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.