George Szell, who died nearly eight years ago, is remembered as one of the finest conductors of his time. In particular, we remember him for taking over the already good Cleveland Orchestra and turning it into one of the best in this country - which of course means one of the best anywhere.
There were many, however, who felt that the Cleveland Orchestra under Szhell had a hard edge, that is it represented power, brilliance and precision achieved at the cost of warmth. To be sure, one man's elegance is another man's heartlessness; it becomes very subjective. But those who held this view liked to cite the difference in Szell's performances and recordings with European orchestras, performances in which the power was leavened by an expansiveness, a sense of involvement and communicativeness, in which no way contravened the aristocratic effect of his music-making.
Still others felt Szell's very finest recorded performances were neither those he made in Europe nor those with his own orchestra in Cleveland, but the short series he made with the New York Philharmonic between 1951 and 1955. These probably represent also the finest playing the Philharmonic committed to discs between the reign of Toscanini (which ended in 1936, when the maestro made his landmark recording of the Bethoven Seventh) and a few real gems of the later Bernstein and Boulez incumbencies. Columbia has unexpectedly gathered all these Szell/Philharmonic recordings and reissued them in a three-disc Odyssey set (Y3 35231). The price is right, the transfers are beautiful and the performances are downright irresistible, regardless of duplications in one's collection (the titles are all "basic" fare) or reservations about the mono sound.
The oldest recording here is the sequence of the usual five excerpts from Mendelssohn's "Midsummer Night's Dream" music. On this side alone the sound is thin now and then, but never less than adequate to convey the superb performances, filled with evocative magic and free of the slightest hint of anything resembling sentimentality.
The other side of this disc is given over to the two best-known portions of Smetana's symphonic cycle "Ma Vlast" ("My Country") - "The Moldau" and "From Bohemia's Meadows and Forests." Again, mitaculously effective realizations of the music, Szell's deepfelt affection for which is projected in terms of integrity rather than indulgence. How regrettable that he never recorded "Ma Vlast" in its entirety.
A disc of overtures brings us four by Wagner - "Meistersinger," "Rienzi," "Tannhaeuser," "Flying Dutchman" - and Weber's two big ones, "Oberon" and "Der Freischuetz." The incomparable rumbustiousness in the final pages of "Rienzi" (possibly Szell's most "unbuttoned" moment) is alone worth the price of the set; there is no comparable recording of this overture - not even Stokowaki's admired remake, and certainly not Szell's own later stereo version with his Clevelanders. The other three Wagner items are similarly persuasive (if less extraordinary so), and this "Oberon" is perhaps the least earthbound of all recorded performances of that music.
The grand comfirmation of the impression gleaned from the various shorter works is the peotic presentation of Beethoven's "Pastoral" Symphony. Like everything else in this set, it is charged with spontaneity and vivacity; it has a real pulse, and not a single superficial bar. Szell's control is firm but subtle; he and the orchestra breathe together, feel together and, one feels certain, smile together.Together with the Toscanini/BBC, Walter/Vienna Philharmonic, Willem van Otterloo/Vienna Symphony and Erich Kleiber/Concertgebouw versions, this was one of the great pre-stereo "Pastorals"; it is good to have it restored.
Szell rerecorded all but two of these 10 titles in stereo with his own orchestra in Cleveland, but in no case did the remake match up to the stunning sorcery of these New York performances. The great conductor's mastery is evident in all his recordings, but these are the most treasureable because, in addition to the polish, they give us Szell from the heart.