42 of 51 people found the following review helpful
Mark E. Stenroos
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
Kudos to Decca for bringing together in one convenient set George Szell's recordings that were made for the Decca & Philips labels from the early 1950s and to mid 1960s (minus those recordings where he acted in the role of accompanist, ie: those with pianist Curzon). These recordings are very well known and have been collector's items for many years, so to have them together in a mid-price box is self recommending.
The Philips recordings were issued a few years ago as a 2-CD set in their "Early Years" series while a few of the Decca recordings have already been released as singles in their Classic Sound series (both series saw very spotty distribution Stateside). I detect very little change in the sound quality in these new Decca Classic Sound versions, though the couplings from CD to CD are better programmed here than they were before (Philips had to cram alot of music on those 2CDs).
The most-recommendable recordings in the bunch are Szell's Mozart 34, Dvorak 8, Beethoven Egmont, Mendelssohn Midsummer's Night and Brahms 3. Here, the usual Szell trademarks are fully on display: tight rhythms, crisp articulation and finely graded dynamics. However, I was unexpectedly disappointed in two recordings long held to be top Szell & basic repertoire recommendations: the Beethoven 5 and Sibelius 2.
The Beethoven 5 has always been touted as more relaxed and in better sound than Szell's CBS 5th with Cleveland. But comparing this new Decca re-issue to Sony's recent "Original Jacket" issue of the Cleveland 5th, I didn't find that to be true at all. The Sony version now stands - to me, at least - as the better representation of Szell in this warhorse, both as an interpretation and in recorded sound. Indeed, the Concertgebouw recording suffers from an extremely lackluster and sloppy second movement that probably could have used a retake. Something just isn't right here - conductor and orchestra are not on the same page of the playbook...which is not what one expects in a recording by such a strong-willed technician as Szell. As an overall performance, this Concertgebouw recording is now easily surpassed by Szell's Sony effort, not to mention alternate versions by Kleiber, Karajan, Bernstein and others (but, again, you need to hear the Szell/Sony in the Original Jackets remastering, not the earlier Essential Classics version).
As for the Sibelius 2, we have a situation where poor intonation and hesitant execution in the orchestra knock this version off the pedestal of received opinion. And, with Szell's live Tokyo performance with Cleveland now widely available, his Concertgebouw version comes in direct competition with - Szell himself, and in a much better and much more cohesive recording. With the "if only he had recorded this with Cleveland" caveat removed, the choice is now clear - get the Cleveland version if you want Szell in Sibelius 2. That recording remains a top recommendation, though Ormandy, Maazel, Vanska and even Karajan have all brought their particular strengths to this piece as well, strengths that are much different than Szell's forte(s). There's plenty of room at the top when it comes to great recordings of great music.
Having lived with both the Beethoven and Sibelius for years, it's a bit disconcerting to have to make the above observations, but there you have it.
For the rest of the set, it is good to have Szell's interpretations of Tchaikovsky and Schubert on hand in such good sound. But truth be told, there are better versions out there of these works as well, the Tchaik 4 in particular (which in Szell's hands hangs fire in the least-expected places). The Baroque recordings included here are testament to a long-gone era when the standard Baroque works (worques?) were made acceptable to orchestral audiences by beefing them up to quasi-Wagnerian proportions. And even here, Szell is bettered by his contemporaries like Adrian Boult and Karl Richter in similar repertoire. A Baroque curate's egg if there ever was one.
Having said all of the above, I can still safely recommend this set to just about anyone interested in Szell or the repertoire on offer. Yes - work to work, there are better versions available, some from Szell himself. But *overall,* this set will provide plenty of pleasure and musical excitement to everyone save the anti-Szell wing of the classical music zealotry.
4 of 4 people found the following review helpful
Santa Fe Listener
- Published on Amazon.com
Format: Audio CD
George Szell wandered from his home label of Epic, a branch of Columbia Records, to do work for several European labels, most of it towrad the end of his life -- since he died at 73, his career was foreshortened by the standards of a Klemperer or Stokowski. Szell's last few years showed a decline in energy because of heart disease, but it was EMI that got the worst of that period. Decca and Philips were much luckier. His stints with the Concertgebouw of Amsterdam and the Vienna Phil. produced some of his best recordings, warmed by the European sound of both orchestras and their relaxed habits that Szell the martinet couldn't alter even with his force of will.
Since I knew all these recordings in their day, it's a pleasure to return to them one by one:
CD 1 -- We begin on a high level with a Concertgebouw Beethoven Fifth that is better recorded than its counterpart from Clevealand and more expansive in feeling -- not drastically so, but enough to remove any feeling of constriction. The interpretation is cut from the same cloth as Toscanini's and Erich Kleiber's withoout their utmost intensity. To the extent that polished execution can carry the day, this is an outstanding reading. But the real classic here is Szell's glorious performance of the incidental music from "Egmont" with the Vienna Phil. There is tremendous pathos as well as excitement -- one could hardly hope for better.
CD 2 -- I loved Szell's Mendelssohn in the day because of its sparkle, clarity, and perfect ensemble. Those virtues are present in the incidental music to A Midsummer Night's Dream, but now I notice a lack of geniality and atmosphere. This music suffers when it is forced into a quick march. But the Concertgebouw is in best form -- much more alert and vital than in the Beethoven Fifth -- and the recording is full and clear. The Tchaikovsky Fourth with the London Symphony has its admirers among listeners who don't want Tchaikovsky to get too emotional -- Szell took the same sober view of Bruckner and Mahler. But fortunately, he is expansive enough that the reading never feels straitjacketed, and by the end I was won over. Decca's excellent recorded sound helps. As you might expect, ensemble in the pizzicato Scherzo is razor sharp.
CD 3: The incidental music to Schubert's Rosamunde is simple enough for a good high school orchestra to play, but it takes magic to bring out its poetic soul. Here I find Szell impressive for polish, elegance, even charm at times but not quite magical. One virtue is the glow of the Concertgebouw sound. The same orchestra performs the Sibelius Sym. #2, a reading much admired at the time, but to me Szell is brisk and uninvolved throughout -- with the passage of time we've become used to readings that have more passion by far. This is the first work in which I'd say that Szell approaches sounding clinical. The finale rings out impressively, but I didn't feel at all moved.
CD 4: The Water Music and Music for the Royal Fireworks were about the only Handel orchestral works that mainstream conductors featured forty years ago, and Szell, like everyone else, uses a big string body with plentiful vibrato. The result, performed by the LSO, is grand and very musical, thrilling at times, even. But younger listeners will think this recording dates before electric lights. I was unexpectedly moved. Szell, an eminent Mozartean, is on home ground in a rousing Sym. 34 in C from Amsterdam. It's done in the same big style that was the norm, but Szell's alertness and impeccable ensemble deliver great pleasure. Period performances can't have the whole banquet. This reading is consierably less tense than the Mozart Szell presided over in Cleveland.
CD 5: The Brahms Third was one of Szell's notable successes in his Cleveland cycle, tightly knit and propulsive as it was. Decca took a risk including this mono version from Amsterdam, but it's probably the greatest thing in the collection. Not only is the sound vivid and colorful, but the orchestra plays its heart out, and there's mystery and passion, which is rare with Szell and rare in this work. You will be gripped from first note to last. Also in mono is a Dvorak 8th with the same Concertgebouw, although here the sonics are rather muffled. Compared to his reading in stereo with the Clevelanders, Szell is less dictatorial, but frankly, there's a flock of fine performances of this work, and the present one doesn't stand out in particular, especially given the limited sonics.
All told, I'm glad I returned to these familiar readings from four decades ago. There's evidence everywhere of Szell's gifts, here shown off to best advantage.