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CD Review

George Szell

Decca & Philips Recordings 1951-1969

  • Beethoven:
    • Symphony #5 in C minor, Op. 67
    • Incidental Music to Egmont by Goethe
    • Mendelssohn: Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream
    • Tchaikovsky: Symphony #4 in F minor, Op. 36
    • Schubert: Incidental Music to Rosamunde, Fürstin von Zypern
    • Sibelius: Symphony #2 in D Major, Op. 43
    • Handel:
    • Water Music Suite (arr. Harty/Szell)
    • Il Pastor Fido - Minuet (arr. Beecham)
    • Music for the Royal Fireworks Suite (arr. Harty)
    • Serse - Largo
    • Mozart: Symphony #34 in C Major, K338
    • Brahms: Symphony #3 in F Major, Op. 90 *
    • Dvořák: Symphony #8 in G Major, Op. 88 *
Pilar Lorengar, soprano
Klaus-Jürgen Wussow, narrator
Concertgebouw Orchestra/George Szell
Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra/George Szell
London Symphony Orchestra/George Szell
Decca 4756780 *mono 5CDs 5:52:51
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Summary for the Busy Executive: Not necessarily what you'd expect.

Most people link George Szell with his Cleveland Orchestra, even after the nearly forty years since his death. Christoph von Dohnányi, Szell's most distinguished successor in Cleveland, once remarked, "We give a great concert, and George Szell gets a great review." Szell did certain things very well indeed, and the Cleveland was, during his tenure, probably one of the two best orchestras in the world, simply on the level of sheer playing. However, Szell did conduct other ensembles. His European gigs included (west to east) the London Symphony Orchestra, the Concertgebouw, Salzburg, and Vienna. This 5-CD set gathers up some of those performances.

Szell turned the Cleveland into his instrument, with his distinctive sound, just as Stokowski had with Philadelphia, Reiner with Chicago, Koussevitzky with Boston, and Mengelberg with the Concertgebouw. Szell's sound was based on rhythm and unanimity of attack as well as on a laser-like focus on ensemble. Members of the Cleveland Orchestra, regardless of instrument, played as if they belonged to the best string quartet in the world. Of course, that only happened after a few years. Although the orchestra improved immediately when Szell took over, it took the players a few seasons to gain a purchase on Szell's orchestral ideals.

On the other hand (and, again, like Stokowski), Szell the guest conductor tended to turn other orchestras toward his sonic goals. The transformation, however, was never complete. Indeed, in some cases, what Szell wanted didn't fit well with the way an orchestra traditionally played. On the other hand, when Szell and players could meet one another, the results were extraordinary. Not only did orchestras find new musical roles, but Szell expanded his range of expression as well.

I must add, however, that those pieces Szell also recorded with the Cleveland come off better with that orchestra. The interpretations are subtler, more elegant, and have greater depth. In the Beethoven Fifth, for example, the Concertgebouw achieves a sharpness of rhythm not normally associated with it, but the line is fairly stiff, as if it were all the players could do to follow accurately Szell's beat. In the Egmont Overture (the only music from the play the Clevelanders recorded), the Vienna Philharmonic keeps its famed suavity of line and gorgeous tone, but its dynamic range is narrow and relatively crude, compared to Cleveland's. It never really gets soft enough. In a score built on extreme contrasts, this is a problem.

On the other hand, the Concertgebouw's Midsummer Night's Dream and Rosamunde suites, while not as refined as Cleveland's, have warmth as well as vigor. The music seems more spacious here than with the home team, also true of the two mono cuts – the Brahms Third and the Dvořák Eighth. The music proceeds a hair's breadth more slowly and a little less tightly controlled, without sacrificing any of Szell's crackle and counts as two of the best performances of these scores I've heard. In fact, I'd recommend all of these performances to anyone accustomed to thinking of Szell's work as "cold."

The Tchaikovsky and Handel outings with the London Symphony have been accorded the status of classic recordings for so long, I wouldn't be surprised if many of you already had the individual CDs. The Tchaikovsky, stunning in both cumulative power and sound, has all of Szell's hallmark virtues – drive from first note to the last, crackling rhythm, subtle shading of musical line, dedication to clarifying the inner parts. Indeed, in the first movement, it's the quick sixteenths precisely hit, particularly in the subordinate strings that provide most of the momentum. The second movement sings gorgeously. Szell doesn't get enough praise for this, and he pulled it off time after time. It's key to his Mozart and Dvořák. The Handel (with a little help from Szell, Beecham, and Hamilton Harty) has the "bubble and bounce" – to quote Edmund Blunden – that immediately identifies the composer. The Royal Fireworks overture moves powerfully and inexorably, like a tsunami wave. Szell's work with the London Symphony stands as some of his finest.

The Concertgebouw performances vary from quite raw to warm and wonderful. The Mozart, perhaps the worst tracks among all these discs, I have to blame on the orchestra, since Szell's recordings with the Cleveland epitomize a certain type of great Mozart playing. The main problem comes down to a clunky musical line, ragged rhythm, and wonky intonation. The Concertgebouw here is simply the wrong tool for the job – a hacksaw to filet a goldfish.

On the other hand, the Sibelius knocked my socks off. Szell may have liked the Second the best of the seven Sibelius symphonies, since he programmed it live several times, at a time when the composer's critical reputation had sunk. Of course, Szell also programmed Strauss and Walton under the same circumstances. In both cases, his performances helped revise opinion upward. Sibelius, however, took more than Szell, even though this is one of the finest Seconds I've heard. It's hard to credit that this is the same orchestra heard in the Mozart. The opening alone – the epitome of Nordic Pastoralism – conjures up, under Szell, shafts of sunlight shining through birch trees. The orchestral sound is both rich and flexible. This symphony tests a conductor, since it proceeds in fragments – deliberately so. Sibelius designs themes that either sound as if prematurely torn off or petering out past their "natural" stopping point. This fragmentation brings out some of Szell's great strengths – the ability to define symphonic architecture and the ability to present a movement as a conceptual whole. Except in the finale, the symphony always threatens to boil away to rags. Szell emphasizes its unifying strands that reach out among all the movements. For example, he teases out thematic resemblances between the opening and the scherzo.

For those who only know Szell's work with the Cleveland Orchestra, this is an interesting set. However, it does gather (excepting the mono Brahms and Dvořák) Szell's most available non-Cleveland recordings. If you have these already, it's mainly old news. I wish they could have included some of his rarer live recordings with these orchestras, but that may have come down to a matter of copyright. Still, the only turkey is the Mozart. The rest rocks.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz