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CLASSICAL  April 2007

CLASSICAL April 2007

Subject:

Szell's Mozart Box, Part 2

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Mon, 23 Apr 2007 11:32:12 -0500

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text/plain

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If nobody's Mozart is the Real Mozart, neither is Szell's.  How does
one then describe his Mozart?  Fortunately, the set includes Cleveland
performances before and after Szell became music director, with Erich
Leinsdorf (the music director immediately before Szell) and Louis Lane,
Szell's Associate Conductor.  Leinsdorf gives a good, though standard
performance of a Mozart minuet.  Sectional unanimity among the strings
leaves something to be desired.  The music proceeds a bit roughly,
although at least it does move.  With Szell, "clean," "clear," and
"elegant" come to mind.  Everything sounds full, but never stodgy.
There's a patrician chasteness to it, to me very modern, like a Brancusi
sculpture.  At this point, I might add that Mozart tends to score heavily
-- much more so than Haydn (another Szell strength) -- but somehow much
of that weight disappears in Szell's accounts and clings to Leinsdorf's.
I have no idea how much Szell knew of the intellectual history of
classicism.  Nevertheless, to me he transmits a major part of the middle
and late eighteenth-century view of Greek art in his readings of Mozart
-- a sense of measure, directness sufficient to expression and not
inflated.  There are things I miss, of course: notably the intersection
of pietism and classicism, the Greek myths as metaphors for the soul's
yearning for God, which led to the Romantic era.  But Szell gives me
much of the rest and a view that seems to have eluded just about everyone
else.

Each disc deserves a review as full as the one I've written.  I've taken
extensive notes during my listenings to this set.  If I had written them
all up, I'd have wound up with a small monograph, nevertheless too long
for a review like this.  Consequently, I'll just address some highlights.

Let's start with the crude first.  The set boasts a number of, if not
bests, then at least unsurpassed recordings, essential to a clear-eyed,
non-cliched view of Mozart: Robert Marcellus's superb clarinet concerto,
a stereo Symphony No. 39 (perhaps my favorite Mozart symphony), Judith
Raskin's Exsultate, jubilate, of almost unbearable sweetness, an Eine
kleine Nachtmusik that just about defines great Mozart playing, and hands
down the best performance of the Marriage of Figaro Overture -- all this
in addition to the Szell party-pieces of Symphonies 40 and 41.  And the
rest of it is wonderful.  I'm told that when symphony musicians listen
to classical recordings, they listen to Szell's Mozart, Haydn, and Dvorak.

Szell had his own vision of Mozart and, if the historic
recordings indicate anything, he refined that vision throughout his
life.  Significantly, he worked to reach it.  Much of it has already
taken shape in his 1947 account of the Symphony No.  39.  Leinsdorf had
left the Cleveland in a pretty good state, although it still had far to
go to reach Koussevitzky's Boston or even Rodzinski's New York Philharmonic
and Chicago Symphony.  Nevertheless Szell, who took over in 1946, even
at this early point improves the sound of the strings at least three-fold.
They seem to shave both pounds and "beards" from the tone, playing more
like a single instrument.  One notices the drive of the line, without
feeling "driven," and -- something which Szell doesn't often get credit
for, the sensation of the breathing line, as if spun by a great Lieder
singer.  Of course, the mono sonic image and the recording itself, heavy
on the bass and compressed in dynamic range, obscures some of the
orchestra's finesse, but Szell's Mozart is there, at least in large
outline.  By the stereo remake, you still recognize the same interpretive
approach, but you'd be hard pressed to identify this as the same orchestra,
the sonic image differs so much.  The string tone, while not rich (which
you wouldn't want for Mozart anyway) is thrillingly true.  The players
make their lines insightful essays in light and shadow, and the attack
of each phrase sends off little sparks.  In the Minuet movement again,
quintessential Mozart playing -- the very first note of the theme raises
goosebumps, without making itself obvious.  The finale -- its rondo theme
a roulade of notes with a little kick and a wink at the end -- conjures
up the world of opera buffa and especially Figaro.  Szell also draws
lines between this and something like Beethoven's Seventh.  Light as
sea-froth, it seems to fly, and yet the measured tempo isn't all that
fast.  I've tried to discover why, and the best I can do is to suppose
that when an ensemble is that together, when articulation is that sharp,
you lose the drag of stutter and smear.

The mono readings (both from 1955) show the ensemble even tighter than
in 1947.  Furthermore, the orchestra sound has acquired sinew.  Compared
to the later stereo remakes, these readings are weightier, more athletic,
slightly edgier, but less detailed.  Szell relaxed just a hair in the
interval.  One might even say, relatively speaking, that he mellowed --
not merely a bastard, but a bastard comfortable in his own skin.  All
these accounts move me, but I do prefer some to others.  The mono Symphony
No.  40 conjures up more storm clouds than its stereo sibling, which I
find appropriate to the character of the music.  However, as good as the
mono "Jupiter" is, the stereo account reveals more of the masterpiece.
The refinement, the subtle shades in each line, the drama of line against
line take us far from the view of Mozart as musical idiot savant.

I've never heard a better Figaro overture than Szell's, making me pine
for the lost opportunity of a recording from him of the complete opera.
I'll have to settle for Giulini, I suppose.  In Szell's reading, notice
the distinctiveness of each note in the opening phrase, without weight,
and the curiously nervous sense of expectancy, the sharpness of the
little stings and whirs from the strings in the second subject, terrifically
galvanizing without coming across like a jab in the ribs.  Climaxes are
beautifully built and just as beautifully moved away from.  Many orchestras
can do the first.  Great orchestras do the second.  Indeed, the entire
dynamic range of this reading, the gorgeous textural shifts -- from
delicate to full -- surpass any other reading I know, without violating
classical proportions.

This applies as well to the less-encountered Symphony No.  28, which
Glenn Gould -- not normally fond of Mozart -- called a masterpiece.  Our
concert and listening life focus on the last six symphonies, but Mozart
wrote very good ones from the mid-20s on.  His earlier items I find good
examples of what most composers were writing at the time.  They show him
learning both the genre and the classical style, since really early
Mozart owed far more to Handel than to Haydn.  By Symphony No.  25, at
least, he's got it down.  The form begins to change in his hands, moving
from a divertissement to a vehicle for high musical argument.  Mozart,
of course, follows the direction Haydn set.  I admire Haydn tremendously.
In many ways, I think him Mozart's superior.  But even I have to admit
that he never wrote a symphony as profound as Mozart's No.  39, and No.
28 is a superior symphony along Haydn's lines.

Szell's recording, from the early Sixties, represents his golden period.
The orchestral sounds preternaturally clear, everyone moving together
and with such awareness of one another that you get the idea of a great
keyboard player or guitarist whose musical intention never runs into a
hitch on the route from mind to fingers.  The clarity you might expect,
but listen to the warmth of the opening movement's second subject.  The
temperature gets raised in the second-movement Adagio -- a heartbreaking
beauty sans chicken fat.  One feels a lot of "air" around the lines, as
well as tremendous energy held in reserve, that peeks through in the
weight of cadential phrases, which "bounce" a little.  It reminds me of
the grace of an airship -- massive, yet serene.  This largely comes from
Szell's magnificent bass section, sending out discreet, fluffy booms.
These guys contribute much more than harmonic function; the chamber
approach affects every section.  In the third movement, note the mastery
of dynamic contrasts.  Indeed, Szell turns the movement into a thoughtful
study of dynamics -- not only soft-to-loud, but loud-to-soft, both sudden
and smooth.  In the finale, Szell builds up plenty of fizz, but notice
as well how he gets the music to breathe, especially in the second
subject.  Not many conductors do this today.  I don't know whether it
represents a change in interpretive approach or a lost art.

Szell's music-making changed as he elaborated his vision.  From the
cross-breeding of Europe and America, he moved to speaking of chamber
music as a metaphor, and perhaps something more than that.  There's no
question that he considered chamber playing a necessity in a musician's
education.  In fact, he sent a well-regarded young American piano virtuoso
to Marlboro to put in some time before his Cleveland debut.  The pianist
became a chamber-music (and Marlboro) enthusiast, returning to the
festival summer after summer.  Szell's notion began like a thought
experiment.  We have experienced the unity of a soloist, a duet, a trio,
and a quartet.  What if we could keep adding players and retain that
unity?  Eventually we build an orchestra, and the orchestra becomes a
simple extension of a duet.  Of course, in practice, few orchestras have
ever achieved this goal.  I doubt many conductors even consciously pursued
this.  Fritz Reiner, a conductor I admire and Szell's technical equal,
nevertheless gets a different kind of clarity from his orchestras.  His
process begins, not with the single player, but with the entire orchestra.
Consequently, the ensemble is unanimous and well-balanced, but the musical
line lacks Szell's extreme flexibility.

The Divertimento No.  2 shows this pretty well.  Mozart builds
the piece largely through the contrasts among two chamber groups --
winds vs.  massed French horns -- and the strings.  We get seamless
back-and-forths between soloists and strings in the first movement,
similar to the conversation between strings and piano in a piano quintet.
The horn quartet in the second minuet sounds not only full, but musical.
However, Szell reaches the sublime in the slow second movement, for
strings alone.  There's no reaching for effect.  It's as if the music
merely speaks for itself.  If so, why is this so obviously the finest
account of this piece?  The same goes double for Szell's Sinfonia
Concertante.  I can't tell you how many boring performances of this score
I've come across from interpreters who for some reason believe that a
suave, bland wash over everything gets the job done.  Szell shows you
the incredible power in the piece, lifting it from elegant entertainment
to 18th-century tragedy, particularly in yet another killer slow movement.
Here and there, one encounters the pietist undercurrents that led to
Romanticism and which Szell usually ignored.  For some reason, he hits
them here.  He also makes you appreciate this as one of Mozart's most
beautifully-orchestrated works.  The color shifts are subtle yet noticeable
and create patterns of interest on their own.  Soloists Rafael Druian
and Abraham Skernick deliver their part as a conversation of equals,
though not twins.  Druian has an edge to his tone that Skernick doesn't
match, and it's all to the good, as far as I'm concerned.  The difference
extends the variety of color and drama.

The set by no means gets all of Szell's commercially-recorded Mozart.
The account of the Fifth Violin Concerto with Stern and the piano concerto
series with Serkin and Casadesus are conspicuous by their absence, and
most of the other stuff belongs to other labels.  However, Sony does
come up with two interesting addenda.  Louis Lane, a woefully-underrated
conductor who served as one of Szell's Associates and who made some of
the most enjoyable LPs in my late, lamented collection, leads the D-major
Divertimento with Druian.  The work curiously combines a suite with a
violin concerto.  Robert Shaw apprenticed himself to Szell as another
Cleveland Associate.  Cleveland got to lick the gravy of a chorus as
good as Hillis's Chicago Symphony.  The clarity of orchestral sound in
both owes a lot to Szell.  Lane absorbs much of the rhythmic approach.
He also gives you the overall line of a passage, just as Szell does,
although with less in the way of moment-to-moment detail.  It reminds
me a bit of Szell in the Fifties, although Lane records more than a
decade later.  Still, he makes a jewel of a piece that hadn't previously
struck me as anything much.

Shaw, on the other hand, seems more personal in his bit from Mozart's
Requiem.  I believe this originally appeared on the RCA LP Hallelujah!
-- a collection of blockbuster sacred choruses, still available on
CD (RCA Victor Living Stereo 63709).  The orchestra sounds bigger and
fuller, closer to Brahms than to Mozart.  The choir is good, but not as
hair-raisingly precise as it often could be.  The "Lacrimosa" has problems
every choir must overcome.  Mozart deliberately cuts phrases short, while
aiming for a long line overall.  These two tendencies fight each other
throughout the piece.  Sometimes the choir falls into the trap of giving
us little separate sausages of notes rather than that long line.  It's
a good, rather than a great job.

The other highlights Szell, the chamber musician.  Given the
importance Szell attached to the genre, it surprises me that he made
so few chamber recordings.  These accounts come from mid-career and
near career end.  He partners members of the Budapest String quartet
and his then-concertmaster, Rafael Druian.

To take the latter first: The Sonatas for Piano and Violin (to give
them their due title) are rarely done that way.  The violinist is the
star and the pianist the sidekick.  Szell and Druian turn this around,
and they shocked me.  I first thought of Szell, "Why don't you pick on
somebody your own size?" Then I realized that Mozart indeed wrote the
sonatas this way, with the violin in a supporting role.  The uncanny
unanimity of articulation between both players is there, as one expects,
but there's also a range of and delight in color from both instruments
that comes as a genuine surprise, if one considers the normal rap against
Szell.  What comes through most of all, however, is the joy in the
music-making.  These sonatas, to a large extent, live in Papageno's
woods, and Szell and Druian make the most of their visit.

The piano quartets come from another neighborhood altogether.  The
first, dark and dramatic, has overtones of the tragedy of the Symphony
No.  40, also in g-minor.  I would call the reading fine, but not
exceptional, a meat-and-potatoes approach that smoothes over the
considerable eccentricities of the work.  The second, in E-flat, has
some of the monumentality of the "Jupiter" symphony, captured by Szell
and the Budapest.  The performance raises an interesting point.  The
Budapest lends a "literalist" element.  Szell, however, supplies Romantic
touches, pushing the work toward Beethoven.  Perhaps his affinity for
Schumann, Wagner, and Strauss isn't so strange, after all.

All in all, I welcome the set.  It strikes me as essential to a classical
collection, a locus classicus of Mozart playing, and the sound quality
improves on the original LPs by quite a bit.  Eric Kisch of the radio
program Musical Passions, provides an elegant and informed appreciation
of Szell.  However, Sony has just purged three-quarters of its classical
division, mainly because their pop sections are bleeding money, and we
all know Nobody Buys Classical Music.  Consequently, don't look for
either more releases like this or even for this set to hang around all
that long.  ArkivMusic sells it for roughly $80, but I have seen it on
the Internet at CDUniverse for as little as $58, American.

Steve Schwartz

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