Here’s another release in Audite’s new series of archive
performances from the Lucerne Festival. The sources for both performances
are original broadcast tapes; the concerts were recorded and transmitted
by Schweizer Radio und Fernsehen (SRF) and it must be said straightaway
that the sound quality is good and Audite, as they usually do, seem
to have made a fine job of the transfer process.
This generously filled disc brings two performances by George Szell,
who appeared on several occasions at the festival in Lucerne from
1956; this concert with the Czech Philharmonic was his last appearance
there before his death in 1970.
The Brahms First Symphony was central to Szell’s repertoire.
According to the very informative notes he programmed it in no fewer
than fourteen of his twenty-four seasons in Cleveland. He’d
made the first of two commercial recordings of the work with the Cleveland
Orchestra in 1957 - a second was to follow in 1966, also in Cleveland.
One assumes, therefore, that he knew the score like the back of his
hand yet there’s no trace of the routine here. The sostenuto
introduction to the first movement has excellent forward momentum,
a characteristic sadly lacking in a performance by Simone Young which
only recently. At this point in the Szell reading I wrote down in
my notes ‘purposeful’ and that wasn’t the last time
that term was to be written down as this performance unfolded. The
main allegro is athletic and muscular. The rhythms are taut
- this is pretty lean Brahms - and momentum is maintained even when
Szell relaxes with the music. The exposition repeat is not taken;
that may be a pity but the conviction and drive of the performance
set aside any objections. . This is, overall, a powerful and thrusting
reading of the movement and, played like this, it makes one wonder
why Brahms had such trouble over composing his first symphony; Szell
imbues the music with great certainty.
The Andante sostenuto is perhaps a bit less mellow in character
than some readings I’ve heard. I think I’d characterise
Szell’s way with the music as strong and serious. However, there’s
also nobility in his reading, not least when we reach those lovely
concluding pages with the horn and violin solos, here expertly delivered.
When the finale is reached Szell achieves considerable tension at
the start. The horn solo really does sound like an alphorn - perhaps
a modest degree of hand-stopping? The big tune is launched with fine
momentum and thereafter the music is full of energy and drive - this
was another occasion when that word ‘purposeful’ was scribbled
down. As the finishing line comes into view Szell really increases
the tension - and the drive - bringing this gripping reading to an
If anything the Dvořák performance is even finer. This
was the last of a series of three concerts given by the Czech Philharmonic
on what was their first visit to Lucerne and it appears that this
concert - an all-Dvořák programme - was the only one conducted
by Szell. Like the Brahms First, this was a symphony with which Szell
identified strongly. By the time this Lucerne performance took place
he’d recorded the symphony twice and he was to make one more
recording of it - his very last - in 1970. This Lucerne performance
benefits, therefore, from having a conductor on the podium who was
really familiar with the score and directing an orchestra whose members
had the music in their blood: it’s a potent combination and,
my goodness, does it work!
The performance gets off to a most promising start: that glorious
opening melody is warmly sung. Thereafter the lyrical side of the
movement comes over excellently but Szell also imparts drive and fire
into the performance when it’s required - for example around
7:00. The nostalgic, affectionate Adagio is beautifully done
and sounds thoroughly idiomatic. One relishes also the occasions when
Dvořák’s writing becomes more passionate and the
players respond accordingly. The third movement is an absolute delight,
especially the trio. Szell and his players put just the right amount
of ‘give’ into the rhythms without ever sacrificing the
shape or momentum of the music. I’ve seen the finale described
as ‘footloose variations’. That’s not a bad description
but there’s nothing footloose about this performance. Szell
keeps a tight rein on the proceedings - as you’d expect from
this conductor - but the miracle is that he manages to do so in such
a way that the music never sounds constrained. Instead the performance
has plenty of high spirits and is full of life and colour. The closing
pages are very exciting indeed.
What is it about hearing Czech music played by a fine Czech orchestra?
Everything sounds just right, not least the orchestral colours and
the way the rhythms are inflected. This performance of my favourite
Dvořák symphony is a very good example of the Czech accent
I enjoyed this disc enormously. Neither orchestra is technically flawless
but both play extremely well for Szell and the minor blemishes, such
as they are, are more than offset by the sense of spirit in
both performances. As for Szell, he’s on excellent form here,
conducting two excellent and charismatic performances.
I’m delighted that these two performances have been made available
on CD. Since the presentation standards are up to Audite’s usual
high standards, which enhances the appeal of this release, this disc
is a very enticing proposition.
Masterwork Index: Brahms
symphony 1 ~~ Dvořák