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CLASSICAL  April 2007

CLASSICAL April 2007

Subject:

Szell's Mozart Box, Part 1

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 23 Apr 2007 11:31:13 -0500

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (188 lines)

George Szell
Mozart Original Jacket Collection

*  Symphony No. 33 in B-flat, K319
*  Symphony No. 28 in C, K200
*  Overture to The Marriage of Figaro
*  Symphony No. 35 in D, K385 "Haffner"
*  Symphony No. 39 in E-flat, K543 (1947 mono & 1960 stereo)
*  Symphony No. 40 in g, K550 (1955 mono & 1967 stereo)
*  Symphony No. 41 in C, K551 "Jupiter" (1955 mono & 1963 stereo)
*  Overture to The Impressario, K486
*  Divertimento in D for flute, oboe, bassoon, 4 horns and orchestra, K131
*  Sinfonia Concertante in E-flat for violin, viola, and orchestra, K364 (320d)
*  Exsultate, jubilate, K165 (158a)
*  Serenade in G, K525 "Eine kleine Nachtmusik"
*  Serenade in D, K320 "Posthorn"
*  Divertimento in D, K334 (320b)
*  Requiem: "Lacrimosa," K626
*  Minuet in C, K409 (383f) (1946 mono)
*  Clarinet Concerto in A, K622
*  Piano Concerto No. 25 in C, K503
*  Violin Sonata in F, K376 (374d)
*  Violin Sonata in G, K301 (293a)
*  Violin Sonata in e, K304 (300c)
*  Violin Sonata in C, K296
*  Piano Quartet in g, K478 (1946 mono)
*  Piano Quartet in E-flat, K.493 (1946 mono)

Maurice Sharp (flute);
Marc Lifschey (oboe);
George Goslee (bassoon);
Myron Bloom, Roy Waas, Martin Morris, Emani Angelucci (french horn);
Rafael Druian (violin);
Abraham Skernick (viola);
Judith Raskin (soprano);
Robert Marcellus (clarinet);
Leon Fleisher (piano);
George Szell (piano);
members of the Budapest String Quartet (Joseph Roisman, violin; Boris Kroyt,
viola; Mischa Schneider, cello);
The Cleveland Orchestra & Chorus/George Szell, Robert Shaw, Erich
Leinsdorf, Louis Lane.
Sony 86793  Total time: 9:18:00 (10 CDs)

Summary for the Busy Executive: It's about time.

George Szell is one of the few major conductors of the Twentieth Century
who doesn't have his own society.  Even in his lifetime, he seemed more
like a well-kept secret among cognoscenti (and Clevelanders), despite a
very nice career.  For my money and so far as one can reasonably assert
such a thing, he was *the* interpreter for standard, German and Central
European repertory during the postwar period, the real deal as opposed
to Karajan, a conductor manque.  I see many reasons for this relative
neglect, some of them having to do with Szell's intimidating personality,
others having to do with interpretive fashion.

As to the first, Szell made enemies.  After a certain point, he had
no career in opera because Rudolf Bing (excuse me, *Sir* Rudolf Bing),
a musical Philistine single-handedly responsible for the artistic decline
of the Met and Covent Garden but nevertheless powerful in the operatic
world, hated his guts.  I'm sure Szell reciprocated.  Because of Bing,
the Met kept out the great Wagnerian of his generation.  Those lucky
enough to have seen Szell's Wagner in the Forties talked and wrote about
it for years afterwards.  Szell also had a tongue.  Of a German conductor
in post-war trouble because of his activities during the Third Reich,
Szell remarked, "A Nazi?  He was never a Nazi.  Only a prostitute." The
wit could also turn against himself.  After a story on him appeared in
Time, he called his cronies and crowed, "It's official!  I'm a bastard."

As to the second, we can usefully divide interpretive approaches in two:
literalist and subjective, Apollonian vs.  Dionysian.  The categories
aren't really distinct, like paint chips, but blur into one another along
a spectrum.  I would call a conductor like Stokowski "subjective" even
though he approached a score with the idea of being true to the composer's
spirit, if not to the letter: what Bach *would* have done, had he only
known the instruments.  This tradition goes back at least to the latter
part of the Nineteenth Century.  Mahler tinkered with Beethoven's Ninth.
People have been silently mucking about with Tchaikovsky symphonies ever
since they appeared.  The literalist view -- do at the very least what
the composer tells you -- owes its ascendance primarily to Toscanini.
But even Toscanini fiddled with scores, and no musical score intended
to be played by humans is complete.  William Steinberg, at the time head
of the Pittsburgh Symphony, once had a guest gig in Cleveland.  When he
got back, his players asked him how it went.  "Awful," he said.  "They
did everything I asked them to." Every conductor, and by extension
composer, depends on the skill and taste of individual musicians.  You
can't specify everything, although I get the impression that Mahler tried
in the detailed instructions in his scores.  I think the test lies in a
listener's impression.  After a performance, do you say, "This is Mozart's
Haffner,'" or "This is Beecham's Mozart"?  Each approach has its rewards
and its dangers.  At their best, literalists create the illusion that
you have snuck inside Mozart's head.  At their worst, you get nothing
but dead music.  The successful subjectivist gives you a unique view of
a score that illuminates it.  When he or she fails, you get a distortion,
a grotesquerie.

I must admit I've changed over the years.  I began as a rabid fan of
literalists.  Toscanini could do no wrong.  Conductors like Mengelberg
and Stokowski struck me as pure corn.  Now, however, Toscanini often
bores me, while Mengelberg and Furtwaengler invite me on voyages of
intellectual and emotional discovery.  Nevertheless, the major constant
in my listening has remained George Szell.  He has never lost his
fascination.

Szell stood out among the crowd mainly because of his precision. 
Every note cleanly articulated, every rhythm accurate, every line
in its proper place in the texture.  The Berlin Philharmonic itself
(especially under Karajan) could not match the Cleveland in this regard.
Even Szell's Debussy emphasized the contrapuntal -- heresy at the time
(some called his recording of La Mer, Das Meer, even La Merde), but today
more and more the norm.  However, his detractors used this very precision
against him by equating it with coldness, as if some degree of sloppiness
guaranteed inner soul.  I think it fairer to say that the emotion in
Szell's readings roamed over a range of warmth.  There was generally
one, and one only, loudest point in a movement.  We've all encountered
conductors who've never met a forte they didn't want to smash and
consequently have nowhere else to go.  They specialize in momentary jolts
and jabs until eventually you no longer care, like listening to a marathon
political harangue.  They deliver a monochromatic reading.  While Szell
had his flaws, I wouldn't call coldness one of them.  After all, he was
known for his Brahms, Wagner, Dvorak, Tchaikovsky, and Richard Strauss,
none of whom really flourish in flat readings.  He gave live (though
unfortunately never commercially released) the great postwar readings
of Verdi's Requiem.

Like Stokowski, Szell had a vision, quite different from Stokowski's,
of orchestral sound and playing.  He began with the idea of wanting to
combine the technical accuracy of American orchestras with the suppleness
of European.  I would argue that to some extent he separated technique
from musical perfection.  Two qualities distinguish Szell for me.  The
precision alone fails to move me.  If Szell's performances were merely
precise, I wouldn't care either.  The precision provides lagniappe -- I
admit I get a kick when I hear what a composer actually wrote.  However,
precision is a byproduct of Szell's approach rather than its reason for
being.  Far more important are the rhythmic excitement and shaping of a
long movement, the mastery of dynamics, the shading of individual lines,
and the sensitivity of each player in the orchestra not merely to his
section, but to all other players.  You don't get any of these things
without precision.  You have only to see the Cleveland Orchestra live
and watch body language to realize that these people play like a string
quartet -- that they listen to and watch one another, sending out
exquisitely sensitive tendrils that shape the music before your eyes
and ears.  All this while watching the conductor as well.  They did
this under Szell; they do it now.  The Cleveland, despite the tenure
of high-powered directors like Boulez and Dohnanyi, remains an ensemble
close to Szell's blueprint -- the orchestra as super-chamber ensemble
-- and the man's approaching forty years dead.  Rhythmic attacks and
articulation are electric and electrifying.  Not only does the orchestra
get louder, it masters diminuendo.  The balance among sections, changing
of course throughout a piece, never falls short of superb.  You simply
don't get orchestral mud or "swirlies" in a Szell performance.  Because
of all this, you hear in scores not only elements that you hear nowhere
else, but familiar moments so right that you hear them newly-minted.

I've encountered quite a few great Mozart performances, live and
recorded, over the nearly fifty years of my serious-listening life. 
I've also heard many more bland ones.  Especially with Mozart, simply
playing the notes doesn't cut it.  The notes by themselves often don't
pique interest, in the way that a more chromatic line, an obviously
startling counterpoint, or a more sensual harmony might.  Musicians often
say that Mozart is the hardest composer to play successfully.  The notes
-- at least for professionals come easily, but the interpretation makes
them sweat.  And when you do meet with success, nobody gives you credit
for it, because the music sounds so "natural." It's much easier to make
an effect with Beethoven, I think.  I can't recall a performance of the
Fifth Symphony, for example, that wasn't at least decent.  I've heard
many bad performances of Mozart's "Jupiter." Beethoven, with his normative
dramatic contrasts, gives a performer more help than Mozart does.  Mozart
resists standard interpretive tricks -- for example, taking a repeated
passage or phrase more softly.  The transparency of the music often makes
such strategies sound mechanical.  Successful Mozart demands that you
think deeply through the score, both at large and in little.  Not
coincidentally, the Mozart interpreters I admire come across with highly
individual points of view.  Not even Toscanini gives me the illusion
that "the composer must have heard it in his head this way." Beecham's
Mozart sounds nothing like Rosbaud's, and Viennese interpreters seem to
play with home-team advantage.  At their best, the music glows with a
natural warmth.

(to be continued)

Steve Schwartz

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