One of the great conductors, George Szell (1897-1970) remains synonymous with the Cleveland Orchestra, the ensemble he moulded into one of the World’s elite during his tenure as music director from 1946 until his death.
This Somm twofer “features eight historic performances made for the Book-of-the-Month Club in 1954 and 1955 – seven of which are first releases – that have been restored and remastered by the multi-award-winning audio restoration engineer Lani Spahr”, and mostly splendid they sound, too, whether mono or stereo, all set down in the Masonic Auditorium.
The bulk of Szell’s estimable Cleveland discography is today found on Sony Classical (https://www.classicalsource.com/article/countdown-to-christmas-boxes-and-into-2019-1-george-szell-complete-columbia-album-collection/) and, to a lesser extent in terms of volume, Warner Classics (link below).
Somm’s collection doesn’t add significantly to Szell’s recorded repertoire, save (as far as I know) for J. S. Bach’s D-major Orchestral Suite (No.3/BWV1068), a grand and jubilant conception, rhythmically buoyant (a harpsichord clearly audible amidst the vivid trumpets and timpani), with a particularly spacious and radiant account of the celebrated ‘Air’ (of G-string fame). There follows a brace of Szell classics, a superb ‘Vltava’ from Smetana’s Má vlast, music that Szell conducted supremely well, with ardency and drama (two other Cleveland versions testify to this), and an incident-packed Till Eulenspiegel’s Merry Pranks, the musicians relishing Richard Strauss’s vivid scoring to cartoon-strip effect in what comes across as a one-take performance.
Then suddenly it’s widescreen stereo … for Mozart’s Symphony 39 (K543), a reading notable for Szell’s artless transition (relationship) from pensive slow introduction to fiery Allegro, then a richly lyrical and emotionally intense Andante, a striding Minuet (I assume the eloquent clarinet-led Trio is courtesy of Robert Marcellus) and a Finale that bustles along en pointe.
Everything on the second disc is also two-channel, opening with Brahms’s Academic Festival Overture (powerful yet yielding) and his Haydn Variations (beautifully characterised; this latter being the one recording here that has been previously available), then an electrifying/impassioned Schumann 4 (in its 1851 revision) if with no lack of tenderness or suspense when required. Finally, one of the Suites (that of 1919) from Stravinsky’s Firebird, which includes a white-hot ‘Infernal Dance’ that is thrilling and chilling. Phenomenal playing.
The mono recordings reproduce more smoothly than those in stereo; the latter can sometimes be fierce in fortissimos and a bit plummy down below, if with detail always clear, and Lani Spahr, who also writes a generous booklet note, has no doubt been faithful to the source material – not that this minor caveat will deter the devotee from adding this welcome Szell supplement to that already treasured. Somm Ariadne 5011-2 (2 CDs).