George Szell (1897-1970) was one of the
great conductors of the 20th century, and remains
best known for his twenty-four year long tenure as principal
conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra. This recording of Mahler’s
Sixth Symphony was made at a live performance in October 1967,
towards the end of the maestro’s career.
None of Mahler’s symphonies expresses the
intensity of his vision so directly, so urgently, as the Sixth.
It is his most uncompromisingly tragic score, while at the same
time, his most classical, with a particularly tight control
of musical development. The time-scale is extensive, and so
too is the orchestra, which includes 8 horns, 6 trumpets, 4
trombones, quadruple woodwind and much percussion. In the final
movement, moreover, he described his downfall: 'This is the
hero, on whom fall three blows of fate, the last of which fells
him as a tree is felled.' And these three 'hammer-blows' of
fate did indeed strike Mahler within months. His elder daughter
Putzi died of diphtheria, intrigues ousted him from his post
at the Vienna Opera, and the heart disease which was to kill
him at the age of fifty was diagnosed.
Mahler’s revisions of the symphony included
reversing the order of the middle movements, though it seems
he changed his mind again about this. He also, probably from
superstition, deleted the last of the three 'hammer-blows',
though some conductors - but not George Szell - reinstate it.
Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra achieved
the highest standards of playing, based upon a discipline that
was second to none. The tight ensemble and rock-steady adherence
to well-chosen tempi suit this symphony particularly well, and
this is therefore a notable performance to set beside the most
celebrated versions, of which there is no shortage: Karajan
(DG), Abbado (DG), Tilson Thomas (SFS Media), Bernstein (Sony
and DG), and most recently, Christoph Eschenbach and the Philadelphia
Orchestra (Ondine, SACD). The latter makes for very interesting
comparisons, with broader tempi resulting in a performance some
ten minutes longer than Szell’s. This also results in a second
CD and the need for a ‘filler’, in this case Mahler’s early
Mention of SACD, in other words the best
modern sound, gets us to the crux of the matter when it comes
to whether or not to mention the Szell as a top recommendation.
For the sound is adequate rather than inspiring. It is true
that the Sony remastering has improved the original to a considerable
extent, as comparisons with the original LPs reveal. However,
for all the clarity there remains a certain opaqueness, in addition
to a lack of depth in the perspective, while the violin tone
tends to be thin and hard. In a strange way some of this is
not out of sympathy with the music or the interpretation, but
it has to be a significant factor for the collector wanting
to possess just a single interpretation.
On the other hand, there is the matter of
price, and on a single reissued CD Szell’s performance is nothing
if not competitive. And it is a great performance too. Yet in
Mahler if the listener possesses the playing equipment to do
justice to the composer’s command of the orchestra, there are
clear benefits to be gained from having the best sound on offer.
The apocalyptic effect of the ‘hammer blow’ climaxes in the
finale comes immediately to mind, the quiet, doom laden final
The Szell performance has adequate and clear
recorded sound, as does Bernstein’s 1960s recording from New York, also on Sony. But other more
recently recorded versions will allow the ‘sonic spectacular’
aspect of Mahler to make its impact. The best option, perhaps,
is to own more than one recording.