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.