Outstanding; a true classic
David A. Kemp | Plano, TX USA | 09/22/2001
(5 out of 5 stars)
"Here is a happy instance of the best performances coming on a generously filled CD which is also budget priced. Hallelujah. George Szell (1897-1970), one of the greatest conductors of the twentieth century, was born in Budapest, studied piano, conducting, and composing in Vienna and Berlin, and learned his craft as a conductor in the opera houses of Europe. World War II brought him to America, where he conducted at the Metropolitan Opera (1942-1946), and finally led the Cleveland Orchestra from 1946 until his death, "molding the ensemble into one of the world's finest," as the Harvard Biographical Dictionary of Music notes. Szell and the Cleveland became as distinguished a collaboration as Toscanini and the NBC or Karajan and the Berlin Philharmonic. Szell brought the Cleveland Orchestra to such a peak of perfection that many good judges considered the Cleveland under Szell the premier conductor/orchestra team in the world. In the late 1950s and the 1960s, the procession of marvelous Szell recordings with the Cleveland Orchestra that came rolling out of Severance Hall became for discerning music lovers a benchmark of excellence; many of them have never been surpassed. (My own list of these nonpareils would include the complete Beethoven symphonies, the complete Beethoven piano concertos with Leon Fleisher, the Mahler Fourth Symphony, Strauss's Don Quixote, the Dvorak Slavonic Dances, the Wagner orchestral highlights from the Ring, and the Beethoven overtures under review here, but there are plenty of other worthy candidates from the extensive Szell/Cleveland discography). Szell's hallmarks as an interpreter were vigor, tension, clarity, avoidance of extremes, excess, and eccentricity, complete lack of sentimentality, and masterful control of an orchestra that had become awesomely virtuosic and perfectly responsive in his hands. In sum, a typical Szell/Cleveland performance was taut, disciplined, bristling with energy, insight, and conviction, and immaculately played. His performances virtually never sounded routine, usually had a fresh-minted quality, and had a way of unfolding with an uncanny sense of rightness, of inevitability, conveying the impression that this is the way this music ought to be played. This CD contains the eight Beethoven overtures, recorded in 1963-1967. (One of the overtures, Creatures of Prometheus, is conducted by Louis Lane, Szell's assistant conductor at Cleveland; all the others are conducted by Szell.) Szell was second to no one as an interpreter of Beethoven, a composer who brought all his best qualities to the fore: the performances here are superb, as fine as any in the catalog. This disc received a top recommendation in the Penguin CD Guide. The sound is good, clear and full, and perfectly acceptable and listenable, if not up to the best standards of today. As noted, the CD is very generously filled (over 73 minutes of music) and budget priced. Talk about a good deal! So what are you waiting for?"