Summary for the Busy Executive: Even better this time around.
As far as I know, Szell's set of Beethoven's symphonies has never left the catalogue. Sony/CBS/Columbia/Epic has made money from it for at least four decades. I had the original LPs, with the best liner notes on anything (let alone Beethoven) I've ever read, by composer and chief annotator for the Cleveland Orchestra Klaus George Roy. This is part of Sony's "Original Jacket" series, which explains the inclusion of the Mozart Jupiter, which originally appeared coupled with Beethoven's Fifth. I don't mind seeing this performance again, but it has appeared on the "Original Jacket" Szell Mozart boxed set. Perhaps Sony carried the concept a bit too far. Why not one of the piano concerti or perhaps a concert recording of the violin concerto?
I grew up in Cleveland during the Szell years, and Szell fundamentally shaped both the way I listen to music and my expectations of music performance. He has remained one of my musical heroes, as have several individual members of his orchestra. I couldn't have told you the starting lineups of either the Cleveland Indians or the Cleveland Browns back then, but I made it my business to find out who played in the Cleveland Orchestra. I got involved in the Beethoven symphonies through Szell's recordings, and despite the sets I've listened to since, I still find his readings absolutely central. Younger generations of conductors have gone over these recordings with Talmudic intensity, as they have with those of Toscanini and Furtwängler. So apparently I don't merely ride my usual hobby horse here, or at least I've got company in the saddle.
I have never believed in One Beethoven. To me, a lot of roads lead to Nirvana. However, in the early stereo era, there really wasn't much to choose from. Most recordings used the same types of forces with many of the same assumptions. Historically Informed Performance was a crazy gleam in fringe musicologists' eyes, and it seemed to have the same chance of penetrating the concert hall as a feather on the breath of God (how wrong we were!). Older recordings struck most people as a recherché way to spend one's time, particularly if you owned a high-end stereo rig. CDs have gone a long way to changing this attitude. Thus, the complete Beethoven sets'way back when offered a constricted interpretive range. Still, the only conductor from the same era whose Beethoven has lasted as long as Szell's is Karajan, who made at least three stereo traversals of the symphonies. I've never particularly cared for any of the Karajan sets I've heard, although I find myself most partial to the DG recordings from the early Sixties. That Ninth, in particular, is one of my favorites. Overall, however, I would describe Karajan's readings as too smooth by half. Beethoven's music, after all, bristles with "edges." Transitions and contrasts are both abrupt and stark. When I listen to Karajan's Beethoven, I imagine a burgher in his living room smiling, secure in the knowledge that, Gott sei gelobt, he's getting Culture with a capital C. I hear a stamp of official consumer-institute approval, rather than any intellectual or, God knows, visceral excitement. People often accuse Karajan of trying to create a cult of personality, but the personality that comes out in so many of his recordings is bland and corporate. Above all, Beethoven encourages independent thinking on the part of performers, even those Toscanini disciples who aim to create the illusion "Beethoven's music as he imagined it" don't all sound alike – Toscanini and Szell two notable examples.
Szell's Beethoven doesn't completely jibe with my ideal, but his view definitely belongs to him, and when I think of Beethoven in a sustained way, I often hear in my head Szell's readings illustrating those thoughts. Those who know Szell's work usually praise or condemn it on the grounds of "precision," as if precision either guaranteed high quality or sucked the life out of a performance. I tend to believe that it's nice to hear what a composer actually wrote and that sloppiness doesn't mean soul, but precision itself means little to me. Szell's precision – and, for sheer playing, his Cleveland Orchestra excelled every other orchestra of its era, including Berlin and Chicago – isn't simply lagniappe, but the spring of many other virtues. Szell's readings here vibrate in a tension between elegance and drive, both reinforced by the orchestra's precision.
What first breaks into my consciousness as I listen to the opening of the Symphony #1 is, "What fantastic first violins!" Actually, "What a fabulous first violin section!" They play as one, with enormous suppleness. The Philadelphia string section may have played more sumptuously, the Vienna Philharmonic with slightly more warmth, but you may not want either in a symphony so close to Haydn and Mozart. Keep in mind that the introduction, although beloved of musicologists, doesn't usually constitute a high point of this symphony, but Szell's traversal of it, with gorgeous wind solos, from the very beginning sets a standard higher than any other I've heard. The first movement, lean and muscular, springs like a terrier. The second, a Haydnesque larghetto, verges on minuet, as scraps coalesce into a full melody with accompaniment. In this movement, the winds take one's breath away. Their ensembles are perfect in their balance and fit, and extremely short solos of two notes suffice to establish these players as masters. The named Minuet is, of course, no minuet at all, but the first example of the full-blown Beethoven symphonic scherzo, an apotheosis of the hunt. We're not in Haydnland any more. It's got plenty of drive, although Szell doesn't take it particularly fast. The crescendos move with inexorability, but they never, even at the climax, bluster. They succeed in part because the orchestra diminuendos seamlessly and in full dynamic control. The trio, when it comes, features that fantastic Cleveland wind section and approaches, but never crosses into, sumptuousness. "Measure" is the key here, although it doesn't preclude excitement. One can say the same for the finale, one of Beethoven's wittiest. Here and there, Szell manages to bring out similarities between it and those of the Mozart #39 and #41. It begins tentatively with an idea that suddenly gathers and speeds up into the opening of the main idea, like a whip about to crack. Again, it has all the power any reasonable person wants and subtlety besides. One really fine moment occurs at the climax of the opening allegro and the quiet transition to its repeat, all without a stumble or a sudden collapse. It's as if you suddenly found yourself a few thousand feet lower, and yet with full support. Above all, Szell gives you a reading full of historical imagination. Beethoven probably did not hear this symphony in his head as Szell gives it to us, but it certainly conjures up the world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It takes a musician of immense culture to pull something like this off.
It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the second is the least-performed of Beethoven's nine symphonies. I consider it long misunderstood as "merry" or even "lightweight." Many nineteenth-century critics, for example, thought of it as the last time Beethoven would compose music anybody would consider beautiful. It comes from the same period as the Heiligenstadt Testament, the composer's cri du coeur after he realized he was going deaf. The usual line runs that none of Beethoven's anguish comes through in the symphony. To me, the symphony is all "about" how life gets fouled up. It strikes me as the most personal symphony in the cycle, the one where Beethoven for once doesn't assume a public persona. The first movement is practically bi-polar. The same themes continually get treated first in a major, and then in a minor mode, and Beethoven juxtaposes their treatments with maximum contrast. The slow movement, one of Beethoven's loveliest, contains the seeds of Mendelssohn's lyricism. It begins practically breathing the air of Elysium, but once again comes under the cloud of a minor mode, and much of its drama comes down to which mode wins out. Szell's account of the scherzo is, once again, beautifully proportioned, with real care given to its dynamic shape. It neither needs to yell or to boom to make its point, and the trio is pure joy. In terms of the narrative of the entire symphony, this is the manic movement of the symphony, with its various parts logically sequent but fragmented. The finale again reminds me of its counterpart in the Mozart Symphony #39, only this time the flick of the thematic tail occurs at the beginning of the theme, rather than at the end, as in the Mozart. One would hope for some resolution, but that bus never arrives. We get the same major-minor treatment of themes as in previous movements. Nevertheless, Beethoven works up a more or less heroic ending (mock-heroic comes nearer the truth). Like most conductors, Szell gets the symphony's wit, but not its pathos. The only reading I've heard that embraces this view is Harmoncourt's on Teldec.
I should say that I've never heard a recording of the Eroica (and there are tons of them out there) that satisfied me. In fact, for a long time, I thought I disliked the work itself, until I heard a marvelous live performance by Klauspeter Seibel and the Louisiana Philharmonic – a surprise, because most people wouldn't think of these forces as the A-team. Nevertheless, this account makes more musical sense than any first-rank recording I've heard. The first two movements make or break a reading. The first movement runs so long that sometimes conductors forget where they are and become incoherent. The second-movement funeral march has become so iconographic that conductors tend to lay on Significance with a trowel.
Szell takes the first movement at a pretty fair clip but, like just about everybody else, loses focus, mainly by failing to emphasize a motive that deceives him into mistaking it for a mere transition. In fact, it's a significant part of the movement's spine. I must say, however, Szell's ending is nothing short of magnificent. His handling of Beethoven's counterpoint – his understanding of how it functions – takes a back seat to nobody. Again, it's the coalescing of scraps into an overwhelming texture that impresses here, and Szell's willingness to risk the charge of scrappiness at the beginning, rather than insisting on Magnificence all the time, makes the effect. In the funeral march, Szell's power to let the music speak without the symbolic baggage it has accumulated strikes me first. Actually, what really strikes me first is once again, "What a great string section!" followed by "What fantastic woodwind soloists!" – especially, because of his prominence, the first oboe (Marc Lifschey). Szell offers something somber but not ponderous – in the context of so many other readings, almost chaste. Funerals are, for once, a serious and not a theatrical business. Szell sounds the main note of stoicism but manages to slip in sharp stabs of pain, almost gone before they register. The orchestra, flexible and graceful as Chaplin, practically melts into the lighter moments and yet can build climaxes of shattering intensity. Paradoxically, the high end of the dynamic level isn't as loud as some I've heard, yet packs as big a wallop.
Szell lets me down a bit in the scherzo. He holds back too much. To me, this is an obsessive movement, driven by intense little eighth-note seconds in the accompanying strings. Others let fly, which I think almost right. Best of all would have been Szell's control coupled with his usual concentration of energy. However, I forgive him everything at the trio, with its massed horns – power without pomposity, for once. Furthermore, in the finale, Szell gives a lesson in how to build a long movement. The variations individually come off well, but you never doubt their place in the overall design. He brings it off, of course, by absolute dynamic control, both at the macro-level of the paragraph and at the micro-level of the individual phrase. Actually, in this reading I love best the quieter, slower sections (contrary to my usual shallow preference for slam-bang). They draw me in, before finally giving me the final shove into the brass salvoes. For my money, the most beautifully shaped Eroica finale out there.
Schumann once called the Fourth Symphony "a Greek maiden between two Norse giants," ie, the Third and Fifth. Despite my enormous regard for Schumann's criticism, I've never made sense of this remark, particularly in light of the first movement. It begins with a long, sober introduction, which finally breaks into a raucous horse laugh of an allegro (based on the intro, by the way). This movement flummoxes many conductors, who have little idea what to make of it. Psychologically, we've got the humor equivalent of Benny Hill within an extremely witty purely musical context – sort of like hearing Noël Coward making fart jokes or Larry the Cable Guy delivering Wildean epigrams. Szell, fortunately, is not too refined for his own good. He gets both the coarse humor and the wit. The slow second movement probably counts as my least favorite of the cycle, although writers looking for the Immortal Beloved (good luck!) have jonesed on it. Usually, I fall asleep about a third of the way through. At least Szell keeps me awake, with a lyrical line more suave than Cary Grant. More roughhouse breaks in at the scherzo, but Szell reserves his power for the trio. He stretches the musical line to the point where it seems to always have somewhere else to go – always opening out to something new. The fourth movement takes a swirling idea of sixteenths – sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background. It doesn't always sound, but Szell always keeps it in your mind. I've heard more frantic performances, but none with this combination of excitement and architectural smarts. I should also mention, yet again, the strings and also the kettledrums (the legendary Cloyd Duff), who put immense space around this music, as well as principal bassoonist George Goslee, a player with beautiful tone and terrific line. Along with principal clarinet Robert Marcellus, he represents to me the exemplar of the Szell musician.
I admit I have never heard a bad performance of Beethoven's Fifth. Even Jorge Mester's joke reading for Peter Schickele and Bob Dennis sounds pretty good to me. It strikes me as a symphony that almost plays itself. At this stage, we're talking about fine points of wonderful.
Szell's first movement won't appeal to those who want a weeping, wailing, and gnashing of teeth. Instead, Szell aims for a classical sense of tragedy, and the reading of the entire symphony retains those proportions. For me, the high points of the first movement are the quieter moments – the major second subject, for example – and from the false fugal entry to the end. The second movement moves with lithe grace, never getting bogged down in gooey sentiment. Nevertheless, there's reasonable power at the trumpet entries, and the contrapuntal passages almost suspend time. Those who want the first movement to rock their world will also likely meet with disappointment in the third movement. Szell avoids the usual steroids in favor of restraint. This pays off in the transition to the finale, where the music holds its breath before bursting forth in a blaze of brass. The level isn't all that loud (if you want volume, dial up your amp), but it's got plenty of power. Furthermore, the transitions from loud to soft and back again will thrill you and lead to massive climaxes, all without yelling. For me, the highlight of the performance once again occurs near the end, with the chirping of the flutes and other winds, as they begin the rush to the concluding bars.
I love the "Pastoral" Sixth. For me, the really difficult movement is the last. It's so simple and direct, conductors can't hide behind a waterfall of notes or Big Emotions. It really tests musicality. Szell's account of the symphony eschews sentimentality. If you want happy peasants, Disney centaurs, and babbling brooks, go elsewhere. Szell emphasizes Beethoven as symphonist, rather than as illustrator. The reading doesn't lack magic, but it's musical magic – delicate, wildflower textures, long singing lines, crisp dances. Szell also gives us insight into the composer's symphonic practice – that the first movement, for example, springs entirely from the opening tune, and that the famous "birds" passage in the second movement not only has a structural function, but that Beethoven prepares us for it earlier and throughout. The third movement stands out for its oboe and clarinet solos (Marc Lifschey and Robert Marcellus). The "storm" movement interests me the least, no matter whom I've heard conducting it, although it always delivers sharp thrills. The finale, the biggest challenge in the symphony, arrives with nobility and without mawkishness. All in all, a patrician reading.
Wagner, famously, called the Seventh "the apotheosis of the dance," another remark I've never completely understood. Isadora Duncan took him literally and actually danced to the thing. All that aside, however, if ever a Beethoven symphony was made for Szell, this one's it, and the conductor doesn't disappoint. The first movement gives off the impression not only of power, but immense power in reserve – from the long, spacious introduction, to the breaking forth of the main idea. Forget Mozart's "Jupiter," this movement strongly evokes the Olympian on his throne. Despite Szell's customary elegance, you feel the rhythm in your guts. The first movement grabs you by your collar, and you feel yourself flying. The second movement, one of Beethoven's genuine hits during his lifetime and which so impressed Schubert, often fails because conductors hit the rhythmic idée fixe way too hard. The rest of the movement tends to get lost as they twiddle their thumbs waiting for the next climax. Szell stresses alternate melodies and counterpoint, with a heart-stopping fugal buildup toward the end. Again, those fabulous first-desk winds (plus Myron Bloom playing horn with chamber-like discretion and sophistication) take center stage. The scherzo probably qualifies as one of the most manic in the set. I'd almost say Szell lets go, but that implies a loss of control. Indeed, the frenzy of the thing increases precisely because Szell keeps control. Attacks snap, the line crackles, all because rhythm is so tight. The trio arrives as an island of immense calm and stability. You can't conceive how the music will return to its frenzy, but return it does, zipping off like the Road Runner. Calm? What calm?
In the finale, Beethoven flirts with disintegration, a pattern increasingly prominent in his late period. The music consists of fragments, and the musical train threatens to break down. Szell skitters close to the edge without falling over. His line has so much energy, the music never really stops. Indeed, he manages even more intensity after the pivot notes have sounded. An astonishing performance.
For years, critics had flogged Beethoven's symphonies as grossly out-of-scale, misshapen grotesqueries. With the Eighth, the composer returned to the proportions, at any rate, of the Haydn symphony. Critics then landed on him for writing something so trivial. He couldn't win or write in any vein without somebody telling him he was doing it wrong. This symphony gets characterized – wrongly, I believe – as "merry." Although it does have its clever and droll side, I find far more prominent, in the first movement especially, a cosmic, elemental quality. Beethoven writes with a concentration which increases the power of his ideas. I know of no composer better able to evoke immensities of scale in so few notes. Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler are downright windbags in comparison. Mendelssohn is often as economical, but not as powerful. Szell takes the first movement as if it were Eroica, Part II, with that same buoyant, rolling gait, almost like a Zeppelin taking off. The second movement, "Allegretto scherzando," makes jokes about scale. A very delicate idea begins in the high strings and winds. Beethoven then turns it over to the heavier cellos and basses – Bottom among the fairies, if you like. He even turns this around by giving weightier ideas to the lighter strings – the sprites mocking Bottom. I doubt whether Haydn would have recognized the third movement by Beethoven's title of minuet. It stands a long way from the court dance, or any dance, for that matter. Some conductors inflate it like Rudyard Kipling's frog. No worries about Szell. He reserves his fire for the trio, a gust of full-blown Romanticism before others jumped on the wagon, beautifully expansive. First horn Myron Bloom sends out lines that stretch forever. For the finale, Szell gives us what Tovey described as "the laughter of the blessed gods." Beethoven essentially takes the tropes of martial music and turns them into something supremely comic, an awe-inspiring blend of lightness and muscle. A high point of the set.
As with the Eroica, I can find fault with every recording of this I've heard, on the grounds of interpretation, playing, or sound quality. A great many Ninths act as if they can't wait to get to the choral finale, the other movements merely necessary stations on the way to the Ascension. To me, the hardest movements are the first and the slow third. Apparently, conductors can easily lose their way in the first and run out of gas before the end of the third.
As fine as it is, Szell's Ninth just misses, I think, something extraordinary. It comes down to the first movement. At the beginning, one gets a sense of tremendous expectation, like holding your breath as you wait for catastrophe. One can find much to admire here – from the crisp rhythms rapped out by the brass and strings, the perfect ensemble, the contrapuntal clarity, and Szell's ability to sing the lyrical parts of the movement without getting soppy. However, Szell's usual classical restraint seems to me a mistake here. Beethoven has left the black-and-white Kansas of classicism behind. He's definitely striving for something new, even new to himself – wilder, more turbulent, less inhibited. Szell's account misses that extra ounce of oomph in the climaxes. It's a lost opportunity, because his readings of the other movements surpass all but a few and indeed emphasize Beethoven's new turmoil, without losing proportion and control. Some conductors give you excitement by pushing past the breaking point. Normally, Szell increases the vitality of his readings by exercising greater control. He twists up to and never past the breaking point. I prefer his way. In this case, however, control becomes caution. We miss the daring of the orchestra dancing on the edge.
The scherzo usually comes off in even middling accounts. However, Szell makes it a locus classicus of Beethoven playing. The contrapuntal entries crackle with electricity. Cloyd Duff's asymmetrical booms from his timpani knock you on your pins, and climaxes build inexorably. Even more magic happens at the trio with the five wind principals – Sharp on flute, Lifschey on oboe, clarinetist Marcellus, bassoonist Goslee (with a wonderful bubbling line), and Bloom on french horn – five stellar soloists who also happen to be superb chamber players (the two don't always go together). At the trio, the music begins to breathe like nobody's business, and you ride a musical wave that seems to roll forever. As marvelous as that passage is, the entrance of the lower strings caps it, and the orchestra drives home its identity as a virtuoso ensemble of virtuoso and extraordinarily intelligent musicians.
The Adagio sinks many a performance, mainly because conductors seem to lose interest 'way before the end and then have to find it again. Szell, on the other hand, delivers the apotheosis of the Beethoven adagio – that Platonic ideal so lovingly evoked by Elgar in his "Nimrod" variation. Szell however does it with Beethoven himself. The movement opens with those solo winds alternating with the equally incredible strings, opening up a line that soars all the way to Hudson Bay. The account yields a richness almost like no other, mainly due to Szell's care with the "subsidiary" theme. Many other conductors concern themselves only with the primary strain and mark time until it reappears. Szell mines the profound implications of both – a double whammy if you will. How Szell ever got a reputation for "coldness," I have no idea. This movement will shatter your heart.
Of course the choral finale has the most glitz and once upon a time gave performers a great deal of trouble. Even today, some singers have difficulty with the florid soloist passages, but by and large, professional conductors and players know by now how this movement goes. I tend to dislike the Big Bow-Wow or the Kosmic Kum-Ba-Ya approach, and, yes, I do know what the lyrics mean. But so many recordings come across like Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian reciting Hamlet. This says nothing against Hamlet (or Beethoven's finale, for that matter) but against chewing the scenery. For me, this movement constitutes one of Szell's greatest performances. The piece is indeed "misshapen" from a classical viewpoint – deliberately so – but Szell finds the greater balance of it without sacrificing expression. This is not only joyous Beethoven, but wise Beethoven as well. Again, we hear the concern for the long musical line. Beethoven issues the challenge to performers from the beginning: how does one find the long line in music that stops and starts, that proceeds by interrupting itself? With Szell, the pulse never stops. It's almost like a relay as one idea passes the baton of forward impulse to the next. Szell puts us on the shore of the Big Tune and initiates one of his best builds, with ravishing playing both from the strings, low and high, and from George Goslee's bassoon countermelody. The bass soloist's "Freude!" answered by the choral men seems shot from guns. It announces an exciting account. I would admit, however, that the individual voices of the solo quartet, excepting tenor Richard Lewis, aren't as glorious as some I've heard, but they definitely take the prize as best ensemble. And the chorus! Trained by Robert Shaw, they not only put out a tone as big as choral humankind, but also keep rhythm and sharp ensemble in the fleetest passages, matching the orchestra. Highlights of the movement include the first double fugue, the little march (especially Bernard Adelstein's elfin trumpet, playing perhaps only two different notes), among many others. I've sung the Ninth many times, so I have some idea of the choral difficulties – the strangled high notes on "über Sternenzelt," the sheer stamina you need for the softer passages after you've just screamed your guts out. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus says, "Problems? What problems?" Along with those built by Wilhelm Pitz in England, it had to be one of the great large choirs of its day. The prestissimo flight to the end predictably gets your adrenaline going, but here it moves with greater power at slightly less speed than what you often hear. Szell prepares for this moment, ratcheting up tension at the merely fast-as-hell places. By the time we get to the final burst out of the gate, the spring can't wind any tighter. The music lets go in a rush. At the end, I wanted to yell and still can't figure out why I didn't. It's my house, after all.
We get the bonuses of Szell's Beethoven theater overtures and Louis Lane's recording of The Creatures of Prometheus ballet. Szell's readings are, no surprise, intense and driven, dramatic in both senses of the term. Even König Stefan and Fidelio, which usually get such short shrift from commentators, blaze here. Lane has suffered from severe underrating and neglect. He was, with Shaw, Szell's Associate in Cleveland. He picked up some ideas from Szell, but he never merely copied. Beethoven's ballet score hardly counts as one of his best, but it does function as a kind of equivalent to Mozart's Les petits riens – lots of very short pieces, sixteen in all, with few opportunities for Beethoven to indulge in extensive development. The ballet appeared shortly after the First Symphony. Lane ladles on the charm, even when the material doesn't come up to what those of us indoctrinated by the symphonies, concerti, and big overtures might expect. The rhythmic sharpness is still there, although not as life-or-death as Szell in the symphonies, and sound is warmer. On the other hand, it's appropriate and, in many cases, fun. The big surprise for those who don't know the ballet lies in the finale, with an early appearance (and a much simpler treatment) of the "Eroica" theme from that symphony's last movement.
None of these readings fall below first rank. Szell's first, second, fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth are at least as good as anybody's. I prefer Carlos Kleiber's and Dohnányi's Fifth. The only Seventh I like better than Szell's is, again, Kleiber's, but that preference comes down to my personal vagaries rather than to an ontological difference in quality. Szell's Eroica suffers from many of the same problems as every other recording I've heard, but to less of an extent. My favorite Ninth, as far as interpretation goes, is Furtwängler's from 1951. You shouldn't rely on any one set of Beethovens. At least supplement it with individual recordings. The Szell set, however, is as good a candidate for an integral set as any I've heard.
Outside of an extremely short CD of the Eighth (less than 27 minutes), my main gripes are the almost-useless liner notes. There's a fine appreciation by Eric Kisch on Szell's Beethoven, but the notes to the individual CDs basically eviscerate the marvelous essays of Klaus George Roy, to the point where they say absolutely nothing. In the days of the LP, you could actually pick up a fair amount of musical knowledge from the back of album covers, often written by the top experts in the field. As far as I'm concerned, these CD liner notes are a cheat. I'm surprised Roy allowed his name anywhere near these things.
The sound improves on any previous incarnation – certainly better than my old Epic LPs, which sounded drier than saltines and tinnier than a box of Altoids. Of course, I didn't own state-of-the-art equipment back then (still don't), so my impressions may differ from others.
I have heard disquieting rumors that Sony may pull this set soon because, as we all know, nobody buys classical music in quantities that satisfy mega-corporations used to the sales figures of Justin Timberlake. Consider yourself warned.
Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz