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George SZELL (1897-1970) - Great Conductors of the 20th Century
Daniel-François-Esprit AUBER (1782-1871)

Fra Diavolo: Overture
Cleveland Orchestra
Recorded Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, 2nd November 1961
Antonín DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)

Symphony no.8 in G, op.88
Cleveland Orchestra
Recorded at Severance hall, Cleveland, 28/29th April, 1970
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918)

La Mer

WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Live studio recording at Klaus von Bismarck Saal, WDR, Cologne, 16th November 1962
Frederick DELIUS (1862-1934)

Irmelin: Prelude
Cleveland Orchestra
Recorded Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland 28th October 1956
Gioacchino ROSSINI (1792-1868)

L’Italiana in Algeri: overture
Cleveland Orchestra
Recorded Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, 5th May 1967
Peter TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)

Symphony no.5 in E minor, op.64
WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln
Live studio recording at Klaus von Bismarck Saal, WDR, Cologne, 24th June 1966
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

The Mastersingers of Nuremberg: Prelude to Act I
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Recorded at Carnegie Hall, New York, 4th January 1954
Josef STRAUSS (1827-1870)

Waltz Delirien, op.212
Cleveland Orchestra
Recorded at Severance Hall, Cleveland, 5th January 1952
EMI CLASSICS IMG ARTISTS 7243 5 75962 2 0 [72:55+72:36]

George Szell was a conductor who was feared and respected rather than loved by his players. In this, he wasn’t that different from many eminent maestros of his and earlier generations, and I don’t get the impression that it worried him overmuch. There is no doubting his great musical talent, and the discipline he brought to his rehearsals and performances.

He is represented here in repertoire for which he is well known – Dvořák, Wagner and others of that era – along with some that one wouldn’t immediately associate with him. CD1 begins, for example, with a fizzing account of the enticing Fra Diavolo overture by Auber, full of wit and élan. It finishes with a loving and equally stylish version of Delius’s exquisite prelude to Irmelin.

Also on CD1 is a Dvořák Eighth recorded with the Cleveland Orchestra – the band with which he was most strongly linked – in 1970, just months before his death. It is a fine account, with a sure sense of architecture yet careful projection of the many characteristic details. Now, I grew up (along with how many readers, I wonder?) with a Szell Dvořák Eighth, published by Decca on the old ‘Ace of Clubs’ label. It was with the Concertgebouw, and packed with a joyous sense of adventure and incident. One has to take care, because one always remembers such recordings with misty-eyed affection. But on checking, I was struck by how much more sense of urgent forward movement there was in the opening Allegro con brio, and elsewhere. An earlier date, a younger, more energetic Szell, no doubt. But equally, I was struck how Szell had refined his interpretation over the years, with many small fluctuations in the tempo to add emphasis.

A splendid La Mer follows, from 1962, and, though the playing of the Cologne Orchestra is not always up to the highest standards, they play their hearts out for Szell, and give a thrilling account. It by no means suffers by comparison with the Giulini recording from the same era that I reviewed a week or two back.

CD2 begins with a brilliant Italian Girl in Algiers, followed by a truly resplendent Tchaikovsky Fifth. There is a sense of urgency and drive about Szell’s conducting here, which serves the music exceptionally well. Listen, for example, to how he refuses to allow the first movement’s second subject to relax too much (CD2, track 2, around 4:28). So many conductors lose the plot here and imagine themselves in a ballet suite rather than a symphony! Bracing.

A magisterial Mastersingers prelude, and, just to underline the point of what a truly great stylist Szell was, a totally intoxicating one of one of the less well-known waltzes from the Strauss family, Josef’s Delirien complete CD2. The playing he draws from the Cleveland strings in this last number is out of this world.

Szell was truly an aristocrat among conductors, and nothing on this fine set falls below the superb standards he set for himself and his orchestras.

Gwyn Parry-Jones

EMI/IMG Great conductors of the 20th Century

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