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CD Review

Ludwig van Beethoven

BBC 4155
  • Symphony #8 in F Major, Op. 93
  • Symphony #9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral"
Heather Harper, soprano
Dame Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano
Ronald Dowd, tenor
Franz Crass, bass
New Philharmonia Orchestra & Chorus/George Szell
BBC Legends BBCL4155-2 2CDs 97m ADD
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When George Szell died in 1970 at the age of 73, he bequeathed the musical world a number of magnificent recordings, many of which are still regarded as benchmark interpretations. Whatever the case, it is always an event to have a new issue from the Hungarian maestro made available for our enjoyment and delight. This album is both and more, in spite of the variable sound quality, which is, I must say, pretty poor at times and also the protracted playing time of the first disc. Running at just over 27 minutes, it is a mean affair indeed, particularly by today's standards, when CD's can take up to 80 minutes.

Still, notwithstanding these reservations, the album is worth its weight in gold, particularly when one considers that Szell was 71 when these recordings were made. Conducting the last two Beethoven symphonies in one evening does not only show an impassioned dedication towards his art but also a bewildering amount of energy and stamina. When Szell became conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1946, he kept this post till the end of his life in 1970. But he was frequently invited to guest conduct with other orchestras, and one such occasion was in November 1968 when he came over to London to direct three concerts at the Royal Festival Hall. This issue is that of the second concert taped on the 12th of November of that same year. The performance of both works is remarkably impressive and the Eighth, considered by many to be 'the little' is not little at all, for in Szell's hands, one can discover a sinewy, tight and closely knit structure which in places, has its light touches as well.

In the Ninth, the Maestro displays a different level of strength, a forward looking momentum added to a structural command that is both memorable and powerful. When warranted, Szell is also lyrical and sensitive with particular emphasis on the third movement, and in so doing, the final result is one of immense balance and articulation. The Philharmonia forces and soloists play and sing their hearts out, and with Szell's rigorously disciplined approach spurring them on, they are able to achieve an interpretation of immeasurable beauty and intensity. Musically, this is a document for posterity, albeit preserved in limited sound quality.

Copyright © 2005, Gerald Fenech

Trumpet