George Szell - The Forgotten Recordings / Cleveland Orchestra
SOMM RECORDINGS announces the first release of never before available performances by one of the defining partnerships of modern American music in the specially priced two-album set George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra: The Forgotten Recordings. Long considered one of America’s “Big Five” orchestras, the Cleveland Orchestra entered its second century in 2018 and earlier this year was hailed by The New York Times as “America’s finest [orchestra] still”.
The Forgotten Recordings 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, who also provides extensive and informative booklet notes. Three works – Bach’s Third Orchestral Suite (BWV 1068), a revealing engagement by Szell with a composer he is not usually associated with, Smetana’s The Moldau and Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegel (with an early spotlight on legendary horn player Myron Bloom) were recorded in mono in a remarkably productive session on Christmas Eve, 1954.From October 1955 in stereo recordings are two works by Brahms – his Haydn Variations and the Academic Festival Overture, two symphonies – Mozart’s No.39 and Schumann’s Fourth – and a Stravinsky Firebird Suite that “crackles with energy”. “Here”, says Spahr, “we can appreciate that the orchestra was well on its way to becoming, in Szell’s words, ‘this glorious instrument... that perfectly reflects my musical ideals’.”
George Szell’s tenure as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra began in 1946 and ended with his death in 1970. He can be credited for transforming the orchestra into a first class ensemble, with its own characteristic sound and style. When he first accepted the position, he vowed to "dedicate all [his] efforts…to make The Cleveland Orchestra second to none in quality of performance." Musicians were hired and fired in an effort to achieve this goal – a warm, refined sound, clarity and technical perfection, demanding total commitment from the players. His lofty goal was eventually achieved.
These ‘Forgotten’ recordings were made for the Book-of-the-Month Club (BOMC), a mail order outfit that dealt with popular books sold by subscription. In 1954 it made the decision to branch out into classical LPs, with accompanying analysis of the works by such noted writers as Thomas Scherman and Deems Taylor. Many of the issues were licensed from labels such as Vanguard, Vox and Decca, conducted by some notable names - Max Rudolf, Alfred Wallenstein, Fritz Stiedry and Leonard Bernstein. George Szell was also approached by the company and was happy to accept, considering it a means of supplementing his musician’s income.
On December 24 1954, the first recording session took place at the Masonic Auditorium, Cleveland, with the Bach, Smetana and Richard Strauss works, music that had recently featured in subscription concerts. The session was recorded in mono. The rest of the works featured in the set date from 1955 and are in stereo.
Bach is not a composer one usually associates with Szell. Though HIP had a long way to go, Szell pares his orchestra down, and employs a harpsichord continuo. Tempi throughout don’t drag, with the dance movements being quite animated. The ubiquitous Air is nicely paced. There’s some wonderfully refined woodwind playing in Smetana’s Moldau (Vitava), and the recording balance enables the river’s rippling undercurrents to form a vivid backdrop. Szell never overdoes it with the brass, which lets down some performances, but steers everything along maintaining balance and proportion. The quieter moments are quite magical. Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel features the renowned horn player Myron Bloom in one of his first appearances on record. A year later he became the orchestra’s principal horn. The performance captures the very essence of the witty, light hearted, mischievous prankster, and reveals the discipline and virtuosity of the Cleveland players, especially in the brass and woodwind sections.
Over three days in October 1955, five more works were recorded for BOMC, this time in the new stereophonic sound. Szell takes a rather more relaxed view of Mozart’s Symphony No.39, which is free-flowing, refined and eloquently phrased. The Menuetto is lively with a distinct spring in its step, and the finale is truly exhilarating. There’s a bracing account of Brahms’ Academic Festival overture, infused with spirit and celebration. Szell’s approach is warm-hearted in the composer’s Variations on a Theme by Haydn. The performance is well-paced and the variations are deftly-characterized.
There’s a purposeful reading of Schumann’s Fourth Symphony, soused throughout with drama and tension. The Romanze excels for its tender moments. Szell injects plenty of energy into the fourth movement, and the orchestra respond with gusto and panache. Stravinsky’s Firebird is heard in the 1919 version. It’s an atmospheric account of many moods. There’s the captivating lyricism of the Round of the Princess, which contrasts strikingly with the Infernal Dance of King Kastchei, where Szell invests the music with an extra ounce of punch and sizzle. I certainly concur with Lani Spahr that this is the highlight of the set.
Comparing the three mono recordings with those taped in stereo, the latter have a degree more bloom to the sound and register more presence. All the works featured are making a first appearance on CD, with the exception of Brahms’ Variations on a Theme by Haydn. These compelling aural documents have been expertly restored by Lani Spahr, who has also contributed the booklet notes, running to 19 pages. All in all, the entire project is an unmitigated success.
– MusicWeb International (Stephen Greenbank)
Catalog Number: ARIADNE 5011-2
Label: Somm Recordings