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CLASSICAL  January 2009

CLASSICAL January 2009

Subject:

Szell Away From Home

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

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

Date:

Fri, 16 Jan 2009 12:56:04 -0800

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text/plain

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George Szell
Decca & Philips Recordings 1951-1969

*  Beethoven:
       - Symphony #5 in c, op. 67
       - Incidental Music to Egmont by Goethe
*  Mendelssohn: Incidental Music to A Midsummer Night's Dream
*  Tchaikovsky: Symphony #4 in f, op. 36
*  Schubert: Incidental Music to Rosamunde, Fuerstin von Zypern
*  Sibelius: Symphony #2 in D, 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, K338
*  Brahms: Symphony #3 in F, op. 90*
*  Dvorak: Symphony #8 in G, op. 88*

Pilar Lorengar, soprano
Klaus-Juergen Wussow, narrator
Concertgebouw Orchestra
Wiener Philharmoniker
London Symphony Orchestra/George Szell
Decca 4756780 *MONO Total Time: 5:52:51 (5 CDs)

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 Dohnanyi, 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 Dvorak
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 Orchestra
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 Dvorak.  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 LSO 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 Dvorak) 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.

Steve Schwartz

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