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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No.5 in C Minor, Op. 67 [32:06]
Jean SIBELIUS (1865-1957)
Symphony No.2 in D, Op. 43 [41:28]
Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam/Georg Szell
rec. December 1964 (Sibelius), November 1966 (Beethoven), Amsterdam. ADD
PHILIPS 420 771-2 [73:33] 


Classic performances, these. They were last available on a single disc a few years ago (see review). If you failed to heed John Phillips' exhortation not to miss that issue, you can still acquire these magnificent performances in one of two ways: in Universal's 5 CD box set of Szell's Decca and Philips recordings (Decca 4756780), or on this “on demand” release from Arkiv. 

Szell's Beethoven remains as fresh and exciting today as it ever was. His fifth is a well known quantity, mostly from the recording he made with the Cleveland Orchestra as part of his cycle on Sony. That recording remains a classic, and this one is cut very much from the same interpretative cloth. There are two main differences between the two accounts. Firstly, the tonal palate of the Concertgebouw Orchestra is quite different to that of the Cleveland Orchestra. There is a silkiness to the Dutch string sound that contrasts with the glassier tone of the Clevelanders. I prefer the Dutch winds but favour the Cleveland brass. Secondly, the Philips recording is cleaner, and less constricted than the Sony (at least in its Essential Classics guise – SBK 89844). I believe there is also a live account with Szell conducting the Vienna Philharmonic kicking around somewhere, but I am yet to hear it.

There is a biting urgency to the first movement – played without exposition repeat – and an electricity born of Szell's impeccable attention to detail and sharply etched dynamics. His tempi are superbly judged and never rushed, allowing him to achieve a perfect balance between tension and lyricism that you will not find elsewhere. With his emphasis on the middle and upper registers of the orchestra, rather than building from the bottom up, Szell keeps textures light and allows you to hear the beauty of this score, especially in the inner movements, without sacrificing its revolutionary spirit or excitement. 

To be brief, this is one of the great Beethoven fifths and it deserves its place in your collection. You will certainly have your own favourite recordings. Yes, Kleiber is more dangerous and dramatic. Yes, the new Vänska is beautifully shaped and recorded. But Szell is equally, and utterly, compelling. 

The Sibelius performance that follows is also superb. Again, Szell keeps orchestral textures light and tempi flowing, preserving the freshness of Sibelius' score. He is not as swift as Ormandy (Sony) in the opening wash, but he coaxes playful dancing from his winds, and manages balances like no one else on record. His pacing is ever apt, his pointing of rhythms and placing of accents faultless. And once again the Concertgebouw responds admirably. The brass chorales in the first movement are lovely, and the string pizzicato passages in the second are spooky. Szell also makes the most of the build up into the final movement, leading the ear on and ratcheting up the tension until it explodes into proud and martial display, virile and without a trace of bombast.

If I have any complaint, it is that the tone of the principal trumpet fails to blend consistently with the rest of the orchestra and is, in the first movement in particular, thin and declamatory. But the alertness of the orchestra as a whole offers ample compensation. I will not be discarding my Blomstedt recording any time soon – his San Francisco Sibelius cycle remains one of the great ones in my book – but this Szell performance belongs alongside it. You may find Szell austere at first if you are used to a more romantically indulgent approach – like that of Sir Colin Davis on his recent LSO Live disc – but you will find his lean, muscular and logical approach refreshing. 

My review copy of this Arkiv CD-R did not include liner notes, but Arkiv is now including liner notes with all new issues, and that existing issues – like this one – are being upgraded to include the notes. 

If you love these symphonies, you will want to hear Szell's performances, and frequently. These recordings are surely in line for remastering and reissue on the Philips Originals imprint, but who knows how long that will take? Demand from Arkiv now to avoid disappointment. 

Tim Perry


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