It's sad that the "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" reissue series has not gotten more attention, because it has my vote for the best reissue program thus far of the 21st Century. Drawing from the archives of all the major classical labels (EMI, Sony, BMG, DG, Decca, Philips, Supraphon, etc.), EMI and IMG Artists have assembled a wonderful series of affordable two-disc sets by the leading conductors of the last century. And unlike its counterpart, "The Great Pianists of the 20th Century," which are basically compilations of material already available on other CDs, the "Great Conductors" features rare and, for the most part, previously unreleased performances! And as if that wasn't enough, the most recent volumes (beginning with no. 26) are now available at mid-line instead of full-price!
This particular CD, Volume 33, features the great George Szell, who made the Cleveland Orchestra into one of the world's best during his nearly twenty-five year tenure (1946-1970). Unlike many of the conductors featured in this series, the majority of Szell's great stereo performances have been reissued on CD, either by Sony or EMI. As a result, you would think there wouldn't be any worthwhile unreleased material left. Well, guess again, and since the track information is not abundantly clear above, allow me to tell what is contained in this fine collection.
Disc one begins with Auber's "Fra Diavolo" Overture (from 1957 with the Cleveland Orchestra). Next is a terrific account of Dvorak's 8th Symphony (Cleveland Orchestra, 1970) made for EMI only months before the conductor's death. Unfortunately, this performance has been readily available for years on an EMI Double Forte title (the first disc in that set being the "Emperor" Concerto with Gilels), though it is currently unavailable domestically. Disc one concludes with a 1962 live studio recording (for broadcast) of Debussy's "La Mer" with the Koln RSO, and a rare (for the conductor) Delius performance -- the Prelude from "Irmelin" (Cleveland, 1956).
Disc two starts with Rossini's "L'Italiana in Algeri" Overture (Cleveland, 1967), then shifts gears to, what for me, is the highlight of this collection (since I already owned the aforementioned Dvorak), Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony. Szell's famous account with the Cleveland Orchestra first released in 1960 (and currently available on CD in two forms -- by itself as a "Great Performances" title, or as part of a two-disc set in the Sony Essential Classics "Take 2" series) is one of the greatest performances of the work ever made. This live studio recording (originally for radio broadcast) from 1966 with the Koln RSO while sadly not as good (but it's close!), is nonetheless compelling for comparative purposes. Next is the collection's only mono recording, a 1954 account of the Prelude to Act I of Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nurnberg" with the New York Philharmonic. Disc two finishes with a Strauss Waltz, "Delirien," from 1962 with Szell's old buddies from Cleveland.
Whether you are a serious collector of classical music or a beginner, the "Great Conductors of the 20th Century" has something for everyone. If the prized, rare performances previously unreleased on CD (or ever!) doesn't excite you, then use this as an opportunity to check out one of the greatest conductors ever recorded. Chances are, since stores are offering increasingly homogenized classical music sections, this conductor isn't even in your collection. And that would truly be a shame.