For the most part, Sony Classical has eliminated its "Masterworks" series for the newer "Originals" batch. That means that the two-disc set that included Symphonies 7, 8, and 9 is mostly unavailable and leaves us with this single disc issue. Both this Sony issue and Szell's Dvořák 8th on EMI have been reviewed here on ClassicalNet, but only the EMI issue was covered in detail. Szell was a remarkably consistent conductor of the great Czech composer, and all of his recordings are prized by collectors for their unique combination of accuracy, warmth, and power.
Szell's 9th comes first, and it's a remarkable reading. The legendary chamber-like balances that made his Beethoven and Mozart so special remain in tact, with absolute pinpoint precision. Yet just as his Mozart surprises with gentility and a dash of humor, so too are these performances full of character and wit. There are so many terrific renditions of this work, including his famous label mates Bernstein and Ormandy, that you really do need several different approaches if you love these pieces. Szell scores points for an unusual clarity of texture and unsentimental focus, allied to nearly unparalleled orchestral execution. It trumps Ormandy's sometimes string heavy sound, or Bernstein's occasional roughness.
If anything, the 8th is even better, as the chamber approach gives the work both a directness and panache that is entirely welcome. So many conductors stumble with this work, but not Szell. The Cleveland winds sound amazing, and even if the remastering doesn't differ greatly from the Masterworks issue, its some of the best sound this team ever got. The 8th was clearly a favorite of the maestro; aside from the EMI recording, there's a fine mono version on Decca with the Concertgebouw that would probably be a reference edition were it not for limited sound and immortal accounts pouring out of Czechoslovakia around the same time. On the other hand, Szell's Czech Philharmonic 9th is underrated and shows many of the same qualities as the Sony issue here. Whatever ensemble, coupling, or issue you choose, Szell's Dvořák belongs on your shelf.
Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman