George Szell, Boston Symphony Orchestra – Smetana, Lalo, Still – Forgotten Records

by | Mar 19, 2024 | Classical CD Reviews, Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

George Szell Conducts – STILL: In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy; SMETANA: From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests; LALO: Symphonie espagnole in D Minor, Op. 21 – Ruth Posselt, violin/ Boston Symphony Orchestra Orchestra– Forgotten Records FR 2230 (47:16) [] ****:

Despite the relative brevity and occasionally muffled sonics of this concert radio broadcast, taken from 20 January 1945, the opportunity afforded by Forgotten Records to hear George Szell (1897-1970) before the Boston Symphony Orchestra in two fascinating additions to his discography proves irresistible. While the excerpt from Bedrich Smetana’s symphonic cycle Ma Vlast, “From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests,” had been recorded by Szell with the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, the Still and Lalo works appear for the first time. Accompanying Dr. Szell in the Lalo Symphonie espagnole is the American, Massachusetts-born violinist Ruth Posselt (1911-2007), who would perform with the Boston Symphony sixty-four times, often being led by her husband, the assistant concertmaster, Richard Burgin. 

Szell opens the concert with William Grant Still’s 1943 tribute to fallen, Afro-American soldiers, his In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy, a nine-minute elegy in which the composer injected his hope that “our tribute will make the democracy for which they fought greater and broader than it has ever been before.” Still, who had served in the US Navy, felt that such music would awaken Americans to the contributions of their black compatriots and so encourage democratic sympathy. He seems to have erred in optimism. A richly hued, lyrical work, it borrows from Southern folk sensibility, though the music rises beyond winds and harp periodically in string, brass and timpanic pageantry. A cautious applause erupts into fervent appreciation.

The sheer volatility of Smetana’s opening foray of “From Bohemia’s Meadows and Forests” captures, like an impressionistic painting of Van Gogh, the immediacy of Nature’s verdure, the overwhelming impact of pantheistic fulfillment. The sense of Nature’s manifold voices proceeds through a textured, layered fugato section, from which rises an orison from the famed BSO brass. Szell’s linear, driven approach must have had quite the effect of clean, articulated lines, a departure from the whimsical, if imaginative, Koussevitzky style. The opulent hymn’s having reached a final cadence, the music then erupts into a controlled frenzy, partially contrapuntal, that leads to martial gallop, something like Schumann but engorged with Bohemian fervor, quite flexible in it’s ability to assume a dance quality. The two, contrary impulses alternate, all the while singing with a sense of Nature’s free volatility. The hymn motif appears over a buzzing accompaniment, only to attain a new, tempestuous energy and gravitas, especially given the recent liberation of Smetana’s homeland from fascist oppression.

Posselt and Szell opt for the four-movement version of Lalo’s spirited 1874 Symphonie espagnole, omitting, as many do, the passionate Intermezzo. The sonic image of the performance shows its age, but Posselt’s reading has nuance and sensitivity, a fine sense of motor transition, with the frequent alterations bow position, recalling the piece was written for Sarasate. Szell delivers explosive gestures from the BSO, with the woodwinds on full alert. The gypsy and Andalusian rhythms bounce and snap with high gloss, while the secondary melody possesses an arched feeling for the Spanish “deep song.” The sprightly Scherzando whistles and struts with sizzling, virtuosic flair, festive and equally, melodically sensitive between thumping periods from the pizzicato accompaniment. 

The Andante, the least “Iberian” feeling, conveys a dark pathos, almost funereal in mood. Only later in the procession does the D major tonality shine through, a hesitant though optimistic presage of the rollicking gigue of the Rondo: Allegro last movement. Posselt’s high E string makes a powerful, affecting impression. Szell introduces the last movement, with its repetitious, crescendo opening, with a frisky momentum that proves infectious as the finale proceeds. Posselt has caught the tempo without missing a beat and she, Szell, and ensemble deliver a whiplash example of brilliant musical coordination. The kind of sultry, erotic intimations of which the violin is capable emerge, as if Bizet’s Carmen were not merely a spectator but a vocal participant. 

A recording of special interest, this rare document from Boston. For those enthralled by Ruth Posselt’s art, I recommend they acquire “Ruth Posselt: American Violinist” from the West Hill Radio Archive (WHRA-6016).

—Gary Lemco

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