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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827) Complete Symphonies
Symphony No. 1 Op.21 in C Major
Symphony No. 2 Op.36 in D Major
Symphony No. 3 Op.55 in E Flat Major Eroica
Symphony No. 4 Op.60 in B Flat Major
Symphony No. 5 Op 67 in C Minor
Symphony No. 6 Op.68 in F Major Pastoral
Symphony No. 7 Op. 92 in A Major
Symphony No. 8 Op.93 in F Major
Symphony No. 9 Op.125 in D Minor Choral #
Leonore Overture No.1 Op.138
Leonore Overture No.2 Op.72b
Leonore Overture No.3 Op.72a
Egmont Overture Op.84
Coriolan Overture Op.62
King Stephen Overture Op.117
Fidelio Overture Op.72
Creatures of Prometheus Op.43*
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No. 41 in C major K551 Jupiter
Adele Addison (soprano) Jane Hobson (mezzo soprano) Richard Lewis (tenor) Donald Bell (baritone) Cleveland Orchestra Chorus#
Cleveland Orchestra/George Szell
Cleveland Orchestra/Louis Lane*
Recorded 1957-67
SONY ORIGINAL JACKET COLLECTION SX10K92480 [10 CDs: 57.09 + 47.21 + 45.24 + 58.01 + 41.24 + 33.47 + 26.37 + 66.12 + 54.00 + 62.50]

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I 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.

Rarely 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.

The 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.

I 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 experience.

There 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.

Add 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?

Jonathan Woolf


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