last saw the bulk of these Szell-Beethoven recordings on a rather
Plain-Jane Essential Classics series with unenticing graphics.
Now here we have a GI Jane set, a bicep-expanding Original sleeve
ten-disc box that takes its accomplished place in an increasingly
formidable collection of reissues.
out of the catalogues since their first appearances these classics
are lissom, linear, superbly articulate and wonderfully balanced
representations of Szell’s art – and of Beethovenian understanding.
Not one is less than first class and if one or two suffered
from very slightly congested sonics then that certainly doesn’t
impair appreciation of the performance as a whole. As I said,
each is in miniaturised LP sleeve form, a piece of retro styling
I like, and the set comes at a most affordable price bracket
into the bargain.
First is spruce-goose, not unreasonably fast - Szell is in fact
never unconscionably fast in this repertoire, unlike a contemporary
such as, say, Reiner could sometimes be - and has room to breathe.
Textures are aerated, divisi lines audible and in the finale
the bass pointing is pure poetry, as much as the momentum is
joyful and proportioned; the ensemble, subject to Szell’s exacting
standards, watertight. A high point of the Second is the Turneresque veil of the strings in the Larghetto
where one finds a perfect balance between their section and
the winds. The Third is special, its opening movement taken
at a Toscanini like tempo (con brio). The Cleveland
string choirs again impress, the fugato passage is powerful,
the funeral march has a wonderfully sustained climax and the
finale is very fast - something of a feature of these recordings,
where Szell brings clarity and intimacy to even the most ebullient
passages. One of the other noticeable features is the perfectly
scaled fortissimo – try the first movement of the Fourth for
example. Here the sound is a mite congested and though the performance
is entirely convincing there’s some loss of higher frequency
response. Aural and sonic considerations apart though it’s still
a leonine reading. The Fifth is quite measured in its opening
movement, but has real nobility in the slow movement and is
animated by Szell’s invigorating rhythmic understanding. The
finale is triumphant and galvanizing – though overall it’s not
quite the accomplishment one might have expected.
enjoyed the Pastoral greatly; phrasing is natural sounding and
affectionate; the clarinets are to the fore in the opening.
The Elysian qualities in the Scene by the Brook are captured
with unselfconscious humanity and with élan and in the merriment
Szell’s canvass is brightly etched as a Breughel. The tempo
of the finale is bracing and most persuasive. In the Seventh
one finds encapsulated all that is fine in this cycle. Textures
are firm and bass light – there’s no bass up Kapellmeister sonority
here – and tempi are unponderous but just. One never feels them
militating against the natural current of the music though there’s
plenty of trenchancy and power when required. Counter themes
– in the opening movement – are brought out (but never archly
– always in balance) and in the Allegretto we have a tempo that
moves forward whilst having room to phrase and breathe. His
Eighth is pert and witty but not too witty with a finale that
moves decisively and embraces some trenchant outbursts. The
Ninth has a first class roster of soloists. There’s some hiss
on this disc, as to be fair there is on others but with a slight
volume reduction it’s unproblematic. This is a powerful but
not cataclysmic reading and one predicated strongly on classical
lines. There’s more Kleiberesque (Erich not Carlos) direction
than Furtwänglerian amorphousness, as one would doubtless expect.
There’s clarity in the Molto Vivace second movement, which he
takes at a Koussevitskian tempo. Shaw’s Chorus is on top form,
the soloists as well. A fine if ultimately not overwhelming
are some bonuses in the form of Overtures. Egmont is quite grave
and measured and doesn’t ring out as thrillingly as others;
it’s far more measured and determined. Fidelio has notable command.
The Creatures of Prometheus ballet music comes courtesy of associate
conductor Louis Lane, always underrated. There’s plenty of colour and characterisation
in his reading and it certainly doesn’t wither in the Szell
headlight glare. It would be remiss of me to omit mention of
the latter’s Mozart – an incongruity in this box but a very
welcome one. This is the Jupiter Symphony, originally
Beethoven-coupled on its first LP appearance and thus resurrected
here. Flowing and serious it reaches a Szell apotheosis in the
finale, capped with a superb trumpet and precision tooled, expertly
calibrated last few pages.
to all this some memorable photographs, some not seen before
(though the one on page 27 is reversed) and we have a veritable
feast for the perceptive cycle lover. And there’s one even bigger
bonus. Turn to page 39 and you see Szell actually smiling –
natty in a three-piece suit, raising a glass of champagne with
Goddard “God” Lieberson. Will wonders never cease?