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George Szell Conducts Czech Music
Introduction [1:41]
Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
The Bartered Bride – Overture (1866) [6:36]
Ma Vlast: Vltava (1872) [12:11]
String Quartet No. 1 ‘From My Life’ (1876) arr. Szell [28:24]
Antonin DVOŘÁK (1841-1904)
Carnival Overture, Op.92 (1891) [9:05]
Four Slavonic Dances (1878/86): Op. 46, Nos 1 & 3, Op. 72, Nos 2 & 7 [16:53]
Final announcements [1:43]
NBC Symphony Orchestra / George Szell rec. 8 March 1941, NBC Studio 8H, New York City

George Szell was invited to conduct Toscanini’s NBC Symphony and his concerts in March 1941 were critically well received. This is the second of them, an all-Czech affair in which Szell was radio-announced as a Czech conductor, doubtless as a result of his near-decade tenure in Prague.

According to Michael Charry’s biography of the conductor, Szell had pondered his Smetana arrangement for two years noting that ‘far from being a crime, it was almost a duty’ to arrange it. This was its public unveiling. As noted, the concert was well received but one critic complained that the resultant arrangement was ‘clangorous realism’ rather than the original’s poetic imagery. There’s a certain truth in that criticism, given that the arrangement inevitably bloats the music beyond its natural confines, and the principal objection rests with the percussion and brass, in particular, which strike a rather too overtly extrovert sonic position. But it is played with convincing trenchancy and commitment by the orchestra which had doubtless been thoroughly drilled by Szell, whose repeated insistence in NBC rehearsals had annoyed even Toscanini. Szell clearly cleaved to the work as he performed it in his debut with the Cleveland Orchestra in November 1944 – this concert has been preserved and was released on Music & Arts - and went on to record it with the orchestra in 1949.

He actually opened this NBC concert with the overture to The Bartered Bride which, perhaps oddly, he only got around to in the studio in 1955 when he played it in almost exactly the same way as here, almost to the second. He vests the music with natural buoyancy as he does the Carnival Overture which he also turned to in Cleveland in 1956, with similarly consistent results: always exciting but controlled. He was interested in the Slavonic Dances and prepared editions of several of them for Boosey & Hawkes in 1941. Given that the publication coincides so neatly with this NBC performance of four of the dances I assume they are heard in Szell’s own editions – he also arranged Weber’s Perpetuum mobile at around the same time. I’ll take Talich, Šejna and Jeremiáš over Szell here, especially as Szell seems unable to get Op.46/3 right; his rhythm is too stodgy. A slightly over-emphatic Vltava ends the concert and the concert is topped and tailed by radio announcements; there’s some promo for Victor Records in the opener.

The XR transfer of this concert successfully projects the sounds of Studio 8H.

This exciting but uneven concert preserves Szell’s virtues as well as his occasional weaknesses.

Jonathan Woolf

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