Decca & Philips Recordings 1951-69 Box set
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All the great symphonic recordings that the illustrious Mr. Szell made for Decca and Philips, transferred directly from tape to disc for pristine sound (and at budget price, no less)! Includes Symphony No. 5 in C Minor Beethoven; Symphony No. 4 in F Minor Tchaikovsky; Symphony No. 2 in D Major Sibelius; Symphony No. 34 in C Major Mozart; Symphony No. 3 in F Major Brahms, and more on five CDs.
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Szell's Concertgebouw Beethoven Symphony 5 is MUCH BETTER than his Cleveland recording. The precision is there, but it also sings, and is warmer than the Cleveland recording (Sony, coupled with Symphony 2). Szell's Vienna EGMONT is one of the best recordings of the work, if not THE best recording of the stereo age, even 36 years after it was recorded. The Sibelius 2 (also with the Concertgebouw) is warm and fine in every way. The Concertgebouw played beautifully for him, and it shows.
The Mendelssohn MIDSUMMER NIGHT's DREAM, Schubert ROSAMUNDE, Mozart Symphony 34, Handel WATER MUSIC and ROYAL FIREWORKS MUSIC are all excellent, too. Some may have favorite performances, but I cannot imagine anything better than Szell's Concertgebouw Mozart 34: perhaps Bohm (DG) and Krips (Philips).
The 5th disc has two classic mono recordings of the early 1950s:
Dvorak's Symphony 8, and Brahms 3, both with the Concertgebouw. The sound is just fine: beautifully remastered, and Szell's performances very solid and musical.
As you can tell, I'm very happy with this, and would advise anyone with $30.00 spare change to pick it up at their first opportunity.
To start with the finest of them all we have a Beethoven Fifth from 66 with the Concertgebouw and personally I have never heard a more heroic sounding one. Almost every conductor who reads Beethoven's connotative name "Schicksal" tries to do a profound tragic reading of some sort. Not Szell: hear the final movement in this recording which is so heroic and optimistically done that I had the impression of hearing a complete new symphony as his approach is so different from other conductors. To continue in the order in which the titles appear in this box set, the Fifth is followed by Szells legendary recording of Beethoven's incidental music to Egmont. This has to be the best Egmont in the catalogue nonetheless because of the Vienna Philharmonic's ravishing performance and of course Pilar Lorengar's spectacular singing. To my mind there's not a single recording of Egmont out there that can compete neither in Soprano soloist nor conductor's energy...
The second disc offers a beautiful account of excerpts (too bad) of Mendelssohn's Midsummer Night's Dream which are so fine that one feels sadly deprived of a complete version. After this a glorious Tchaikovsky 4th sweeps you from the sofa (also heroic to the limit) about which other reviewers have written a lot..
Schubert's Rosamunde leaves you spellbound, followed by Szell's Sibelius 2nd with the Concertgebouw which most reviewers find to be minor compared to his account with Cleveland done live in Tokyo as one of his last performances. To be honest I unfortunately never heard the Cleveland version but this Concertgebouw Sibelius 2nd sounds a bit too lean and analytic for my ears as I like a much more romantic approach especially of the 2nd but this is a question of personal taste and I am sure that a lot of people will appreciate Szell's approach here. For everyone who is fed up with the sterile sound of so called original instruments and sterile but brutally performed baroque interpretations Szell's version of Handel's Water and Fireworks Music should be a relief. Although it is a much more romantic approach that almost sounds like Beethoven I adored his Handel readings which have much more power than recent recordings of so-called baroque specialists, but listen for yourself!!
Mozart's 34th symphony again done with the Concertgebouw is undoubtedly one of the greatest recordings in this set and is not surpassable in its exuberance. Disc 5 starts with the only flaw of this edition, which is a Brahms 3rd from 51 with the Concertgebouw and suddenly it sounds as if they were a complete different orchestra at all. Seldomly have I heard so emotionless and cold playing to which the mono sound adds a certain icyness that left me completely unsatisfied and miles away from great interpretations of Brahms glorious 3rd. Especially dissapointing is the string section here which sounds screechy and like they were playing on wires... the final piece on the set a Dvorak's 8th makes up for the strange Brahms. With Dvorak Szell is more at home than almost any other conductor as his readings of Dvoraks 7-9 still have to be counted among the best available. This 8th again has Szell acting as conquering hero who makes the last movement sound as if it was written for Ben Hur!
So with one exception this set contains wonderful recordings of one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century. One would wish that younger conductors would only come close to Szell's accourate but heroic interpretations.
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.
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.
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