Ludwig van Beethoven
* Symphonies #1-#9
* Egmont Overture
* Coriolan Overture
* King Stephen Overture
* Leonore Overture #1
* Leonore Overture #2
* Leonore Overture #3
* Fidelio Overture
* The Creatures of Prometheus*
* Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart: Symphony No. 41, K. 551 "Jupiter"
Adele Addison, soprano
Jane Hobson, mezzo
Richard Lewis, tenor
Donald Bell, baritone
The Cleveland Orchestra, The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus/George Szell, *Louis
Sony SX10K 92480 Total time: 8:00:12:00 (10 CDs)
for purchasing info]
Summary for the Busy Executive: Even better this time around.
As far as I know, Szell's set of Beethoven's symphonies has never left
the catalogue. Sony/CBS/Columbia/Epic has made money from it for at
least four decades. I had the original LPs, with the best liner notes
on anything (let alone Beethoven) I've ever read, by composer and chief
annotator for the Cleveland Orchestra Klaus George Roy. This is part
of Sony's "Original Jacket" series, which explains the inclusion of the
Mozart Jupiter, which originally appeared coupled with Beethoven's Fifth.
I don't mind seeing this performance again, but it *has* appeared on
the "Original Jacket" Szell Mozart boxed set. Perhaps Sony carried the
concept a bit too far. Why not one of the piano concerti or perhaps a
concert recording of the violin concerto?
I grew up in Cleveland during the Szell years, and Szell fundamentally
shaped both the way I listen to music and my expectations of music
performance. He has remained one of my musical heroes, as have several
individual members of his orchestra. I couldn't have told you the
starting lineups of either the Cleveland Indians or the Cleveland Browns
back then, but I made it my business to find out who played in the
Cleveland Orchestra. I got involved in the Beethoven symphonies through
Szell's recordings, and despite the sets I've listened to since, I still
find his readings absolutely central. Younger generations of conductors
have gone over these recordings with Talmudic intensity, as they have
with those of Toscanini and Furtwaengler. So apparently I don't merely
ride my usual hobby horse here, or at least I've got company in the
I have never believed in One Beethoven. To me, a lot of roads lead to
Nirvana. However, in the early stereo era, there really wasn't much to
choose from. Most recordings used the same types of forces with many
of the same assumptions. Historically Informed Performance was a crazy
gleam in fringe musicologists' eyes, and it seemed to have the same
chance of penetrating the concert hall as a feather on the breath of God
(how wrong we were!). Older recordings struck most people as a recherche
way to spend one's time, particularly if you owned a high-end stereo
rig. CDs have gone a long way to changing this attitude. Thus, the
complete Beethoven sets 'way back when offered a constricted interpretive
range. Still, the only conductor from the same era whose Beethoven has
lasted as long as Szell's is Karajan, who made at least three stereo
traversals of the symphonies. I've never particularly cared for any of
the Karajan sets I've heard, although I find myself most partial to the
DG recordings from the early Sixties. That Ninth, in particular, is one
of my favorites. Overall, however, I would describe Karajan's readings
as too smooth by half. Beethoven's music, after all, bristles with
"edges." Transitions and contrasts are both abrupt and stark. When I
listen to Karajan's Beethoven, I imagine a burgher in his living room
smiling, secure in the knowledge that, Gott sei gelobt, he's getting
Culture with a capital C. I hear a stamp of official consumer-institute
approval, rather than any intellectual or, God knows, visceral excitement.
People often accuse Karajan of trying to create a cult of personality,
but the personality that comes out in so many of his recordings is bland
and corporate. Above all, Beethoven encourages independent thinking on
the part of performers, even those Toscanini disciples who aim to create
the illusion "Beethoven's music as he imagined it" don't all sound alike
- Toscanini and Szell two notable examples.
Szell's Beethoven doesn't completely jibe with my ideal, but his view
definitely belongs to him, and when I think of Beethoven in a sustained way,
I often hear in my head Szell's readings illustrating those thoughts. Those
who know Szell's work usually praise or condemn it on the grounds of
"precision," as if precision either guaranteed high quality or sucked the
life out of a performance. I tend to believe that it's nice to hear what a
composer actually wrote and that sloppiness doesn't mean soul, but precision
itself means little to me. Szell's precision - and, for sheer playing, his
Cleveland Orchestra excelled every other orchestra of its era, including
Berlin and Chicago - isn't simply lagniappe, but the spring of many other
virtues. Szell's readings here vibrate in a tension between elegance and
drive, both reinforced by the orchestra's precision.
Symphony #1 in C op. 21 (1796-1800)
What first breaks into my consciousness as I listen to the opening
of the Symphony #1 is, "What fantastic first violins!" Actually,
"What a fabulous first violin section!" They play as one, with enormous
suppleness. The Philadelphia string section may have played more
sumptuously, the Vienna Philharmonic with slightly more warmth, but you
may not want either in a symphony so close to Haydn and Mozart. Keep
in mind that the introduction, although beloved of musicologists, doesn't
usually constitute a high point of this symphony, but Szell's traversal
of it, with gorgeous wind solos, from the very beginning sets a standard
higher than any other I've heard. The first movement, lean and muscular,
springs like a terrier. The second, a Haydnesque larghetto, verges on
minuet, as scraps coalesce into a full melody with accompaniment. In
this movement, the winds take one's breath away. Their ensembles are
perfect in their balance and fit, and extremely short solos of two notes
suffice to establish these players as masters. The named Minuet is, of
course, no minuet at all, but the first example of the full-blown Beethoven
symphonic scherzo, an apotheosis of the hunt. We're not in Haydnland
any more. It's got plenty of drive, although Szell doesn't take it
particularly fast. The crescendos move with inexorability, but they
never, even at the climax, bluster. They succeed in part because the
orchestra diminuendos seamlessly and in full dynamic control. The trio,
when it comes, features that fantastic Cleveland wind section and
approaches, but never crosses into, sumptuousness. "Measure" is the key
here, although it doesn't preclude excitement. One can say the same for
the finale, one of Beethoven's wittiest. Here and there, Szell manages
to bring out similarities between it and those of the Mozart #39 and
#41. It begins tentatively with an idea that suddenly gathers and speeds
up into the opening of the main idea, like a whip about to crack. Again,
it has all the power any reasonable person wants and subtlety besides.
One really fine moment occurs at the climax of the opening allegro and
the quiet transition to its repeat, all without a stumble or a sudden
collapse. It's as if you suddenly found yourself a few thousand feet
lower, and yet with full support. Above all, Szell gives you a reading
full of historical imagination. Beethoven probably did not hear this
symphony in his head as Szell gives it to us, but it certainly conjures
up the world of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. It
takes a musician of immense culture to pull something like this off.
Symphony #2 in D, op. 36 (1801-02)
It wouldn't surprise me to learn that the second is the least-performed
of Beethoven's nine symphonies. I consider it long misunderstood as
"merry" or even "lightweight." Many nineteenth-century critics, for
example, thought of it as the last time Beethoven would compose music
anybody would consider beautiful. It comes from the same period as the
Heiligenstadt Testament, the composer's cri du coeur after he realized
he was going deaf. The usual line runs that none of Beethoven's anguish
comes through in the symphony. To me, the symphony is all "about" how
life gets fouled up. It strikes me as the most personal symphony in the
cycle, the one where Beethoven for once doesn't assume a public persona.
The first movement is practically bi-polar. The same themes continually
get treated first in a major, and then in a minor mode, and Beethoven
juxtaposes their treatments with maximum contrast. The slow movement,
one of Beethoven's loveliest, contains the seeds of Mendelssohn's lyricism.
It begins practically breathing the air of Elysium, but once again comes
under the cloud of a minor mode, and much of its drama comes down to
which mode wins out. Szell's account of the scherzo is, once again,
beautifully proportioned, with real care given to its dynamic shape. It
neither needs to yell or to boom to make its point, and the trio is pure
joy. In terms of the narrative of the entire symphony, this is the manic
movement of the symphony, with its various parts logically sequent but
fragmented. The finale again reminds me of its counterpart in the Mozart
Symphony No. 39, only this time the flick of the thematic tail occurs
at the beginning of the theme, rather than at the end, as in the Mozart.
One would hope for some resolution, but that bus never arrives. We get
the same major-minor treatment of themes as in previous movements.
Nevertheless, Beethoven works up a more or less heroic ending (mock-heroic
comes nearer the truth). Like most conductors, Szell gets the symphony's
wit, but not its pathos. The only reading I've heard that embraces this
view is Harmoncourt's on Teldec.
Symphony #3 in E-flat, op. 55 Eroica (1803-04)
I should say that I've never heard a recording of the Eroica (and there
are tons of them out there) that satisfied me. In fact, for a long time,
I thought I disliked the work itself, until I heard a marvelous live
performance by Klauspeter Seibel and the Louisiana Philharmonic - a
surprise, because most people wouldn't think of these forces as the
A-team. Nevertheless, this account makes more musical sense than any
first-rank recording I've heard. The first two movements make or break
a reading. The first movement runs so long that sometimes conductors
forget where they are and become incoherent. The second-movement funeral
march has become so iconographic that conductors tend to lay on Significance
with a trowel.
Szell takes the first movement at a pretty fair clip but, like just
about everybody else, loses focus, mainly by failing to emphasize a
motive that deceives him into mistaking it for a mere transition. In
fact, it's a significant part of the movement's spine. I must say,
however, Szell's ending is nothing short of magnificent. His handling
of Beethoven's counterpoint - his understanding of how it functions -
takes a back seat to nobody. Again, it's the coalescing of scraps into
an overwhelming texture that impresses here, and Szell's willingness to
risk the charge of scrappiness at the beginning, rather than insisting
on Magnificence all the time, makes the effect. In the funeral march,
Szell's power to let the music speak without the symbolic baggage it has
accumulated strikes me first. Actually, what *really* strikes me first
is once again, "What a great string section!" followed by "What fantastic
woodwind soloists!" - especially, because of his prominence, the first
oboe (Harvey McGuire). Szell offers something somber but not ponderous
- in the context of so many other readings, almost chaste. Funerals
are, for once, a serious and not a theatrical business. Szell sounds
the main note of stoicism but manages to slip in sharp stabs of pain,
almost gone before they register. The orchestra, flexible and graceful
as Chaplin, practically melts into the lighter moments and yet can build
climaxes of shattering intensity. Paradoxically, the high end of the
dynamic level isn't as loud as some I've heard, yet packs as big a wallop.
Szell lets me down a bit in the scherzo. He holds back too much. To
me, this is an obsessive movement, driven by intense little eighth-note
seconds in the accompanying strings. Others let fly, which I think
almost right. Best of all would have been Szell's control coupled with
his usual concentration of energy. However, I forgive him everything
at the trio, with its massed horns - power without pomposity, for once.
Furthermore, in the finale, Szell gives a lesson in how to build a long
movement. The variations individually come off well, but you never doubt
their place in the overall design. He brings it off, of course, by
absolute dynamic control, both at the macro-level of the paragraph and
at the micro-level of the individual phrase. Actually, in this reading
I love best the quieter, slower sections (contrary to my usual shallow
preference for slam-bang). They draw me in, before finally giving me
the final shove into the brass salvoes. For my money, the most beautifully
shaped Eroica finale out there.
Symphony #4 in B-flat, op. 60 (1806)
Schumann once called the Fourth Symphony "a Greek maiden between two
Norse giants," ie, the Third and Fifth. Despite my enormous regard for
Schumann's criticism, I've never made sense of this remark, particularly
in light of the first movement. It begins with a long, sober introduction,
which finally breaks into a raucous horse laugh of an allegro (based on
the intro, by the way). This movement flummoxes many conductors, who
have little idea what to make of it. Psychologically, we've got the
humor equivalent of Benny Hill within an extremely witty purely musical
context - sort of like hearing Noel Coward making fart jokes or Larry
the Cable Guy delivering Wildean epigrams. Szell, fortunately, is not
too refined for his own good. He gets both the coarse humor and the
wit. The slow second movement probably counts as my least favorite of
the cycle, although writers looking for the Immortal Beloved (good luck!)
have jonesed on it. Usually, I fall asleep about a third of the way
through. At least Szell keeps me awake, with a lyrical line more suave
than Cary Grant. More roughhouse breaks in at the scherzo, but Szell
reserves his power for the trio. He stretches the musical line to the
point where it seems to always have somewhere else to go - always opening
out to something new. The fourth movement takes a swirling idea of
sixteenths - sometimes in the foreground, sometimes in the background.
It doesn't always sound, but Szell always keeps it in your mind. I've
heard more frantic performances, but none with this combination of
excitement and architectural smarts. I should also mention, yet again,
the strings and also the kettledrums (the legendary Cloyd Duff), who put
immense space around this music, as well as principal bassoonist George
Goslee, a player with beautiful tone and terrific line. Along with
principal clarinet Robert Marcellus, he represents to me the exemplar
of the Szell musician.
Symphony #5 in c, op. 67 (1800-1808)
I admit I have never heard a bad performance of Beethoven's Fifth. Even
Jorge Mester's joke reading for Peter Schickele and Bob Dennis sounds
pretty good to me. It strikes me as a symphony that almost plays itself.
At this stage, we're talking about fine points of wonderful.
Szell's first movement won't appeal to those who want a weeping, wailing,
and gnashing of teeth. Instead, Szell aims for a classical sense of
tragedy, and the reading of the entire symphony retains those proportions.
For me, the high points of the first movement are the quieter moments -
the major second subject, for example - and from the false fugal entry
to the end. The second movement moves with lithe grace, never getting
bogged down in gooey sentiment. Nevertheless, there's reasonable power
at the trumpet entries, and the contrapuntal passages almost suspend
time. Those who want the first movement to rock their world will also
likely meet with disappointment in the third movement. Szell avoids the
usual steroids in favor of restraint. This pays off in the transition
to the finale, where the music holds its breath before bursting forth
in a blaze of brass. The level isn't all that loud (if you want volume,
dial up your amp), but it's got plenty of power. Furthermore, the
transitions from loud to soft and back again will thrill you and lead
to massive climaxes, all without yelling. For me, the highlight of the
performance once again occurs near the end, with the chirping of the
flutes and other winds, as they begin the rush to the concluding bars.
Symphony #6 in F, op. 58 Pastoral (1807-1808)
I love the "Pastoral" Sixth. For me, the really difficult movement is
the last. It's so simple and direct, conductors can't hide behind a
waterfall of notes or Big Emotions. It really tests musicality. Szell's
account of the symphony eschews sentimentality. If you want happy
peasants, Disney centaurs, and babbling brooks, go elsewhere. Szell
emphasizes Beethoven as symphonist, rather than as illustrator. The
reading doesn't lack magic, but it's musical magic - delicate, wildflower
textures, long singing lines, crisp dances. Szell also gives us insight
into the composer's symphonic practice - that the first movement, for
example, springs entirely from the opening tune, and that the famous
"birds" passage in the second movement not only has a structural function,
but that Beethoven prepares us for it earlier and throughout. The third
movement stands out for its oboe and clarinet solos (Harvey McGuire and
Robert Marcellus). The "storm" movement interests me the least, no
matter whom I've heard conducting it, although it always delivers sharp
thrills. The finale, the biggest challenge in the symphony, arrives
with nobility and without mawkishness. All in all, a patrician reading.
Symphony #7 in A, op. 92 (1811-12)
Wagner, famously, called the Seventh "the apotheosis of the dance,"
another remark I've never completely understood. Isadora Duncan took
him literally and actually danced to the thing. All that aside, however,
if ever a Beethoven symphony was made for Szell, this one's it, and the
conductor doesn't disappoint. The first movement gives off the impression
not only of power, but immense power in reserve - from the long, spacious
introduction, to the breaking forth of the main idea. Forget Mozart's
"Jupiter," this movement strongly evokes the Olympian on his throne.
Despite Szell's customary elegance, you feel the rhythm in your guts.
The first movement grabs you by your collar, and you feel yourself flying.
The second movement, one of Beethoven's genuine hits during his lifetime
and which so impressed Schubert, often fails because conductors hit the
rhythmic idee fixe way too hard. The rest of the movement tends to get
lost as they twiddle their thumbs waiting for the next climax. Szell
stresses alternate melodies and counterpoint, with a heart-stopping fugal
buildup toward the end. Again, those fabulous first-desk winds (plus
Myron Bloom playing horn with chamber-like discretion and sophistication)
take center stage. The scherzo probably qualifies as one of the most
manic in the set. I'd almost say Szell lets go, but that implies a loss
of control. Indeed, the frenzy of the thing increases precisely *because*
Szell keeps control. Attacks snap, the line crackles, all because rhythm
is so tight. The trio arrives as an island of immense calm and stability.
You can't conceive how the music will return to its frenzy, but return
it does, zipping off like the Road Runner. Calm? What calm20
In the finale, Beethoven flirts with disintegration, a pattern
increasingly prominent in his late period. The music consists of
fragments, and the musical train threatens to break down. Szell skitters
close to the edge without falling over. His line has so much energy,
the music never really stops. Indeed, he manages even more intensity
after the pivot notes have sounded. An astonishing performance.
Symphony #8 in F, op. 93 (1811-12)
For years, critics had flogged Beethoven's symphonies as grossly
out-of-scale, misshapen grotesqueries. With the Eighth, the composer
returned to the proportions, at any rate, of the Haydn symphony. Critics
then landed on him for writing something so trivial. He couldn't win
or write in any vein without somebody telling him he was doing it wrong.
This symphony gets characterized - wrongly, I believe - as "merry."
Although it does have its clever and droll side, I find far more prominent,
in the first movement especially, a cosmic, elemental quality. Beethoven
writes with a concentration which increases the power of his ideas. I
know of no composer better able to evoke immensities of scale in so few
notes. Wagner, Bruckner, and Mahler are downright windbags in comparison.
Mendelssohn is often as economical, but not as powerful. Szell takes
the first movement as if it were Eroica, Part II, with that same buoyant,
rolling gait, almost like a Zeppelin taking off. The second movement,
"Allegretto scherzando," makes jokes about scale. A very delicate idea
begins in the high strings and winds. Beethoven then turns it over to
the heavier cellos and basses - Bottom among the fairies, if you like.
He even turns this around by giving weightier ideas to the lighter strings
- the sprites mocking Bottom. I doubt whether Haydn would have recognized
the third movement by Beethoven's title of minuet. It stands a long way
from the court dance, or any dance, for that matter. Some conductors
inflate it like Rudyard Kipling's frog. No worries about Szell. He
reserves his fire for the trio, a gust of full-blown Romanticism before
others jumped on the wagon, beautifully expansive. First horn Myron
Bloom sends out lines that stretch forever. For the finale, Szell gives
us what Tovey described as "the laughter of the blessed gods." Beethoven
essentially takes the tropes of martial music and turns them into something
supremely comic, an awe-inspiring blend of lightness and muscle. A high
point of the set.
Symphony #9 in d, op. 125 (1817-24) Choral
As with the Eroica, I can find fault with every recording of this I've
heard, on the grounds of interpretation, playing, or sound quality. A
great many Ninths act as if they can't wait to get to the choral finale,
the other movements merely necessary stations on the way to the Ascension.
To me, the hardest movements are the first and the slow third. Apparently,
conductors can easily lose their way in the first and run out of gas
before the end of the third.
As fine as it is, Szell's Ninth just misses, I think, something
extraordinary. It comes down to the first movement. At the beginning,
one gets a sense of tremendous expectation, like holding your breath as
you wait for catastrophe. One can find much to admire here - from the
crisp rhythms rapped out by the brass and strings, the perfect ensemble,
the contrapuntal clarity, and Szell's ability to sing the lyrical parts
of the movement without getting soppy. However, Szell's usual classical
restraint seems to me a mistake here. Beethoven has left the black-and-white
Kansas of classicism behind. He's definitely striving for something
new, even new to himself - wilder, more turbulent, less inhibited.
Szell's account misses that extra ounce of oomph in the climaxes. It's
a lost opportunity, because his readings of the other movements surpass
all but a few and indeed emphasize Beethoven's new turmoil, without
losing proportion and control. Some conductors give you excitement by
pushing past the breaking point. Normally, Szell increases the vitality
of his readings by exercising greater control. He twists up to and never
past the breaking point. I prefer his way. In this case, however,
control becomes caution. We miss the daring of the orchestra dancing
on the edge.
The scherzo usually comes off in even middling accounts. However,
Szell makes it a locus classicus of Beethoven playing. The contrapuntal
entries crackle with electricity. Cloyd Duff's asymmetrical booms from
his timpani knock you on your pins, and climaxes build inexorably. Even
more magic happens at the trio with the five wind principals - Sharp on
flute, McGuire on oboe, clarinetist Marcellus, bassoonist Goslee (with
a wonderful bubbling line), and Bloom on french horn - five stellar
soloists who also happen to be superb chamber players (the two don't
always go together). At the trio, the music begins to breathe like
nobody's business, and you ride a musical wave that seems to roll forever.
As marvelous as that passage is, the entrance of the lower strings caps
it, and the orchestra drives home its identity as a virtuoso ensemble
of virtuoso and extraordinarily intelligent musicians.
The Adagio sinks many a performance, mainly because conductors seem
to lose interest 'way before the end and then have to find it again.
Szell, on the other hand, delivers the apotheosis of the Beethoven
adagio - that Platonic ideal so lovingly evoked by Elgar in his "Nimrod"
variation. Szell however does it with Beethoven himself. The movement
opens with those solo winds alternating with the equally incredible
strings, opening up a line that soars all the way to Hudson Bay. The
account yields a richness almost like no other, mainly due to Szell's
care with the "subsidiary" theme. Many other conductors concern themselves
only with the primary strain and mark time until it reappears. Szell
mines the profound implications of both - a double whammy if you will.
How Szell ever got a reputation for "coldness," I have no idea. This
movement will shatter your heart.
Of course the choral finale has the most glitz and once upon a time
gave performers a great deal of trouble. Even today, some singers have
difficulty with the florid soloist passages, but by and large, professional
conductors and players know by now how this movement goes. I tend to
dislike the Big Bow-Wow or the Kosmic Kum-Ba-Ya approach, and, yes, I
do know what the lyrics mean. But so many recordings come across like
Jon Lovitz's Master Thespian reciting Hamlet. This says nothing against
Hamlet (or Beethoven's finale, for that matter) but against chewing
the scenery. For me, this movement constitutes one of Szell's greatest
performances. The piece is indeed "misshapen" from a classical viewpoint
- deliberately so - but Szell finds the greater balance of it without
sacrificing expression. This is not only joyous Beethoven, but wise
Beethoven as well. Again, we hear the concern for the long musical line.
Beethoven issues the challenge to performers from the beginning: how
does one find the long line in music that stops and starts, that proceeds
by interrupting itself? With Szell, the pulse never stops. It's almost
like a relay as one idea passes the baton of forward impulse to the next.
Szell puts us on the shore of the Big Tune and initiates one of his best
builds, with ravishing playing both from the strings, low and high, and
from George Goslee's bassoon countermelody. The bass soloist's "Freude!"
answered by the choral men seems shot from guns. It announces an exciting
account. I would admit, however, that the individual voices of the solo
quartet, excepting tenor Richard Lewis, aren't as glorious as some I've
heard, but they definitely take the prize as best ensemble. And the
chorus! Trained by Robert Shaw, they not only put out a tone as big as
choral humankind, but also keep rhythm and sharp ensemble in the fleetest
passages, matching the orchestra. Highlights of the movement include
the first double fugue, the little march (especially Bernard Adelstein's
elfin trumpet, playing perhaps only two different notes), among many
others. I've sung the Ninth many times, so I have some idea of the
choral difficulties - the strangled high notes on "ueber Sternenzelt,"
the sheer stamina you need for the softer passages after you've just
screamed your guts out. The Cleveland Orchestra Chorus says, "Problems?
What problems?" Along with those built by Wilhelm Pitz in England, it
had to be one of the great large choirs of its day. The prestissimo
flight to the end predictably gets your adrenaline going, but here it
moves with greater power at slightly less speed than what you often hear.
Szell prepares for this moment, ratcheting up tension at the merely
fast-as-hell places. By the time we get to the final burst out of the
gate, the spring can't wind any tighter. The music lets go in a rush.
At the end, I wanted to yell and still can't figure out why I didn't.
It's my house, after all.
Overtures and The Creatures of Prometheus
We get the bonuses of Szell's Beethoven theater overtures and Louis
Lane's recording of The Creatures of Prometheus ballet. Szell's readings
are, no surprise, intense and driven, dramatic in both senses of the
term. Even Koenig Stefan and Fidelio, which usually get such short
shrift from commentators, blaze here. Lane has suffered from severe
underrating and neglect. He was, with Shaw, Szell's Associate in
Cleveland. He picked up some ideas from Szell, but he never merely
copied. Beethoven's ballet score hardly counts as one of his best, but
it does function as a kind of equivalent to Mozart's Les petits riens -
lots of very short pieces, sixteen in all, with few opportunities for
Beethoven to indulge in extensive development. The ballet appeared
shortly after the First Symphony. Lane ladles on the charm, even when
the material doesn't come up to what those of us indoctrinated by the
symphonies, concerti, and big overtures might expect. The rhythmic
sharpness is still there, although not as life-or-death as Szell in the
symphonies, and sound is warmer. On the other hand, it's appropriate
and, in many cases, fun. The big surprise for those who don't know the
ballet lies in the finale, with an early appearance (and a much simpler
treatment) of the "Eroica" theme from that symphony's last movement.
None of these readings fall below first rank. Szell's first, second,
fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth are at least as good as anybody's.
I prefer Carlos Kleiber's and Dohnanyi's Fifth. The only Seventh I like
better than Szell's is, again, Kleiber's, but that preference comes down
to my personal vagaries rather than to an ontological difference in
quality. Szell's Eroica suffers from many of the same problems as every
other recording I've heard, but to less of an extent. My favorite Ninth,
as far as interpretation goes, is Furtwaengler's from 1951. You shouldn't
rely on any one set of Beethovens. At least supplement it with individual
recordings. The Szell set, however, is as good a candidate for an
integral set as any I've heard.
Outside of an extremely short CD of the Eighth (less than 27 minutes),
my main gripes are the almost-useless liner notes. There's a fine
appreciation by Eric Kisch of Szell's Beethoven, but the notes to the
individual CDs basically eviscerate the marvelous essays of Klaus George
Roy, to the point where they say absolutely nothing. In the days of the
LP, you could actually pick up a fair amount of musical knowledge from
the back of album covers, often written by the top experts in the field.
As far as I'm concerned, these CD liner notes are a cheat. I'm surprised
Roy allowed his name anywhere near these things.
The sound improves on any previous incarnation - certainly better than
my old Epic LPs, which sounded drier than saltines and tinnier than a
box of Altoids. Of course, I didn't own state-of-the-art equipment back
then (still don't), so my impressions may differ from others.
I have heard disquieting rumors that Sony may pull this set soon because,
as we all know, nobody buys classical music in quantities that satisfy
mega-corporations used to the sales figures of Justin Timberlake.
Consider yourself warned.
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