For some reason, when Sony withdrew its Essential Classics catalogue
from circulation and began to reissue the range in a newly generic
livery, this disc from Szell's classic Beethoven cycle never
managed to find its way back onto the shelves. Why Sony would
have reissued the rest of the cycle and left these performances
out is a mystery. It is certainly not a question of quality,
as these recordings are among the best in Szell's cycle. Perhaps
it was overlooked in the course of the merger of Sony and BMG.
Perhaps it was a ploy to frustrate collectors into forking out
for the "Original
Jackets" box of the symphonies.
Whatever the reason, if you began collecting the Essential Classics
releases and missed this disc while it was still available,
then you owe it to yourself to snap it up now.
Often when listening to Beethoven recordings from the past, one needs
to adjust one's mindset slightly. Beethoven, in those days,
tended to be a heavy and heroic establishment figure, rather
than reinvigorated revolutionary we are accustomed to hearing
today, thanks to the efforts of the period performance movement.
Not so with Szell. His cycle may be roughly contemporary with
Karajan's set with the Berlin Philharmonic, but he elicits a
lighter, crisper sound from his Clevelanders that is much more
in line with the Beethoven we are now used to.
There is a received wisdom that Szell's lighter and pacier approach
to Beethoven was essentially Toscanini's approach in stereo
sound. This is not at all the case. Szell was certainly particular
when it came to precision and clarity of articulation, but he
also balances the power of Beethoven with the composer's humour
Both the fourth and the seventh symphonies receive excellent performances
here, shaped with characteristic thought for structure, rhythmic
pulse and close attention to dynamic contrasts. Tempi are superbly
judged in both performances. Szell is never too quick, and never
drags. The final movement of the fourth is the only place where
I felt a little more pace was warranted, though it remains rhythmically
pointed and precisely articulated.
There is plenty of mystery to the atmosphere of the introduction to
the fourth's first movement. It almost sounds like Berlioz.
Then the allegro vivace that follows explodes into joyful existence.
The Cleveland Orchestra bring considerable brio to this performance
and you cannot help being dazzled as they point up contrasts
between the lyrical and the rambunctious in Beethoven's score.
The adagio has great beauty but remains rhythmically taut. In
Szell's hands it is delectably dance-like. The scherzo is actually
quite funny, with the questioning woodwinds quizzing the cavorting
Of modern readings of this symphony, I find Vänska's to be the most satisfying and the one which, more than any other I
have heard, makes this symphony sound like an integrated whole,
fully the equal of – though very different to – the fifth, rather
than a brilliant experiment in rhythmic contrasts and orchestral
colouring. Haitink's dancing account with the LSO is also superb
– one of the best recordings of his cycle on LSO Live. Szell's
performance is just as good, and any sonic reservations are
amply offset by the excellence of his orchestra.
The opening of the first movement of the seventh again demonstrates
Szell's ability to balance the power of these symphonies with
sensitivity. He hits the accents hard, though, and once past
the poco sostenuto introduction, the vivace is terrifically
exciting. As in the fourth, he brings gravitas and integrity
to the “slow” movement (if a flowing allegretto can be said
to be slow). The scherzo sparkles and the final allegro con
brio dances. This is a wonderful performance, and the playing
of the Cleveland Orchestra is incredible. The whooping of the
horns and the buzz of the strings at the symphony's close is
Of course there are many other great sevenths in the catalogue. Carlos
Kleiber's recording with the Vienna Philharmonic remains unique
in it power and drive, and of recent recordings Haitink's recent
effort on LSO
Live, like his fourth, is one of
the highlights of his cycle – exciting and involving from first
note to last. Szell is worth hearing, though. More than that,
in bringing out Beethoven's lyricism without sacrificing anything
in power, he has something distinctive to say.
The overture to King Stephen makes an excellent encore. Szell's reading has plenty of sparkle and
is never rushed, though the recorded sound is a bit flat and
brash. To be honest, all of these recordings are beginning to
show their age, but the slightly dry acoustic is no great hindrance
and helps the precision of the orchestra hit home all the harder.
In short, these performances are excellent. There are others in the
catalogue that match the individual readings, but as a coupling
of symphonies 4 and 7, this disc is unbeatable.