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CD Review

Lucerne Festival

Historic Performances

Czech Philharmonic Orchestra/George Szell
* Swiss Festival Orchestra/George Szell
Audite Historic Performances 95.625
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This is the stuff that legends are made of. Receiving their first outing on disc, both live performances from the Lucerne Festival feature a flexibility and spontaneity that rockets them to the top of the heap. In each work, the competition comes directly from Szell himself, as these are pieces that he recorded numerous times throughout his storied career. Great at those are, the additional warmth and excitement of being live is evident in nearly every bar.

In the Dvořák, Szell's three(!) studio recordings are all special, and his middle rendition on Sony Classical is reference material for collectors around the world. This was Szell's last concert at Lucerne before his death in 1970, but you would never know it. The great Czech Philharmonic plays gloriously, with astonishingly luminous winds and some of the most beautiful string tone that I've ever heard. Compared with this, the terrific Cleveland account sounds a touch plain. The opening movement builds almost hesitantly, contrasting with the sheer perfection of that earlier Sony reading. By the time the movement is over, there's no doubt that this is a Szell specialty. Listen to how much more elastic this second movement Adagio is compared to the studio efforts. Ditto for a flowing, fabulously balanced third movement, which sets the stage for a wonderful finale. The playing is somewhat less than perfect, but so preferable is that to Szell's occasional coldness that I'll take it. The closing pages are a knockout, and the end result is as satisfying a take on this symphony as you are likely to find. The live audience is soon forgotten until the applause at the close, and the sound is remarkably clear for the source.

Szell's Brahms is equally well regarded, although I find him more consistent in Dvořák. Still, his 1st Symphony in Cleveland has been issued over and over with good reason. This performance betters it. Despite less alluring overall ensemble from the "Swiss Festival Orchestra" and less pleasing sound in 1962, all the hallmarks of the great conductor's style are here. As in the Dvořák, there is a noticeable increase in Szell's willingness to relax and let the music flow. The account is gloriously natural and seems to capture so much more of Brahms' humanity than does the studio version. Again, you miss the unique and nearly machine like qualities of Szell's Cleveland players, but I'll take the added thrills and musical insights any day. The inner movements are less stiff in every respect, with wonderfully bucolic phrasing from the winds, and quite a bit more daring from the podium. The outer movements get your pulse racing, and once again, the closing pages are a musical joy.

Audite has done us a great service with this disc, though God only knows why it hasn't been out before. Overall, this is a remarkable memento of Szell's undisputed mastery of this music, and a document that shows a side of him we just don't see (or hear) very often. A must!

Copyright © 2013, Brian Wigman