Classical Editor: Rob Barnett                               Founder Len Mullenger:

Johannes BRAHMS - orchestral works conducted by SZELL
The Four Symphonies
Academic Festival Overture
Tragic Overture
St Anthony Variations
Hungarian Dances 17-21
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
(these discs are also available separately)
SONY CLASSICAL - Essential Classics SB3K48398
Crotchet  £17.99 AmazonUK   AmazonUS
CD1 SBK 46534
CD2 SBK 47652
CD3 SBK 46330
[CD1 70.52; CD2 74.29; CD3 69.17]

The recording quality is pretty much as die-hard LP collectors will remember; cross-grained, not suave, a little 'toppy, in your face, with aural glare on intense massed string passages. It is not fatal but it is a disagreeable element to contend with and not something that had to be there when you compare the Ormandy/Philadelphia Brahms Concertos (also on an Essential Classics CD). All the symphonies suffer - some more than others with the real casualty being Symphony No. 1 where an exciting performance has to be heard through a sharkskin-rough surface patina. Tape noise though present when listening through headphones is not the issue here; it is the intrinsic sound quality.

These interpretations will be familiar to some listeners from Columbia LPs (SAX5279, SAX5284 ,SAX2572, SAX5292) issued in the UK between 1965 and 1968. Szell's reputation as a martinet in the Toscanini mould precedes him. There was a part of me that expected/wanted to find these performances brisk, precise, unfeeling. Expectations were defeated. In fact things go along at a sane but pliant and responsive pace. Precision and care is everywhere. One is deliciously aware of nice balances being made all the time in matters of dynamics and tempi. There is pleasure in abundance to be had from this. The orchestra (very much his orchestra) knows the music and knows their conductor. They must have given these works in Severance Hall so many times.

The Second and Third Symphonies (coupled on a single CD) are the best of the bunch with the Fourth Symphony lagging not far behind. The Third stands out from this listening experience and also happens to be my favourite among the four. If Szell lacks the calculated relaxation and humanity of the Bruno Walter version (also on Sony - CBS is strong in Brahms interpreters) he freshens perceptions of this beloved work. All is expertly limned and judged. Szell's Brahms 4 has drawn flak from some quarters because of its dragging pulse but the work flows with wonder and when you get to the Allegro giocoso are there any other conductors who mark the rhythmic impact with such accented nail-smiting power? Though I greatly enjoyed the Hermann Abendroth recording on Berlin Classics it does not have the fiery heat of the Szell. The overtures and variations are better than serviceable if hardly wondrous though the Academic Festival Overture bark-bubbling horns are rather special and the Tragic Overture is vigorously accented and develops a mellow glow. Ormandy's Hungarian roots lend a garish zest to the 'filler' Dances (and we should be grateful for Sony's generosity in adding them) - definitely not mellow. Ormandy's Hungarian Dances (Brahms)and Szell's fabled Slavonic Dances (Dvorák - not in the review set) make a piquant contrast.

Brahmsians who do not know Szell's symphony interpretations should pick up this set before it disappears. It has been in the catalogue since about 1990 so its future may be unstable.

Rob Barnett

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