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CD Review

Romantic Chamber Music

Budapest String Quartet
George Szell, piano
Moleux, double bass
Bridge Records BCD9062
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Miraculously right.

Two performances from the Library of Congress chamber music series of the middle 1940s. A Szell fanatic, I bought the disc because it featured Szell in a rare chamber recording. I grew up in Cleveland during the Szell years. I know all his commercial stereo records. I know of no better post-war conductor, although I have of course heard others as good in their own way. In fact, most of my prejudices about music and performance to some extent derive from Szell's practice. After I left Cleveland, I came under other influences, but I was always struck more by the fundamental similarities of these new lessons to what Szell had already taught me – from guides like Furtwängler, Koussevitzky, and Mengelberg – than by the differences. So take what follows with this in mind.

For some reason, other conductors, far inferior to Szell, have greater reputations. Of the U.S. Big Five orchestras, only Reiner's Chicago played in the same league as Szell's Cleveland. Everyone acknowledged the orchestra's precision, but of course precision doesn't suffice. If Szell offered only that, I wouldn't care either, but, fortunately, he had other virtues. The precision served and heightened the music. The unanimity of attack strengthened rhythmic excitement – Szell's music-making crackled – without impairing the singing quality of the line, and, of course, it's nice to hear what a composer actually wrote. For example, in Szell's recording at the opening measures of Strauss's Tod und Verklärung, the correct irregular rhythm – eighth, triplet rest, triplet eighth, triplet eighth tied to eighth; as opposed to eighth tied to eighth or triplet eighth tied to triplet eighth, as in just about every other recording – is clearly articulated for once. The orchestral texture of everything Szell conducted was unbelievably clear, aided again by razor-sharp rhythm and by each orchestra player aware of his proper strength in the ensemble. In comparison, most others' Wagners and Mahlers and Strausses sounded stodgy as Margaret Dumont droning on about Culture. I can't think of a greater Wagner conductor on record, and it is to the Met's discredit that from the Bing era on (marked by the mindless and the second-rate, which, by the way, characterizes the Met to this day), Szell never got to conduct there.

Szell had more subtle virtues as well, including an intense and flexible singing line which accommodated the smallest shifts of rubato and dynamics. One felt the music constantly moving forward, even as one felt microscopic hesitancies and pushes. Perhaps he got it from Mengelberg, just as he got his standards of precise execution from Toscanini. Perhaps he always had it. Right now, very few conductors seem to practice this particular art: Dohnányi, Rattle, Kleiber, Eschenbach, and, among younger conductors, Welser-Möst, Paul, and Nagano. Almost imperceptibly, the line of music changed under Szell's baton. It caught the listener from moment to moment. At the same time, like his precision, Szell's line served larger ends. Szell's musical mind was architectural: rigorously intellectual, historical, and poetic at the same time. His interpretations showed an architect's foresight, always making the musical structure palpable, even sensuous – all sculpted by the musical line. With conductors "in the moment" like Barbirolli or Bernstein, you sometimes ran out of room at the extremes of tempo and dynamics. The slow pulse broke down and the music temporarily died. The quick pulse derailed. If the music called for louder or softer, such a conductor sometimes had nowhere to go. Szell always seemed to know where he was and where he had to get to, which bespoke meticulous preparation. Many, I believe, mistook this care for emotional coldness. I confess I have no idea what they're talking about. He was elegant, but never cold. Yet even many of Szell's critics acknowledged his excellence in Strauss, Wagner, and Tchaikovsky – none of these composers normally regarded as unemotional.

With Szell, you almost never got the feeling of "interpretation," except in the rare cases when he failed – as in the first movement of his Hindemith Symphonic Metamorphoses recording. Of a Szell performance, I usually thought, "The music probably sounded this way in the composer's head." After all, Szell began as a composer himself. Although he wrote neo-Straussian pieces of great refinement – indeed, far better-written technically than any Strauss I know – he realized that the important thing separating his work from Strauss's was not refinement, but genius, and it was all on Strauss's side. Failing his own standards for composition, he devoted himself to the work of others. He tried for the impossible – to present the work as close as he could to the composer's imaginary ideal. He had no "sound" as such. His Mozart subtly differed from his Haydn (he excelled in both), and his Classicals differed from his early, middle, and late Romantics. Yet, he was no literalist. For example, he performed the Schumann symphonies in his own orchestration, not to imprint himself on the music, but to clarify the musical matter. He studied for many years the conditions of the symphonies' first performances and concluded that Schumann had tried to compensate for weak strings in the Dresden orchestra. Szell took a great deal of care to keep his changes to a minimum and close to the style of Schumann's successful original orchestrations, like the Piano Concerto. Many scholars and critics urged him to publish his editions, but he refused, feeling that each conductor must find his own way.

Szell's main strength lay in the Central European repertory, Classic and Romantic periods: Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann, Mendelssohn, Brahms, Grieg, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Smetana, Dvořák, and Sibelius – in other words, Bruckner and Mahler excepted. I don't believe he was particularly sympathetic to Bruckner, while his relationship to Mahler's music showed great ambiguity. The Mahler he did was superb, but one knew he really was no Mahlerite – that there were works he never would conduct. His French repertoire was variable, although he did magnificently with Ravel. His main limitation, as far as I'm concerned, was his lack of affinity for modern music. He recognized it, but he programmed it for guest conductors. He felt he didn't understand most of it, and if he couldn't present it in its best possible light, he preferred to leave it to others. Nevertheless, he performed more twentieth-century music than most think and always at his best. Prokofieff became a favorite. He championed Walton at a time when that composer's reputation had gone into decline. His performance and recording of the Symphony #2 turned around at least some of the critics who had panned it at its première, and he commissioned the late masterpieces of the Partita and the Variations on a Theme by Hindemith. He commissioned and performed Dutilleux, Mennin, the Polish serialist Tadeusz Baird, and Barber. His recording of the Barber Piano Concerto burns down the barn. He continually applied himself. He had confessed that the reason he had never performed Stravinsky's Le Sacre du printemps was because for a long time he couldn't handle the meters. Yet, about fifty years after that work's première, he led a blazing live performance in Severance Hall – my first exposure to the work in concert. I remember the rhythms going through my body, snapping my head back, long, gradual crescendos tightening the screws of tension, the orchestra visually overwhelming as well, like a giant, pulsating, fantastic engine. If recorded (and after a certain point, every Cleveland Orchestra concert was), it's never appeared commercially, more's the pity.

Several times, Szell spelled out his orchestral ideal – basically, super chamber music, the same unanimity of mind and purpose from great individual players expanded from a duo to a quartet to an octet to a symphony. He constantly ran toward that goal even as he knew he couldn't reach it. Thus, how he does in chamber music becomes an especially interesting question. Here, he plays with the Budapest String Quartet. I've heard string players grumble about this group – their intonation, articulation, and so on – but for me they play like magicians. Their performances overflow with magical moments. If I prefer overall the old Amadeus or Quartetto Italiano, I have to admit that neither group gives me the quite unearthly beauty of the Budapest in, say, the first movement of Schubert's C-major Quintet. If I admire the sheer pianism of, say, Pollini over Schnabel or Cortot, the latter nevertheless call forth a response from deeper caverns of my psyche. To me, the Budapest epitomizes the mystique of European musical "soul," particularly in German repertoire – superficially odd, since I believe every one of them came from either Russia or the Ukraine, certainly not from Buda or Pest.

The Brahms Piano Quintet underwent a complicated history. Originally a string quintet, it caused the composer to worry that a homogeneous sound of a few strings couldn't project some of the ideas forcefully enough. Brahms turned it into a sonata for two pianos, which fared badly at its first performance. Clara Schumann advised the composer that, in effect, he needed greater contrast and suggested a revision for full orchestra. Brahms followed the spirit rather than the letter of the recommendation and came up with the Piano Quintet. The piano could provide power and, against the strings, contrast and additional color. The two-piano sonata still survives as Op. 34a. Unfortunately – considering that Brahms' string quintets stand among his greatest chamber works – the string quintet version of this piano quintet does not. Brahms acolyte, Donald Tovey called the final version "powerfully tragic," "the climax of Brahms' first maturity… the most sonorous of all works for pianoforte and strings, and yet the most lightly scored." The first movement in particular represents Brahms at his most concentrated. The development remains remarkably free of the sequential writing that sometimes creep into other Brahms pieces, probably just to fill out the form. The movement rises from mainly two ideas: the opening arpeggiated motive and a falling semitone, the latter too short really to qualify as a full-fledged idea. But what changes he works on them both! The declamatory arpeggio immediately generates the piano's rapid accompaniment. The falling semitone births a litter of great tunes. Many have criticized the slow movement as a let-down after the first – in Phillip Ramey's phrase, "a probable miscalculation…. salon music that has been injected into an otherwise bold and distinctive score." I agree with Clara: "How rapturously it sings and rings from beginning to end! I keep on beginning it over again, and wished it would never stop." Tovey believes the scherzo based on the corresponding movement in the Beethoven fifth symphony – similar rhythmic and harmonic shifts – but to me the emotion expressed belongs to Brahms alone – less classically direct than Beethoven, more psychologically complex. An urgent pulse beats nervously all through, superbly caught by the performers, without overstatement. The ambitious finale is a sonata-rondo – that is, development takes the place of the second rondo episode so that we have the form ABA – development – ABA. Brahms puts some of his most inspired music in that development as well as into an intensely quiet, highly chromatic Prélude – almost like an organ Prélude – which leads to the sonata-rondo proper. I hear a passage like this and wonder how so perceptive a critic as Shaw could have found Brahms conventional and dull, even though I myself once thought the same.

I confess that I've never completely warmed up to Schubert's "Trout" Quintet (I'm not even fond of the song), but mainly, I suspect, because of the comparison to his magnificent "Cello" Quintet in C – perhaps my single favorite chamber work. Still, I'm not really playing fair. The two works differ greatly in intent, it seems to me. The "Cello" Quintet sounds like Schubert communing with the deepest part of himself, writing for art alone, while the "Trout" feels more "sociable." It's just the sort of piece one devotes weekends to working up with a bunch of close musical friends. The first movement especially exudes conviviality, perhaps even rambunctiousness at times. The second reminds me a lot of some of the more lyrical Rosamunde music – a meditative singing to which Schubert alone has the secret. The scherzo bounds like a puppy crazy with happiness and also has a delicacy that points to Mendelssohn's scherzi. My least favorite movement, the variations on "Die Forelle," gets a tremendous performance here which made me completely forget the dippiness of the basic material, this despite some intonation problems from the strings. Indeed, some of the trills from the first violin reminded me of the chirps from a cellular phone. Nevertheless, under these performers, it becomes a hymn to benign, Romantic nature – the flashing brook, the gentle wind, the warm sun. In the finale, ensemble breaks down a bit, with the string attack going soft and mushy here and there. But the Budapest and Szell manage to pull everything together in time for the recap, and the diverse musical strands magically find their light, right place.

Given the number and weight of all the expectations riding on this music, we must admit the tremendous difficulty of satisfying them. Technically, I've heard better performances than what the Budapest gives here, but it doesn't matter. First, the performers span tremendous architectural lengths. Whole movements seem to go by in a single breath, almost imperceptibly into the next – the first into the second, the third into the fourth. The Budapest and Szell – so often thought of as different kinds of musicians, and rightly so – nevertheless have in common the long line, which turns out not only sufficient but the main engine of the performance. The Budapest is at its most remarkable in the quiet passages, with breathtaking pianos and pianissimos. Szell – a student of Serkin's teacher, Richard Robert – shares much with Serkin, including an effacement of "personality" in service of the score and crystalline textures. This lies as far from the star turn as one can get. Often, he seems to play at the softest dynamic possible, and yet you hear everything in the score. Each note seems a jewel all by itself and yet part of a string that stretches almost past sight. The overall character of the performances strikes me as less overtly dramatic, especially in the Brahms, than in many I've heard, but somehow these satisfy me more. They have a sense of mesure, of proportion, appropriateness, without wallow or emotional slop and treacle. The piano runs in the accompaniment of the "Trout"'s variations movement, for example, come off without the impression of loopiness or sentimentality, for once, which means, I think, that the performers have found its elusive interpretive key.

The sound, of course, remains glorious 1940s mono, constricted in the high frequencies. Surfaces, however, are for the most part clean, with the exception of portions of the Schubert, where some noise does intrude.

Copyright © 1998, Steve Schwartz