Lucerne Festival – George Szell = DVORAK: Symphony No. 8 in G Major, Op. 88; BRAHMS: Symphony No. 1 in C Minor, Op. 68 – Czech Philharmonic Orch. (Dvorak)/ Swiss Festival Orch. /George Szell – Audite 95.625, 81:15 [Distr. by Naxos] ****:
The appearance of Hungarian conducting master George Szell (1897-1970) in Lucerne presents us with truly explosive accounts of music by Dvorak and Brahms, scores well familiar to both audiences and players themselves, now suddenly confronted with and refreshed by a cornucopia of rhythmic and textural nuances hitherto unrealized. Szell’s absolute mania for orchestral balance and architectural coherence invests both readings with an extraordinary fusion of symmetry and transparency, undergirded by a ferocious rhythmic propulsion. The miracle of the Szell sound lies in its linear extension of them musical line – rather literalist in the Toscanini tradition – combined the delicacy of inter-textual colors, upon which Szell insists the players enunciated with the utmost clarity of expression.
Szell maintained an intimidating repute as on orchestral disciplinarian and perfectionist: as his one-time assistant at Cleveland, Stefan Bauer-Mengelberg put it, “Szell tried like Hell to be become a real s-o-b, but Mozart could melt him into something human in spite of himself.” The Czech Philharmonic – in its first appearance at the Lucerne venue – string sections responds with luscious part writing in the course of Dvorak’s bucolic G Major Symphony, the ensemble having already proven its mettle with Szell in the classic 1937 recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Pablo Casals. The aural continuity between winds, strings, tympani and brass – especially in the milieu of a spontaneous performance (30 August 1969) – becomes particularly effective in the two middle movements, the latter of which proffers a ghostly Allegretto grazioso of consummate finesse. The coda of the third movement almost threatens to lose control, but the leash holds true. The Finale, with its trumpet fanfare, tympanic response, and flowing string melody, opens a broad canvas upon which Szell demonstrates his agogic and color balances. In a review of the performance, the Neue Zuercher Zeitung reported “a musically beautifully summarized interpretation, penetrating the smallest motivic and sonorous details.” The coda, as wild a Slavonic Dance as we’ve ever heard, has the Lucerne crowd in raptures.
Critic Harold C. Schonberg consistently applied the epithet “anti-romantic” to characterize Szell’s approach to the music of Brahms, here cleansed of thick rhetoric and stylistic excess so as to reveal their dominant architecture. The Brahms C Minor Symphony performance (29 August 1962) proceeds with a grim, lean determination we know from the Toscanini era. The seething counterpoints mad jarring syncopations in Brahms broil and bubble with dark fury. The string accents emerge in crisp articulation, as do the plaints from French horn and woodwinds. The ethos of the Black Forest haunts us, here and in the last movement, even if de-mythologized in this revisionist perspective. While the spirit of the music remains militant and ceremonial, it no less assumes a light character in the course of its permutations of the motto theme of the last movement, as if in the midst of its polyphonic musings in the manner of the Beethoven Ninth, there are still to be found vestiges of the Brahms serenades. Nevertheless, the inexorable momentum of the last movement sweeps away all uncertainties in the rush to judgment. A swift decisiveness marks the coda, a vision of transcendence, however earthbound. The audience has certainly felt the release, and their applause resonates with awe and gratitude.