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on 12 January 2014
These recordings have a great reputation. When they came out, in the sixties, they established for many folk what Beethoven could sound like played by a first class orchestra properly recorded in stereo. They occupied the middle of the middle of the road. Reviews praised the control of detail and the sheer competence of the playing. And, with the occasional reservation, the recording. Confidence in Szell as a conductor whose performances could deliver unmannered, transparent clarity was very high. For perhaps the most extreme example of this, play the first movement of the Eighth. In a marginally dry acoustic, with only infinitesimal shortening of the note values, you hear things you aren't even supposed to hear, all from a perfectly balanced ensemble. What you got was what you could see in the score.

Not much more, but not to be underestimated. In the Pastoral for example, the clarinet at the end of I actually manages to suggest the prescribed diminuendo, aided by Szell whose pianissimi elsewhere are beautifully finished. Most recordings of that date and since don't risk it. And the work itself comes to a perfectly judged and meticulously prepared climax and close. The artistry in this is consummate. On the same disc, the First Symphony, sharing the same virtues, seems a very careful run-through only - then, as now, it was usually only brought out of the attic for complete cycles, and usually pigeonholed with someone's killer tag 'A fitting farewell to the Eighteenth Century' because it had the misfortune to have been composed in 1800 and the Michael Goves of this world like nice even dates. If you had asked Beethoven - or Schiller - each would probably have offered you a closing date of 1776 or 1789. Szell's performance of the First is for the Goves, or the Mellors. The work is full of what Beethoven's contemporaries called subversion, from its opening to its close. The menuetto isn't, and the slow movement isn't either, but a menuetto/landler hybrid in disguise. Its fanfares and march are parodies. Szell makes it behave itself. It must remember it is a trailer for a GREAT CAREER, and therefore act responsibly. Its conductor will see to that. So even Weingartner's gaiety and panache, or Toscanini's alla Rossini in the finale are suppressed. Dignity and decorum at all times. This Beethoven is full of corporate self-awareness, but at least he's not corrupt. The books will balance and the funds are safe. Not, of course the impression you take away from the composer's own dealings with publishers, or even his friends, on occasion, over concert receipts, but this is art, not finance. And perhaps not exactly neue Sachlichkeit, either, unless the limit of the objective horizon is the score itself, in isolation from any context.

Even there the technological sixties elbow their way in from time to time. In the Adagio of the Fourth you listen with admiration to the perfectly blended Cleveland winds, making allowances from time to time for a rather beefy clarinet - and then come the climaxes. Which seem foreshortened - no-one, not even Szell himself, who seems to have got it in the Pastoral, was going to risk the pianissimo out of which they should grow. The transfers can't always eliminate the technical limitations. Once again, in this wonderful piece, the underlying energies come only gradually to the fore in Szell's performance - the scherzo releases the latencies of the Adagio, and extinguishes them with a very matter-of-fact horn coda. And it isn't until the finale, where the moderate-ish tempo, which at first you think has been chosen mainly to avoid putting too much pressure on the bassoonist, gradually makes you realise why the Allegro of the first movement had been as it was - the finale clarifies and reinforces it. There is a lot within the objective horizons of the score, and Szell, for all his caution, is equal to it. Pity the sixties technology couldn't match it.

The Ninth Symphony is amazingly and probably determinedly, entirely secular in this performance. There almost certainly isn't anything very much uberm Sternenzelt, ( see Gagarin, Y) but you can sturzen nieder if you want. That's what Schiller thought, anyway. Who are we to argue? Then, brothers, get on with, and enjoy, your life. Freiheit is not fashionable in polite society these days. (Szell had, after all, grown up in the world of the K und K) Let the other side find out what a can of worms it is. But a secular Ninth has its uses - it can look back to 1789 from the peak of Metternich's gimcrack ascendancy (see Kissinger, H) wonder how far we have really come, and take some sort of optimistic stock. If not very sixties, quintessentially seventies.

The Eroica has a perfectly prepared agenda, which is dealt with faultlessly. When Szell brought it to the Edinburgh Festival in the sixties, folk I knew talked for days about how well-prepared it had been. (Szell had a somewhat uneasy relationship with Scotland - he once walked out of an opera engagement in Edinburgh before he had even unpacked his bags). But this was special, and the performance here is as good as anyone could rationally hope for.

Which leaves, for now, the Seventh. Here, in the studio, Szell casts aside every shred of the image the rest of the box suggests - even the meticulous technician. The notorious rhythmic discrepancies of the development, for ignoring which Furtwangler was held up as an awful example by the critics, are enthusiastically trampled into submission. Szell, as inarticulate sports commentators say, is 'on fire' and who cares about the books? True, only a very good orchestra could play it like this, but the music, for the only time in the box, takes over throughout, and the conductor has no choice but to go where it leads. It's an exciting listen - not perhaps as searching as the Furtwangler Salzburg performance of 1954, or the famous late 1930s Toscanini. But in the context astonishing.

Five stars, even taking into account the remaining limitations of sixties recording. But only after listening to the Seventh.
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TOP 1000 REVIEWERon 31 January 2015
These legendary performances deserve a place in the library of every serious Beethoven symphony collector. The sound is full and rich, with the quality of the recordings generally belying their age (late Fifties to early Sixties).

Perhaps even more importantly, though, this modestly-sized box set would be perfect for those wanting to acquire their first complete set of arguably the greatest works in all of classical music. Why? Because the price is even more modest, offering first-rate performances for very little money. An unmissable bargain.
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on 7 March 2014
Szell, like Reiner, had a reputation for not suffering fools. However these Beethoven performances are very far from being hard-driven. It is wonderful hearing a crack American orchestra superbly recorded, something we rarely hear on record these days. The Pastoral is the most eloquent I have ever heard and that is a very hard piece to bring off. Orchestra and conductor completely as one throughout. A wonderful bargain.
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on 22 June 2014
The first thing that strikes you is the near perfection of the playing and the meticulous detail. However, rather like the Augusta National golf course, home of the Masters, the beautifully manicured presentation masks depths, passion, surging energy, and promethean spirit. I have never heard a better performance of the 7th - fast and furious as any- the 6th is sublime and the Eroica has one foot in classical rationalism as it drags us kicking and screaming into the conflicts and emotions of the romantic. Put this alongside a modern, grittier approach like Chailly or Mckerras and you have this great cycle very well served indeed. I soon forgave the brightness of the old CBS sound, for the clarity and layers which has you rediscovering the sublime complexity of this genius of a composer.
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on 29 September 2014
I gave only 4 stars as while there are no definitive weak links, I have grown to believe that no ideal cycle exists. There are hardly ideal Beethoven complete symphony cycles, but this is probably as ideal as one is likely to get. Recording is lively in the Cleveland tradition but luckily in quite a fullbodied sound as well. This applies also to the fifth even if is a decade older than the others.

Clear high point of the cycle is the disc containing symphonies 4 and 7, already a classic pairing. Fourth is probably the best of all - including Walter, Klemperer and Ansermet - and seventh is nearly ideal. This very disc demonstrates all the best Szell virtues - dramatic forward drive with an unmatched sense for balance and details yet a fine sense of classicism. Fifth is no match for the Concertgebouw version and a surprisingly low-key Andante but still it is a compelling and powerful performance. The first two symphonies also are not only lightweightish but also quite off charge and leisurely, yet one senses that George knew what he was doing.

Considering the price, this is definitely a steal and now my first recommendation for a full-bodied complete version with a full orchestra. Szell manages to provide a synthesis between Toscanini, Norrington and Karajan: Toscanini with far better sound, Norrington with "proper" sounding instruments and orchestra with full body and Karajan with purposeful forward drive.
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on 16 June 2016
I had not heard any of Szell's interpretations before, but these go straight to (near) the top of my list - and I must have 15 different cycles. They are fleet-footed but powerful. Except in the Fifth, first movement exposition repeats are omitted, but that makes for a compact set. The conductor looks miserable in the photo, but these are (as ever with Beethoven) life-affirming and imbued with the life force. Actually Szell died shortly after the completion of the cycle, but though seriously ill, the music must have invigorated him.
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on 29 March 2014
I owned this set on vinyl many years ago, and paid what seemed like the earth for it. Here it is now, in improved sound, for a more-than-reasonable price. All the performances are estimable, but if you're in the market for the "best" accounts of each symphony, you shouldn't be bothering with boxed sets. These recordings were made in the half-dozen years after 1957 for the Columbia subsidiary of the time, Epic. The sound is a little distanced, but the individual instruments that matter get their discreet highlighting, and the recording quality is consistent throughout. I prefer EMI's sound for Klemperer (around the same time), and the late 1960's-early' 70's sound that Philips gave Jochum and the Concertgebouw is a bit warmer. The best analogue sound is Bohm's from the 1970's -- a set, I think, that everyone should have. But Szell, fifteen years or so earlier than some of Bohm's, is just fine -- tremendous energy, rhythmic stability, attention to detail of phrasing are all in evidence. I think of it as Beethoven in the Toscanini tradition, and the sound is better than even the best remastering of the Toscanini material. Szell was one of the great mid-20th Century conductors, and his Haydn, Mozart, Brahms, and Schumann (not to mention some of Mahler, Tchaikovsky, and Dvorak) have great integrity. Highly recommended -- indeed, indispensable for collectors of complete sets.
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on 22 August 2014
A terrific set of Beethoven symphonies by a great conductor and a top flight orchestra in his finest hour. Szell brought the Cleveland orchestra to its highest level during the late fifties and early sixties, and these recordings catch the orchestra at a peak. Love all of them, no real peaks and certainly no troughs. Now my first choice modern Beethoven set. Sound is early stereo but perfectly acceptable, played on a decent CD player and system.
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on 9 January 2014
Bought these as I have had the originals on vinyl for decades. Deeply (and pleasantly) shocked at the beautiful transfer to CD. At this price, buy them.
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on 30 April 2015
Superlative recrdings of the complete Beethoven symphonies. Szell conducts with clarity, power and vision. A bargain price.
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