Bargain box of delights from George Szell

George Szell – The Complete Columbia Album Collection

Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell (conductor)

George Szell was born on 7 June 1897 in Budapest, Hungary but grew up in Vienna before settling in America. Szell made his debut in the U.S. as guest conductor of the St. Louis Symphony in 1930 where he began to focus on orchestral repertoire. He became the musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra in 1945¹ – a post that he held until his death in Cleveland on July 30, 1970. Szell took over a middle of the road orchestra and during his tenure he transformed them into one of the finest, if not the finest, orchestras in America.

George Szell was a perfectionist and something of a tyrant. His first decade with the Cleveland Orchestra was spent firing musicians, carefully hiring replacements and growing the orchestra to over one hundred players. He relentlessly drilled the orchestra and his rehearsals were the stuff of legend such was their intensity. Szell demanded absolute perfection from every member of the orchestra. If they made too many mistakes, or questioned his authority, musicians were said to have been dismissed on the spot!

George Szell did not particularly enjoy recording, as he explains on the final CD of the set, and many of these studio recordings are recorded in long takes ‘as live’. Many of these recordings on the Columbia label in America did not get sufficient coverage in the UK first time around so this set is particularly to be welcomed.

The set of 106 CDs come neatly packaged in cardboard sleeves that replicate the original artwork. There is a luxurious accompanying booklet with an interesting article entitled ‘Thinking with the heart. Feeling with the brain’. Full details are given of each recording and there is a catalogue of works at the back organised by composer.

George Szell’s speciality lay in the performance of Austro-Germanic classics ranging from Haydn through to Richard Strauss together with a handful of twentieth century composers notably Bartók, Prokofiev, Janáček and William Walton and this is reflected in this collection. For example there are some outstanding performances of Haydn’s ‘London’ symphonies (pre historically informed practice), the complete Beethoven symphonies and the five piano concertos with Leon Fleisher, the four Brahms symphonies and both piano concertos again with Leon Fleisher, an outstanding Dvořák Symphony No. 8, with the most amazing coda and a mono 1952 performance of the ‘New World’ symphony that is also up there with the very best. There are also some good late Mozart symphonies and a number of the piano concertos on which Robert Casadesus is the soloist. The set even includes some CDs featuring George Szell, the pianist, particularly notably in the Mozart’s violin sonatas where he is joined by Rafael Druian. Space does not permit a full analysis of all that is contained within this treasure trove but there is hardly a duff performance in the box and interested readers are invited to listen for themselves. There is currently a very useful playlist on Spotify (see below) that contains almost all of the CDs in the set and many of the individual CDs can be found on Qobuz.

At just under £200, from Amazon, this is not exactly cheap but it certainly comes into the bargain category, costing less than £2 per disk for first rate performances that, in many cases, have been superbly remastered and the sound is never less than good. This set would make a great introduction to the Austro-Germanic repertoire of the classical and romantic periods. As such this is our Bargain CD of the Month!

iClassical rating:

¹ Szell first conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in Severance Hall on 2 November 1944 in a programme that included Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony and Strauss’ Till Eulenspiegel.