Former Cleveland Orchestra music director Christoph von Dohnanyi claimed his predecessor George Szell's Beethoven cycle to be "the Bible". Indeed, in the stereo era's first decade these 1957-66 recordings set high standards for stylish perception, orchestral finesse, and the kind of textural clarity associated with the finest chamber ensembles. A mainstay of Sony's budget Essential Classics series for years, they're now repackaged in facsimiles of their original LP jackets and are recoupled accordingly. As a result, the Third, Sixth, Seventh, and Eighth Symphonies each now occupy a single CD. On LP, the Fifth Symphony originally was coupled with Mozart's Jupiter Symphony, and it's presented that way here--since Szell's Jupiter isRead more one of the greatest ever, with the clearest, most exultant performance of the Finale on disc, there's no reason to complain! On the plus side, A/B comparisons with the Essential Classics editions reveal the present transfers to be marginally more resonant and fuller of body, but not to the point where you need to upgrade.
However, the recording quality varies from session to session. While the 1957 "Eroica" is impressively open and well balanced for its vintage, the 1963 Fourth is strident and too heavily equalized toward the mid-range. Oddly enough, the Leonore Overture No. 3 from the same sessions sounds light years better, with the off-stage trumpets balanced in ideal perspective. The 1963 Fifth's close-up, hard-hitting sonics lack the breathing room that makes the 1962 "Pastoral" sound more translucent and airy by comparison.
Sonic quibbles aside, the Szell/Cleveland synergy works many wonders. Listen to the seamless transition from the Second Symphony's broad first-movement introduction into the main theme, or how the Eroica's Funeral March achieves a shattering climax by virtue of Szell's unswervingly steady tempo and pinpointed linear clarity. While the Pastoral Storm lacks one or two lightning bolts, the gorgeously sculpted woodwind solos in the Scene by the Brook and the Merry Gathering are of the highest distinction. Note too the perfectly aligned orchestral choirs and carefully gauged tempo relationships between sections in the Seventh's Scherzo. And although Szell often favored fast tempos, he reins in the skittish finales of the Fourth and Eighth in order to secure optimum melodic definition and shape.
The First Symphony is similar to Toscanini's lean, forward-pressing interpretation, albeit without the Maestro's crisp humor, and I prefer Szell's 1966 Concertgebouw Fifth for its superior sound and detail. Szell's Ninth doesn't reach out to the cosmos and the infinite stars, but rather generates its fiery elegance from the blazing sun, so to speak. The vocal quartet is a dream team, and you can almost take dictation from Robert Shaw's chorus. In addition to the welcome overtures, we have the first CD release of the complete Creatures of Prometheus, led with dramatic flair and character by Louis Lane, Szell's long-time assistant conductor (and an underrated maestro in his own right). It goes without saying that there are many other ways to play these works, plus many excellent Beethoven cycles that benefit from modern-day engineering--including Wand, Blomstedt, Gielen, Blomstedt, and Barenboim. Yet Szell's gold standard continues to defy time.
--Jed Distler, ClassicsToday.com Read less
Works on This Recording
Symphony no 1 in C major, Op. 21by Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1800; Vienna, Austria
Symphony no 2 in D major, Op. 36by Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1801-1802; Vienna, Austria
Symphony no 7 in A major, Op. 92by Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1811-1812; Vienna, Austria
Symphony no 8 in F major, Op. 93by Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1812; Vienna, Austria
Symphony no 9 in D minor, Op. 125 "Choral"by Ludwig van Beethoven Performer:
Adele Addison (Soprano),
Jane Hobson (Mezzo Soprano),
Richard Lewis (Tenor),
Donald Bell (Baritone)
Cleveland Orchestra Chorus
Period: Classical Written: 1822-1824; Vienna, Austria
Egmont, Op. 84by Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1810; Vienna, Austria
Creatures of Prometheus, Op. 43by Ludwig van Beethoven Conductor:
Period: Classical Written: 1800-1801; Vienna, Austria
I. Adagio molto - Allegro con brio
II. Andante cantabile con moto
III. Menuetto. Allegro molto e vivace
IV. Finale. Adagio - Allegro molto e vivace
I. Adagio molto - Allegro con brio
III. Scherzo. Allegro
IV. Allegro molto
I. Allegro con brio
II. Marcia funebre. Adagio assai
III. Scherzo. Allegro vivace
IV. Finale. Allegro molto
Average Customer Review: ( 1 Customer Review )
As Good as it GetsDecember 16, 2011By T. Drake (South Euclid, OH)See All My Reviews"Originally issued on Columbia's budget label, Epic, George Szell's early stereo (1957-1967) cycle of Beethoven's Symphonies became legendary on its original release. Originally released one at a time, the cycle was later reissued as a boxed set, individually again in the late 1970s, debuting on CD in the 1980s, and in several incarnations during the 1990s. Now, for the 21st Century, Sony has created a lavish reissue. Ever the perfectionist, Szell drilled the Cleveland Orchestra to within an inch of its life, and the result here is orchestral playing of immaculate perfection, with the various choirs balanced as if they were one soloist. Technically, there is no better Beethoven cycle on records, not from Maazel's and Dohnanyi's later cycles with the same orchestra, not from Karajan's Berlin Philharmonic, and certainly not from Toscanini's NBC Orchestra. Toscanini bears mentioning here, because there are similarities of approach. Szell chooses not to let details obscure the overall structure of each symphony--though there are telling details in plenty. By the time this cycle was recorded, Szell had lived with these masterpieces for half a century, and it shows in the judicious tempi, straightforward phrasing, and architectonic grandeur. Receiving its first CD release is the same orchestra's recording of Beethoven's Creatures of Prometheus ballet, superbly conducted by Szell's assistant director, Louis Lane. Also included is Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony, which was originally the B side for Beethoven's ubiquitous 5th. Since this is one of the finest Jupiters ever recorded, no complaints about breaking the one composer rule. Sony's set reproduces the original cover art and sequencing (with once exception, the Overtures disc features two bonus tracks). Generally, the CDs are not well filled, however this is more than made up for by the superb documentation. The booklet contains the original LP liner notes (most of them by Klaus G. Roy, then program annotator of the Cleveland Orchestra), unfortunately whittled down. But, with a magnifying glass, one can read the miniaturized backs of the original LP covers. Sony's engineers have done an excellent job remastering the rather dry sounding original tapes. For those encountering Beethoven's sypmhonies of Szell conducting for the first time, there is no greater starting point. For longtime fans, this set will impress with its refreshed sonics and deluxe packaging."Report Abuse
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