Even in a marketplace dominated by reissues, it's rare to find live concerts under Szell outside Cleveland. This pairing of the Beethoven Eighth and Ninth dates from a three-concert series that Szell gave in Nov. 1968 with the briefly renamed New Philharmonia; the venue is royal Festival Hall. The sound is good FM broadcast sound, shallow in the bass and in mono. The conductor brought is own parts with him because he favored doubling various horn and woodwind passages in both symphonies (the Ninth apparently follows Wagner's suggestions about doublings in the Ninth).
The Eighth gets a reading strong on vigor, weak on charm. Szell doesn't drive the pace as hard as Toscanini did, but he's in the ballpark. Such a taut, lean interpretation isn't to my liking, but Szell's admirers will find tis Eighth as good as his studio account with Cleveland and perhaps more incisive. There are punchy accents and sudden dynamic changes to add to the hard-hitting effect.
Szell's studio account of the Ninth is one of his best known Beethoven recordings, and here the reminders of Toscanini are everywhere. For a stereo version of Toscanini's drive and tenseness, this Ninth comes as close as one will ever hear. Tautness and discipline are the order of the day. The style was wildly admired in its day, now much less so. It has the decided advantage of making Beethoven seem like a firebrand, a side of him that has decidedly cooled off. But there's not much breadth or humanity. The timpani is overmiked in the Scherzo, entering like an artillery volley. It's also a handicap to have this reading in mono so late in the game; for many listeners the Cleveland recordings wins automatically for being in stereo, but Szell is quite a bit more aggressive here, if that is an appealing quality.
The Adagio is taken slow enough (16 min.) to seem like a traditional Adagio rather than the sped-up modern pacing. Szell's handling of balances is exemplary, and he gives the music weight and seriousness, if not eloquence. The finale begins aggressively, due i part to the treble-dominant sonics. The contrasting episodes before the bass's solo entry are expertly handled, moving propulsively forward without becoming disjointed. The solo quartet is starry, although the tenor is horribly wobbly and Crass shouts out his "o Freunde" in the heat of the moment. The chorus is distant and their diction too fuzzy to understand. But clearly this Ninth was an event, despite sonic limitations. In better sound it would have been a more valuable addition to the Szell legacy.
Heather Harper, soprano/ Janet Baker, mezzo-soprano/ Ronald
Dowd, tenor/Franz Crass, bass/ New Philharmonia Chorus and