easily, but the interpretation makes them sweat. And when you do meet with success, nobody gives you credit for it, because the music sounds so "natural." It's much easier to make an effect with Beethoven, I think. I can't recall a performance of the Fifth Symphony, for example, that wasn't at least decent. I've heard many bad performances of Mozart's "Jupiter." Beethoven, with his normative dramatic contrasts, gives a performer more help than Mozart does. Mozart resists standard interpretive tricks – for example, taking a repeated passage or phrase more softly. The transparency of the music often makes such strategies sound mechanical. Successful Mozart demands that you think deeply through the score, both at large and in little. Not coincidentally, the Mozart interpreters I admire come across with highly individual points of view. Not even Toscanini gives me the illusion that "the composer must have heard it in his head this way." Beecham's Mozart sounds nothing like Rosbaud's, and Viennese interpreters seem to play with home-team advantage. At their best, the music glows with a natural warmth.
If nobody's Mozart is the Real Mozart, neither is Szell's. How does one then describe his Mozart? Fortunately, the set includes Cleveland performances before and after Szell became music director, with Erich Leinsdorf (the music director immediately before Szell) and Louis Lane, Szell's Associate Conductor. Leinsdorf gives a good, though standard performance of a Mozart minuet. Sectional unanimity among the strings leaves something to be desired. The music proceeds a bit roughly, although at least it does move. With Szell, "clean," "clear," and "elegant" come to mind. Everything sounds full, but never stodgy. There's a patrician chasteness to it, to me very modern, like a Brancusi sculpture. At this point, I might add that Mozart tends to score heavily – much more so than Haydn (another Szell strength) – but somehow much of that weight disappears in Szell's accounts and clings to Leinsdorf's. I have no idea how much Szell knew of the intellectual history of classicism. Nevertheless, to me he transmits a major part of the middle and late eighteenth-century view of Greek art in his readings of Mozart – a sense of measure, directness sufficient to expression and not inflated. There are things I miss, of course: notably the intersection of pietism and classicism, the Greek myths as metaphors for the soul's yearning for God, which led to the Romantic era. But Szell gives me much of the rest and a view that seems to have eluded just about everyone else.
Each disc deserves a review as full as the one I've written. I've taken extensive notes during my listenings to this set. If I had written them all up, I'd have wound up with a small monograph, nevertheless too long for a review like this. Consequently, I'll just address some highlights.
Let's start with the crude first. The set boasts a number of, if not bests, then at least unsurpassed recordings, essential to a clear-eyed, non-clichéd view of Mozart: Robert Marcellus's superb clarinet concerto, a stereo Symphony #39 (perhaps my favorite Mozart symphony), Judith Raskin's Exsultate, jubilate, of almost unbearable sweetness, an Eine kleine Nachtmusik that just about defines great Mozart playing, and hands down the best performance of the Marriage of Figaro Overture – all this in addition to the Szell party-pieces of Symphonies 40 and 41. And the rest of it is wonderful. I'm told that when symphony musicians listen to classical recordings, they listen to Szell's Mozart, Haydn, and Dvořák.
Szell had his own vision of Mozart and, if the historic recordings indicate anything, he refined that vision throughout his life. Significantly, he worked to reach it. Much of it has already taken shape in his 1947 account of the Symphony #39. Leinsdorf had left the Cleveland in a pretty good state, although it still had far to go to reach Koussevitzky's Boston or even Rodzinski's New York Philharmonic and Chicago Symphony. Nevertheless Szell, who took over in 1946, even at this early point improves the sound of the strings at least three-fold. They seem to shave both pounds and "beards" from the tone, playing more like a single instrument. One notices the drive of the line, without feeling "driven," and – something which Szell doesn't often get credit for, the sensation of the breathing line, as if spun by a great Lieder singer. Of course, the mono sonic image and the recording itself, heavy on the bass and compressed in dynamic range, obscures some of the orchestra's finesse, but Szell's Mozart is there, at least in large outline. By the stereo remake, you still recognize the same interpretive approach, but you'd be hard pressed to identify this as the same orchestra, the sonic image differs so much. The string tone, while not rich (which you wouldn't want for Mozart anyway) is thrillingly true. The players make their lines insightful essays in light and shadow, and the attack of each phrase sends off little sparks. In the Minuet movement – again, quintessential Mozart playing – the very first note of the theme raises goosebumps, without making itself obvious. The finale – its rondo theme a roulade of notes with a little kick and a wink at the end – conjures up the world of opera buffa and especially Figaro. Szell also draws lines between this and something like Beethoven's Seventh. Light as sea-froth, it seems to fly, and yet the measured tempo isn't all that fast. I've tried to discover why, and the best I can do is to suppose that when an ensemble is that together, when articulation is that sharp, you lose the drag of stutter and smear.
The mono readings (both from 1955) show the ensemble even tighter than in 1947. Furthermore, the orchestra sound has acquired sinew. Compared to the later stereo remakes, these readings are weightier, more athletic, slightly edgier, but less detailed. Szell relaxed just a hair in the interval. One might even say, relatively speaking, that he mellowed – not merely a bastard, but a bastard comfortable in his own skin. All these accounts move me, but I do prefer some to others. The mono Symphony #40 conjures up more storm clouds than its stereo sibling, which I find appropriate to the character of the music. However, as good as the mono "Jupiter" is, the stereo account reveals more of the masterpiece. The refinement, the subtle shades in each line, the drama of line against line take us far from the view of Mozart as musical idiot savant.
I've never heard a better Figaro overture than Szell's, making me pine for the lost opportunity of a recording from him of the complete opera. I'll have to settle for Giulini, I suppose. In Szell's reading, notice the distinctiveness of each note in the opening phrase, without weight, and the curiously nervous sense of expectancy, the sharpness of the little stings and whirs from the strings in the second subject, terrifically galvanizing without coming across like a jab in the ribs. Climaxes are beautifully built and just as beautifully moved away from. Many orchestras can do the first. Great orchestras do the second. Indeed, the entire dynamic range of this reading, the gorgeous textural shifts – from delicate to full – surpass any other reading I know, without violating classical proportions.
This applies as well to the less-encountered Symphony #28, which Glenn Gould – not normally fond of Mozart – called a masterpiece. Our concert and listening life focus on the last six symphonies, but Mozart wrote very good ones from the mid-20s on. His earlier items I find good examples of what most composers were writing at the time. They show him learning both the genre and the classical style, since really early Mozart owed far more to Handel than to Haydn. By Symphony #25, at least, he's got it down. The form begins to change in his hands, moving from a divertissement to a vehicle for high musical argument. Mozart, of course, follows the direction Haydn set. I admire Haydn tremendously. In many ways, I think him Mozart's superior. But even I have to admit that he never wrote a symphony as profound as Mozart's #39, and #28 is a superior symphony along Haydn's lines.
Szell's recording, from the early Sixties, represents his golden period. The orchestral sounds preternaturally clear, everyone moving together and with such awareness of one another that you get the idea of a great keyboard player or guitarist whose musical intention never runs into a hitch on the route from mind to fingers. The clarity you might expect, but listen to the warmth of the opening movement's second subject. The temperature gets raised in the second-movement Adagio – a heartbreaking beauty sans chicken fat. One feels a lot of "air" around the lines, as well as tremendous energy held in reserve, that peeks through in the weight of cadential phrases, which "bounce" a little. It reminds me of the grace of an airship – massive, yet serene. This largely comes from Szell's magnificent bass section, sending out discreet, fluffy booms. These guys contribute much more than harmonic function; the chamber approach affects every section. In the third movement, note the mastery of dynamic contrasts. Indeed, Szell turns the movement into a thoughtful study of dynamics – not only soft-to-loud, but loud-to-soft, both sudden and smooth. In the finale, Szell builds up plenty of fizz, but notice as well how he gets the music to breathe, especially in the second subject. Not many conductors do this today. I don't know whether it represents a change in interpretive approach or a lost art.
Szell's music-making changed as he elaborated his vision. From the cross-breeding of Europe and America, he moved to speaking of chamber music as a metaphor, and perhaps something more than that. There's no question that he considered chamber playing a necessity in a musician's education. In fact, he sent a well-regarded young American piano virtuoso to Marlboro to put in some time before his Cleveland debut. The pianist became a chamber-music (and Marlboro) enthusiast, returning to the festival summer after summer. Szell's notion began like a thought experiment. We have experienced the unity of a soloist, a duet, a trio, and a quartet. What if we could keep adding players and retain that unity? Eventually we build an orchestra, and the orchestra becomes a simple extension of a duet. Of course, in practice, few orchestras have ever achieved this goal. I doubt many conductors even consciously pursued this. Fritz Reiner, a conductor I admire and Szell's technical equal, nevertheless gets a different kind of clarity from his orchestras. His process begins, not with the single player, but with the entire orchestra. Consequently, the ensemble is unanimous and well-balanced, but the musical line lacks Szell's extreme flexibility.
The Divertimento #2 shows this pretty well. Mozart builds the piece largely through the contrasts among two chamber groups – winds vs. massed French horns – and the strings. We get seamless back-and-forths between soloists and strings in the first movement, similar to the conversation between strings and piano in a piano quintet. The horn quartet in the second minuet sounds not only full, but musical. However, Szell reaches the sublime in the slow second movement, for strings alone. There's no reaching for effect. It's as if the music merely speaks for itself. If so, why is this so obviously the finest account of this piece? The same goes double for Szell's Sinfonia Concertante. I can't tell you how many boring performances of this score I've come across from interpreters who for some reason believe that a suave, bland wash over everything gets the job done. Szell shows you the incredible power in the piece, lifting it from elegant entertainment to 18th-century tragedy, particularly in yet another killer slow movement. Here and there, one encounters the pietist undercurrents that led to Romanticism and which Szell usually ignored. For some reason, he hits them here. He also makes you appreciate this as one of Mozart's most beautifully-orchestrated works. The color shifts are subtle yet noticeable and create patterns of interest on their own. Soloists Rafael Druian and Abraham Skernick deliver their part as a conversation of equals, though not twins. Druian has an edge to his tone that Skernick doesn't match, and it's all to the good, as far as I'm concerned. The difference extends the variety of color and drama.
The set by no means gets all of Szell's commercially-recorded Mozart. The account of the Fifth Violin Concerto with Stern and the piano concerto series with Serkin and Casadesus are conspicuous by their absence, and most of the other stuff belongs to other labels. However, Sony does come up with two interesting addenda. Louis Lane, a woefully-underrated conductor who served as one of Szell's Associates and who made some of the most enjoyable LPs in my late, lamented collection, leads the D-major Divertimento with Druian. The work curiously combines a suite with a violin concerto. Robert Shaw apprenticed himself to Szell as another Cleveland Associate. Cleveland got to lick the gravy of a chorus as good as Hillis's Chicago Symphony. The clarity of orchestral sound in both owes a lot to Szell. Lane absorbs much of the rhythmic approach. He also gives you the overall line of a passage, just as Szell does, although with less in the way of moment-to-moment detail. It reminds me a bit of Szell in the Fifties, although Lane records more than a decade later. Still, he makes a jewel of a piece that hadn't previously struck me as anything much.
Shaw, on the other hand, seems more personal in his bit from Mozart's Requiem. I believe this originally appeared on the RCA LP Hallelujah! – a collection of blockbuster sacred choruses, still available on CD (RCA Victor Living Stereo 63709). The orchestra sounds bigger and fuller, closer to Brahms than to Mozart. The choir is good, but not as hair-raisingly precise as it often could be. The "Lacrimosa" has problems every choir must overcome. Mozart deliberately cuts phrases short, while aiming for a long line overall. These two tendencies fight each other throughout the piece. Sometimes the choir falls into the trap of giving us little separate sausages of notes rather than that long line. It's a good, rather than a great job.
The other highlights Szell, the chamber musician. Given the importance Szell attached to the genre, it surprises me that he made so few chamber recordings. These accounts come from mid-career and near career end. He partners members of the Budapest String quartet and his then-concertmaster, Rafael Druian.
To take the latter first: The Sonatas for Piano and Violin (to give them their due title) are rarely done that way. The violinist is the star and the pianist the sidekick. Szell and Druian turn this around, and they shocked me. I first thought of Szell, "Why don't you pick on somebody your own size?" Then I realized that Mozart indeed wrote the sonatas this way, with the violin in a supporting role. The uncanny unanimity of articulation between both players is there, as one expects, but there's also a range of and delight in color from both instruments that comes as a genuine surprise, if one considers the normal rap against Szell. What comes through most of all, however, is the joy in the music-making. These sonatas, to a large extent, live in Papageno's woods, and Szell and Druian make the most of their visit.
The piano quartets come from another neighborhood altogether. The first, dark and dramatic, has overtones of the tragedy of the Symphony #40, also in g-minor. I would call the reading fine, but not exceptional, a meat-and-potatoes approach that smoothes over the considerable eccentricities of the work. The second, in E-flat, has some of the monumentality of the "Jupiter" symphony, captured by Szell and the Budapest. The performance raises an interesting point. The Budapest lends a "literalist" element. Szell, however, supplies Romantic touches, pushing the work toward Beethoven. Perhaps his affinity for Schumann, Wagner, and Strauss isn't so strange, after all.
All in all, I welcome the set. It strikes me as essential to a classical collection, a locus classicus of Mozart playing, and the sound quality improves on the original LPs by quite a bit. Eric Kisch of the radio program Musical Passions, provides an elegant and informed appreciation of Szell. However, Sony has just purged three-quarters of its classical division, mainly because their pop sections are bleeding money, and we all know Nobody Buys Classical Music. Consequently, don't look for either more releases like this or even for this set to hang around all that long. ArkivMusic sells it for roughly $80, but I have seen it on the Internet at CDUniverse for as little as $58, American.
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz