December 15, 2005


Beethoven: Coriolan Overture, Piano Concerto No. 5, Symphony No. 5, Egmont Overture; Bruckner: Symphony No. 3. George Szell conducting Sächsische Statskapelle Dresden. Nikita Magaloff, piano. Andante. $19.99 (2 CDs).

     The name of George Szell will forever be associated with the Cleveland Orchestra, which he raised to national and international prominence through his role as its music director from 1946 until his death in 1970.  Interestingly, it turns out that Szell’s remarkable conducting techniques, which elicited a clarity and precision in Cleveland never before heard from an American orchestra, were transferable.  At the Salzburg Festival in 1961 and 1965, Szell conducted the Dresden Staatskapelle with intensity and drama that remain memorable today.

     We know how good the concerts were because the original master tapes were preserved, and have now been digitally remastered for this recording.  The sound, especially from 1961, is not up to today’s standards, though it is largely free of tape hiss and other common problems of 1960s recordings.  But the performances are up to the standards of any day.

     The 1961 selections are all by Beethoven.  The CD starts with a precisely played Coriolan Overture whose silences are as dramatic as the loudest sections – a Szell trademark.  Then there is an “Emperor” concerto in which the orchestra outclasses the soloist: Nikita Magaloff plays well enough, but his timidity (especially in the first movement) makes this sound more like the “Pretender to the Throne” concerto.  It is possible that the microphone placement put Magaloff at a disadvantage.  But he gets stronger as the work progresses, and a good thing, too, because Szell has the orchestra playing with tremendous intensity throughout.  The performance gleams despite sound that is, overall, rather thin.

     And speaking of intensity, Szell produces it to the nth degree in the Fifth Symphony: the hammering of the first movement is almost enough to make you jump, the quiet at the end of the third is both ethereal and mysterious, and the opening of the finale is so speedy and insistent that it is abundantly clear why Beethoven added trombones only for this movement.  Szell manages to maintain a hectic pace to the end, by which time he has absolutely hammered the C Major conclusion into the audience’s ears.  The performance is not perfect: parts of the second movement are a bit rushed, and the repeat of the exposition of the finale is omitted (this was customary at the time but is still unfortunate).  In all, though, this is a highly exciting and thoroughly memorable reading.

     The 1965 CD opens with Beethoven’s Egmont Overture, and it is immediately clear that audio technology has advanced considerably.  Szell’s dramatic flair is as much in evidence here as in the 1961 CD, but this recording has warmth and presence that are missing from the earlier one and that add new dimension and subtlety to the performance.  The warmth is especially welcome in Bruckner’s Symphony No. 3, which Szell paces with verve and spirit while not neglecting its emotional depths – to the extent that they are available in the 1888-1889 version he conducts.  This was the third and final version of the symphony, whose original (1873) version was not published until 1977, long after Szell’s death.  The 1888-1889 truncation of this so-called “Wagner” symphony (which quotes from several works by Richard Wagner and was dedicated to him) is an unfortunate one: the 1873 version is Bruckner’s longest work, running 75 to 80 minutes, while this one runs only 50 at Szell’s quick tempi.

     So this is not Bruckner for purists – but, taken on its own terms, it is highly effective.  Szell does not wallow, keeping the music moving smartly along while bringing out the relationships among the thematic groups to fine effect.  There is little he can do to make the finale coherent – it runs 11½ minutes here, compared with 20 minutes in the 1873 original – and his movement from scherzo to trio is too abrupt, making the latter seem totally disconnected from the former.  Otherwise, though, this is a performance of understanding and clarity, and well worth hearing.

     The audiences in these live recordings are reasonably quiet – the 1965 listeners more so.  The only production oddity is the long pauses between movements: 15 to 20-plus seconds, during which there is plenty of rustling and coughing.  Still, these recordings are musically rich and a fine addition to the Szell discography – and to the memory of this great conductor.

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