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George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra
The Forgotten Recordings
rec. 1954-1955, Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, Ohio
Stereo except for Bach, Smetana & Strauss (Mono) SOMM ARIADNE 5011-2 [69:44 + 73:13]
Recently, SOMM Recordings has developed a fruitful partnership with the distinguished American restoration engineer – and much else besides - Lani Spahr. This has led to the release of a number of historic recordings in excellent new transfers. Hitherto the focus has been on performances in the USA of music by Elgar but now Mr Spahr has turned his attention to a collection of recordings that were made in the mid-1950s by the famed partnership of George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. With the exception of the Brahms Variations, none of these recordings has previously been issued on CD. The Bach, Smetana and Strauss offerings, which were the first to be set down, are in mono, the remaining recordings were made in stereo.
Before considering the recordings themselves and their provenance I want to begin with a word of praise for the outstanding booklet essay. This has been written by Lani Spahr and it’s a model of its kind. Mr Spahr gives us a brief but very relevant biographical portrait of George Szell, relating how he came to head the Cleveland Orchestra before going on to explain in welcome detail the fascinating background to these recordings. I shall be drawing significantly on Mr Spahr’s essay in the course of this review.
George Szell (1897-1970) had built a promising career in Europe before World War II but when war broke out, he found himself in the USA and he settled there. Initially based in New York, he didn’t find it too easy to establish himself at first, but gradually he won recognition and in 1946 he was appointed conductor of the Cleveland Orchestra, a post he was to retain until his death. Nowadays, the Cleveland Orchestra is one of the USA’s premier orchestras but it wasn’t always so. As Lani Spahr explains, it was in a somewhat parlous position when Szell arrived to succeed Erich Leinsdorf. The orchestra’s ranks had been depleted by war time call-ups (including Leinsdorf himself) and standards deteriorated. Worse still, the players were badly paid – a Board member described the basic salary as “the borderline of poverty” - and the annual contract only covered 30 weeks, obliging the musicians to look elsewhere for earning opportunities. Against such a background, it was unsurprising that some of the best players were unable to resist the lure of better-paid jobs with other orchestras.
One way of boosting the players’ remuneration was through recording fees. In the last 60 years or so the Cleveland Orchestra has built up a formidable discography but the early years of Szell’s tenure were a lean period for recordings. He and the orchestra made some recordings for Columbia in 1947 but thereafter it was hard to attract the big labels to Cleveland very often; the focus was on New York, Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago. A little bit of work came the way of the Clevelanders from Columbia’s secondary label, Epic, in 1954 but those were isolated sessions. However, more substantial work then came from an unlikely source: the Book-of-the-Month-Club (BOMC). It appears that the BOMC’s business model had some features in common with Reader’s Digest in that they operated as a mail order business, selling books by subscription. The organisation came into contact with Szell’s orchestra when they started to sell classical LPs on the same basis. Some of the records they sold were licenced from other labels but BOMC also made some brand-new recordings of their own, using a variety of orchestras and conductors. All the pieces in this SOMM set were recorded in Cleveland for BOMC in two sets of sessions.
One day of recording on Christmas Eve 1954 yielded the works by Bach, Smetana and Strauss. Szell and the orchestra had performed all three works quite recently in concert so I suppose they felt confident about setting down all three in a single day, though I bet the sessions were somewhat pressured. There are occasional places where the performances lack a degree of polish and I’m sure Lani Spahr is right to attribute this to the requirement to get everything done in one day.
I must admit I was pleasantly surprised by the performance of Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite. I had feared this would be a big-band, rather heavy performance, as was so often the case at this time, but Szell, using less than a full complement of players, serves up an enjoyable performance. True, the very opening of the Ouverture sounds a bit fierce with big, muddy timpani rolls but I think that’s down to the recording rather than the players; even then, Szell conveys grandeur. The allegro that follows is nice and lively and the harpsichord is clearly audible, as it is elsewhere in the performance. The dance movements are, without exception, light and nicely paced and while Szell takes the celebrated Air quite broadly, it’s not too slow. This is an enjoyable account of the Suite. Its value is enhanced because I understand that this is the only piece in the set which Szell never recorded again.
Vltava receives an excellent performance. Szell clearly has the piece at his fingertips and he gets a fine response from the orchestra. We follow the river on its course, with all the episodes colourfully imagined, until Szell brings Smetana’s tone poem home in celebratory fashion. Decades ago, one of the very first Richard Strauss records that I bought was a CBS LP of Szell and the Clevelanders playing Don Juan, Tod und Verklärung and Till Eulenspiegel. That LP is long gone and the performance of Till was a later one, of course, but I was glad to be reminded of what Szell and his orchestra made of the piece. This 1954 version is impressive. Till’s adventures are vividly portrayed in a performance that has plenty of vitality and swagger. I’ve scribbled down in my notes “disciplined flamboyance”, which I hope sums up what I heard. The loud tuttis are a bit congested but, of course, we’re listening to a recording that is now 66 years old.
In October 1955 there was another set of sessions for BMOC in Cleveland. The venue was the same but there were two important differences: the sessions were spread over three days, so perhaps a little less pressured, and the recordings were made in stereo rather than mono. The Mozart symphony brings an immediate improvement in sound, not just on account of the generous stereo spread but also because the recording is bright, more immediate than the mono efforts and has greater fulness as well as much more detail. Clearly, superior equipment was now in use and it wouldn’t surprise me to learn that a different engineering team was involved. (Lani Spahr explains that the identity of all the producers and engineers involved in these recordings is a mystery.)
This was the second recording by Szell and the Clevelanders of Mozart’s 39th Symphony: it was one of the works set down during the aforementioned 1947 Columbia sessions. The present account is very good. The Adagio introduction is powerfully stated. My first impression was that the allegro that follows was taken at a fairly steady pace but I think my ears were somewhat deceived; Szell may not rush, but the performance still has plenty of life. Though shorn of the exposition repeat, the performance is purposeful and strong. The Andante con moto is quite measured by today’s standards but it flows very well and the performance has grace. I really liked the Menuetto, which combines elegance with energy. As is the case throughout the symphony, Szell ensures that the orchestra’s phrasing is stylish. I enjoyed the rustic woodwind in the Trio. The finale is cheerful and full of energy. I really enjoyed this reading of the symphony.
Two Brahms works open the second disc. In the Academic Festival Overture, the recording is marginally problematic. The loud ending is somewhat congested and earlier in the performance there are several occasions where the focus of the stereo recording momentarily slips and we seem to hear the violins in the centre of the sound picture. These are fleeting moments and when I did some checking I found that the effect is more pronounced through headphones than through loudspeakers. It wouldn’t be worth mentioning these issues were not the sonic standards of the rest of the 1955 recordings so high. That said, these small flaws shouldn’t prevent you from enjoying a good performance of the overture. This is a performance led by someone who really knew his Brahms.
And that last comment applies just as much to the ‘Haydn’ Variations. The performance gets off to a promising start, the theme winningly voiced by the woodwind and horns. All the variations come off really well. I appreciated the darker orchestral hues of Variation IV and the precise, vivacious playing in Variation V. Szell imparts a lovely, easy lilt to Variation VII while the following Variation is noteworthy for the lithe, agile woodwind and string playing. The Finale is suitably celebratory in tone. The engineers did a fine job here; the excellent recorded balance allows you to hear all the different elements of the orchestra in good proportion to each other.
Writing of the performance of Schumann’s Fourth symphony, Lani Spahr says he was “particularly struck by [its] poetic nature”. It’s interesting how we all hear music differently. As we shall see, the poetry is there all right but other characteristics impressed me. The Ziemlich langsam introduction is really bold in this performance; you can sense immediately that this is likely to be a performance worthy of attention. The main body of the first movement (Lebhaft) surges forward strongly, the music very well-articulated. You sense that the entire orchestra is on its mettle and confident. This is an exciting performance. The Romanze is indeed poetic. From start to finish the phrasing is completely idiomatic and there are some lovely solos to admire along the way – the principal oboe, bassoon and violin all distinguish themselves. It’s only a short movement and a performance of this quality makes one regret Schumann’s brevity. The Scherzo is sturdy but energetic while the Trio is elegantly done. The Langsam introduction to the finale is really well done; Szell screws up the tension until the major-key eruption of the Lebhaft music is like a release valve. The main body of the finale is ebulliently done and then Szell drives the coda excitingly so that the symphony comes to a blazing conclusion.
I think, though, that Lani Spahr has so ordered the programme on these discs that the best has been saved till last. That’s certainly true of the sound in which we hear Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. Lots of detail is apparent in an excellent recording that, frankly, belies its age. The performance is very good, too. The Introduction is pregnant with tension and dark atmosphere. In ‘Round of the Princesses’ the Clevelanders bring out the poetry in Stravinsky’s music – the first oboe is especially impressive. ‘Infernal Dance of King Kastchei’ is given with knife-edge precision. It’s a very exciting performance, tautly controlled. The ‘Lullaby’ is seductive and features a splendid solo bassoon. The one disappointment is that the closeness of the microphones means that the soft carpet of string tone in the transition to the Finale isn’t as hushed as I’d like. Launched by a noble horn solo, played, I presume, by Myron Bloom, then just starting his distinguished Cleveland career, the Finale is a great conclusion to the performance and, indeed, to the set as a whole. The Cleveland Orchestra plays the closing pages with grandeur and Rimskian brilliance.
This is a revelatory set. George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra became a formidable recording partnership and these recordings, the 1955 sessions in particular, allow us to hear them on the cusp of becoming a force to be reckoned with in the studio. I enjoyed and admired all the performances captured here.
Lani Spahr explains in the booklet that the original BOMC LPs are now extremely rare. That in itself justifies this CD issue, especially as the performances are so good. With the exception of the Brahms Variations, all of these recordings are new to CD and as such this set constitutes an important addition to the CD discography of George Szell and the orchestra which he led with such distinction for so long. The transfers have been made from LPs owned by Stuart Friedman. Mr Friedman has clearly looked after his records; occasionally I detected some slight surface noise but, to all intents and purposes, Lani Spahr must have worked with pretty immaculate sources His transfers have been done with his usual skill.
As I mentioned at the outset, the documentation is very superior, so when one adds to that the quality of the sound and transfers and the excellence of the performances this set is a model of its kind. If, like me, you’re fascinated by the orchestral scene in the USA between the 1930s and the 1960s, when European emigrés, both conductors and players, were so strongly influential, then this is a set you have to hear.
Contents Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750)
Orchestral Suite No 3 in D minor, BWV1068 [19:33] Bedřich SMETANA (1824-1884)
‘The Moldau’ (Vltava) from Má Vlast [11:37] Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks [13:49 Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Symphony No 39 in E flat, K543 [24:42] Johannes BRAHMS (1833-1897)
Academic Festival Overture, Op 80 [10:25]
Variations on a Theme by Haydn, Op 56a [17:31] Robert SCHUMANN (1810-1856)
Symphony No 4 in D minor, Op 120 [23:37] Igor STRAVINSKY (1882-1971)
The Firebird Suite (1919 version [19:36]