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.