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.