Magazine article Gramophone

George Szell: To the Musicians Who Played for Him George Szell Could Be a Terrifying Presence on the Podium but His Recordings Never Fail to Excite and Inspire

Magazine article Gramophone

George Szell: To the Musicians Who Played for Him George Szell Could Be a Terrifying Presence on the Podium but His Recordings Never Fail to Excite and Inspire

Article excerpt

Mahler's Symphony No 1 opened my musical Book of Revelation and, once I had almost worn out Carlo Maria Giulini's Chicago recording of that piece, I urgently sought out more Mahler. Fortunately, I knew a coveted Penguin Guide rosette counted for something, so my second-ever classical LP was George Szell's Cleveland recording of Symphony No 4. Here was revelation reborn and re-energised. I soon discovered this was a famous recording, lauded even by those who generally thought Szell too cool and disciplined by half. To my mind, it remains one of the greatest records ever made.

So began my fascination with Szell and the superb orchestra he built by Lake Erie. I think most readers of this magazine, in some measure, have the collector's gene. In the dying days of LPs, most of Szell's recordings were long out of print and tough sometimes nigh-impossible--to obtain. It took me several dogged years to source a second-hand copy of his live recording of Mahler's Symphony No 6--then as rare as the corncrake, but latterly available on a budget price CD. I also scoured the Radio Times regularly and duly taped a handful of precious WCLV radio concert recordings, of Brahms and Mozart, Mahler and Beethoven.

George Szell's life, like so many, was dramatically changed by the ghastly situation in Europe. He was a child virtuoso born in Budapest, a composer and pianist discovered and encouraged by leading figures of the day, most notably Richard Strauss. By his mid teens he had toured Europe. In the late 1930s he took charge of the Scottish Orchestra but the looming Second World War found him in the United States, where, wisely, he remained.

In 1946, through a combination of determination, talent and political intrigue, Szell took charge of the Cleveland Orchestra. He was a notorious musical perfectionist, whose relationship with his musicians remained highly combustible throughout his 24 year tenure. They dubbed him 'Dr Cyclops'. In the early years, a series of clear-outs of personnel took place and Szell's band began to demonstrate both sublime technical ability and also a distinctive sound, as CBS recordings from the period demonstrate. Szell dutifully tried his hand at some contemporary music--Walton, for instance (of whose Second Symphony he gave the Continental European and US premieres, and of which he made the first recording), and Samuel Barber's Piano Concerto--but it was to the classics that he was drawn, again and again.

I discussed Szell recently with the conductor Nicholas McGegan, who said how remarkable it was that, with his distinctively Central European heritage, he should have confined himself to just a handful of the late Haydn symphonies, when there are such riches elsewhere amongst the 104. That was Szell though: he would visit and revisit the pieces he knew and loved. Furthermore, programming Haydn at all in those days was relatively unusual and praiseworthy.

Intensively listening to Szell's recordings has sometimes been salutary as well as fascinating. In my salad days of unshakeable faith and enthusiasm, I would pooh-pooh those who argued that some of the Cleveland studio recordings displayed technical perfection, but too little warmth or spontaneity. In fact, Szell himself was not insensitive to this charge. In a famous interview, he once observed: 'The borderline is very thin between clarity and coolness, self-discipline and severity ... There exist different nuances of warmth--from the chaste warmth of Mozart to the sensuous warmth of Tchaikovsky to the lascivious passions of Salome . …

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