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Thread: Is George Szell one of your favorite conductors?

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    Senior Member Brahmsianhorn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Heck148 View Post
    Yes, The excessive taffy-pulling of tempo by Furtwangler often sounds forced, or contrived to me...not natural...
    To me, it is total falsehood that a literal approach is unexpressive, mechanical or robotic and unexpressive...that's complete baloney...a conductor who sticks close to the score can inspire amazingly passionate and expressive playing from his/her orchestra...
    When I hear a conductor like Szell apply expression, it feels like just that - applying a tool to something. That's why it feels mechanical to me.

    True expression is not generic. It comes from truly internalizing and identifying with an individual piece. Literally every single work ever composed has a different nature.

    Quote Originally Posted by Heck148 View Post
    Precision does NOT automatically equate with expressive restraint....loose, sloppy playing does not automatically equate with great passion or expression.
    Clarity for clarity's sake does detract. You need to be saying more than just simply, "and HERE is Beat One."

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    Senior Member Brahmsianhorn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Heck148 View Post
    This has no relevance to Szell....
    It was relevant to the post to which I was replying, which was claiming that emotion is something that one "adds" to music.

    It is inherently part of the music, its natural essence, unless you are just practicing a generic scale.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Brahmsianhorn View Post
    When I hear a conductor like Szell apply expression, it feels like just that - applying a tool to something. That's why it feels mechanical to me.
    Szell doesn't "apply" expression....he follows the score. The phrasing and expression sound very natural

    True expression is not generic. It comes from truly internalizing and identifying with an individual piece. Literally every single work ever composed has a different nature.
    This does not automatically indicate that pulling the tempo and dynamics every which way is justified...it can be said that we are hearing Furtwangler NOT Beethoven, or Brahms, etc.

    Clarity for clarity's sake does detract. You need to be saying more than just simply, "and HERE is Beat One."
    What relevance has this to Szell?? He had a very definite idea of what he wanted, expected to hear, long before it happened.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Brahmsianhorn View Post
    It was relevant to the post to which I was replying, which was claiming that emotion is something that one "adds" to music.
    Listeners do add it to the music.

    It is inherently part of the music, its natural essence, unless you are just practicing a generic scale.
    But "applying" emotion is exactly what Furtwangler does!! Sometimes it works, sometimes it sounds wildly off track.
    Last edited by Heck148; Jul-21-2021 at 22:42.

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    Senior Member Baron Scarpia's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Brahmsianhorn View Post
    Being sensitive to the nuances and emotional underpinnings of a score is not “hamming it up.” To the contrary, Furtwängler described his style as simple honesty, following the natural flow of the music like a brook.

    To me, Szell’s clarity is distracting and draws attention to itself. It sounds unnatural, like saying “I love you” to someone in a detached monotone. Understanding and conveying the character and tone of a work is just as essential to the job of a conductor as getting the rhythms and dynamics correct.

    Imagine someone speaking to you naturally, simply conveying what they have to say. Now imagine the same person over-enunciating every word. You would be distracted, and the emphasis on clarity would distract from the actual content, the message. But that’s the difference in philosophy. A conductor like Furtwängler puts himself in the shoes of the composer speaking to the audience. A conductor like Szell reads off in strict dictation like a court reporter. This only approximates the content.

    .
    I didn't mention Furtwangler, and neither did anyone else on this thread, that I noticed. Somehow, if someone admires another conductor it is an affront to you because someone other than Furtwangler was praised.

    I will not address your feelings for Furtwangler, you are free to idolize him, that's your prerogative.

    The caricature of Szell that you put forward is simply ludicrous. Szell was certainly attentive to the expressive subtleties demanded by a passage of music. Those expressive subtleties included tempo, dynamics, phrasing, tone production. There is no contradiction between appropriately expressive performance and skillful control of balance so that every line of the score can be heard, rhythmic precision, allowing the music to be heard as written.

    I must say I find myself baffled by

    A conductor like Furtwängler puts himself in the shoes of the composer speaking to the audience. A conductor like Szell reads off in strict dictation like a court reporter.
    What does that even mean? The conductor doesn't speak to the audience, except through the music itself. Szell doesn't "read off in strict dictation." He doesn't speak at all. He lets the music speak, through its melody, harmony, counterpoint, dynamics, rhythm. I find it a refreshing contrast with more activist interpreters.
    Last edited by Baron Scarpia; Jul-22-2021 at 01:53.
    There are two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. - Duke Ellington.

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    Not to play into a stereotype of Szell but I also like that he does, to some extent, represent a baseline of "standard" interpretation set to an exceptionally high standard of musicianship that can be compared to other more emotive interpretations. There are certainly times where I find other interpretations better - I'd listen to Klemperer doing Brahms any day over Szell, for instance. (Then again, Klemperer is a favorite of mine, so...)

    If I had to name a list off the top of my head, it'd probably be something like - Bernstein, Fricsay, Klemperer, Munch, Kubelik - but that's subject to change every day and with specific repertoire (there's stuff I'd run a mile to listen to Boulez do, for instance)
    Last edited by fbjim; Jul-21-2021 at 23:23.

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    also - von Dohnanyi vs Szell is more fun than another Furtwangler vs Szell (wasn't it Furtwangler vs Toscanini yesterday?) argument

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    Senior Member Baron Scarpia's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by fbjim View Post
    Not to play into a stereotype of Szell but I also like that he does, to some extent, represent a baseline of "standard" interpretation set to an exceptionally high standard of musicianship that can be compared to other more emotive interpretations. There are certainly times where I find other interpretations better - I'd listen to Klemperer doing Brahms any day over Szell, for instance. (Then again, Klemperer is a favorite of mine, so...)
    Szell is certainly more restrained than some others, in the liberties he allows himself. The more I listen to music the less I find myself having a "favorite" conductor. There are so many styles that bring out something new. I'm a big fan of Harnoncourt, Barbirolli, Haitink, Karajan, Mackerras, Cluytens, Ansermet, Monteux, Maazel, Schuricht, Szell, Boult, many others.
    Last edited by Baron Scarpia; Jul-21-2021 at 23:48.
    There are two kinds of music, good music and the other kind. - Duke Ellington.

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    Senior Member Brahmsianhorn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Baron Scarpia View Post
    I didn't mention Furtwangler, and neither did anyone else on this thread, that I noticed. Somehow, if someone admires another conductor it is an affront to you because someone other than Furtwangler was praised.
    Getting a little touchy, aren’t we? There’s no affront here. I already mentioned that I count Szell’s Richard Strauss among the best. The question was posed by the OP, and I answered it.

    I brought up Furtwängler because he was the foremost symbol of the subjective school and wrote much about his own theories on conducting. I don’t need your permission or anyone else’s to bring that into the discussion.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Heck148 View Post
    But "applying" emotion is exactly what Furtwangler does!! Sometimes it works, sometimes it sounds wildly off track.
    No. Wrong. Incorrect.

    No one applies emotion. You either feel it or you don’t.

    Furtwängler did exactly what came naturally, and it sounds perfectly natural to me and many others. The essential point is he felt free to investigate the score and its meaning. He was not bound. And the music itself was freed as a result, to be realized fully and naturally.

    A tightly disciplined approach can result in a technical marvel, but it can likewise inhibit the freedom discussed above.

    And what could possibly be more antithetical to the spirit of Beethoven?

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    George Szell was capable of conducting well, at times, yet I often find his conducting too stiff, such as in his Haydn Symphonies (& particularly his set of "Paris" Symphonies), for example. & it both surprises and perplexes me that others, who are bigger Szell fans than I am, either don't hear this stiffness, or don't seem to mind it. I'm not sure which it is. But it's as if, in their early, formative years of listening to classical music, they first imprinted on Szell's recordings favorably, and have therefore lived with this stiffness for such a long time that they've grown used to it and can't hear that it's not good conducting. Or, perhaps they're not willing to admit it?

    Here are two examples of Szell's ultra stiff Haydn, and IMO, there's no way that Haydn, if he had heard these performances, would be at all happy about them. I consider this poor conducting:

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qrr64Mx0ld4
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q2tHhNF_WuA

    On the other hand, Szell's orchestra in Cleveland was a very good orchestra, & he deserves credit for building such an orchestra. Yet, they also sound hyper-drilled to me, or so rigidly locked into a tightly controlled state of music making that it makes me feel uneasy, at times. To the point that I believe their razor sharp playing partly contributes to the stiffness that I hear in the music making. At times, I can almost picture Szell cracking a whip over their heads, if they weren't doing exactly what he wanted, or were even slightly out of sync with his beat. The musicians almost sound like they're afraid to relax and breathe. At times, their phrasing can even seem stilted and rigid. Is that a great conductor? No, I don't think so. At least, not when the results are so stiff and hyper controlled from the podium that it's detrimental to the music.

    So, for me, Szell was, for the most part, a mediocre conductor. & on certain outings be could even be responsible for some very poor conducting. For example, his conducting on his Beethoven Piano Concerto 1-5 cycle with pianist Emil Gilels was a big disappointment. It's perfunctory, uninspired, and uninteresting. To the extent that Szell ends up making a very poor match for Gilels' more inspired musicianship. In my view, Szell single-handedly ruins what should have been one of the great Beethoven Piano Concerto sets on record: considering that Gilels was in his prime, & the performances were well recorded. I don't think the conducting is even as good as Leopold Ludwig's conducting with Gilels on their earlier EMI Testament recording of the Piano Concertos Nos. 4 & 5. Which is frustrating, because Gilels' piano playing in the 5th PC with Szell is even better than it was with Ludwig. His interpretation had deepened since the Ludwig recording, & especially in the middle movement.

    Yet, as an accompanist, Szell was in better form with violinist David Oistrakh in their EMI recording of the Brahms Violin Concerto. & I treasure that recording; although not so much for Szell's conducting, as for Oistrakh's magnificent violin playing. Nor is the Cleveland performance the finest of Oistrakh's several recordings of the Brahms Violin Concerto, either, IMO, if I were pressed to pick just one. Szell's fans might disagree, but ask yourself, does Szell provide the kind of depth and insight into Brahms' score as Otto Klemperer does for Oistrakh on their recording of the Brahms VC? For me, in a side by side comparison, Klemperer is easily the more knowing & more flexible Brahms conductor. But in order to hear this, you have to focus on the actual conducting, and not the exceptional orchestral playing, or the fabulous violin soloist:

    --Szell, Oistrakh, Brahms Violin Concerto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9rzJPkwwCL0
    --Klemperer, Oistrakh, Brahms Violin Concerto: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KkfgFuCUe8w

    If I'd been able to ask Oistrakh which conductor he preferred back then, I'd bet good money that he would have said Klemperer. It's in his violin playing, and his response to the orchestra--which is more inspired with Klemperer, IMO.

    Lastly, to my ears, Szell didn't have much, if any sense of humor as a conductor. Which at least partly explains why his Haydn is so stiff, because Haydn definitely had a sense of humor (it's plainly evident in the music). Is that really so hard to miss?

    And yet!, when Szell got out of Cleveland, he became a different conductor. His Beethoven 5th with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, for example, is one of the great Beethoven 5ths on record, IMO. Here Szell gets what most other conductors miss, in his handling of the crucial "death note" that comes towards the end of the third movement, where the music flatlines and then GRADUALLY builds back up to the glorious triumph of the human spirit at the beginning of the 4th movement. Most conductors fail miserably here, because they either drown out the 'death' note with the timpani (as Norrington does), or they fly through the passage so quickly that there is no sense of STRUGGLE or tension in the music as it builds towards the triumph at the beginning of the 4th movement (Gardiner, C. Kleiber, Karajan, Masur Leipzig 1 & 2, Hogwood, etc., etc.). The period conductors are particularly clueless here (except for Harnoncourt's 2nd recording, where he gets it right). But Szell does get it, and IMO, that puts him in rare company--alongside the great recordings of the 5th that I know by Furtwangler, Koussevitsky, Erich Kleiber, Jochum LSO, Haitink Concertgebouw, Masur New York, and Harnoncourt 2--who I would likewise count among the conductors that understood the great importance of "death note" to this symphony, and how the music must build from there with a sense of struggle--like a boxer getting back up after being knocked out. Otherwise, Beethoven's score doesn't make any sense.

    --Szell, Concertgebouw Orchestra, Beethoven's 5th (one of the great 5ths on record, IMO): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SvnWNtaTIOQ.

    The Philips coupling of the Sibelius Symphony No. 2 on the original LP is very good, too. Here Szell shows that he was a good Sibelius conductor. Although, personally, I'm not as keen on Szell's Sibelius as critic David Hurwitz is. For instance, I prefer a number of Finnish conductors instead--such as Berglund in Bournemouth, Kamu in Berlin, Segerstam, etc., along with Barbirolli & the RPO, and Gibson in his swansong 2nd with the Uppsala Chamber Orchestra. Although I get Hurwitz's point--it is a good Sibelius 2 (if still a little stiff in places), and better than I would have expected from Szell in Cleveland. (By the way, Hurwitz also raves about Szell's live Sibelius 2nd in Japan.) In addition, as others have already pointed out, Szell's conducting of Richard Strauss's Four Last Songs with soprano Elizabeth Schwartzkopf is also very good, and IMO, that recording rightly deserves to be considered a classic (unless you don't respond favorably to Schwartzkopf's singing, or think that she was past her prime, or find that Szell conducts too quickly in places). & once again, the recording happened outside of Cleveland, in Berlin, where Szell conducted the Berlin RSO. Even Szell's Haydn in Vienna is less stiff than it was in Cleveland!

    --Szell, Sibelius 2, Concertgebouw Orchestra: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=raIy56s-O7w
    --Szell, Sibelius 2, Cleveland Orchestra, live in Japan (& I agree with Hurwitz that this performance is better): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LvgwzWTCzOc.
    --Strauss, Szell, Four Last Songs: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NQ4sHbFTFDo
    --Szell, Haydn Symphony no. 93, Vienna SO, live (this is clearly less stiff than much of Szell's Haydn in Cleveland, indeed he sounds like a different conductor here): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tsSqVnnyORs

    In other words, Szell seems to have been a happier person & a more relaxed conductor when he got out of Cleveland. Although, it could also be that when he guest conducted orchestras in Europe he didn't have enough rehearsal time to impose his will upon the musicians--as he did back in Cleveland, or alter the pre-existing sound of the orchestra, or the embedded style of their playing.
    Last edited by Josquin13; Jul-22-2021 at 09:29.

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    Senior Member Brahmsianhorn's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Josquin13 View Post
    In other words, Szell seems to have been a happier person & a more relaxed conductor when he got out of Cleveland.
    “I didn’t sack many.”

    Quote Originally Posted by Phil loves classical View Post
    For me, Szell could be very great. His symphony recordings for Mozart Haffner, Beethoven 3, Tchaikovsky 4 and 5, Kodaly
    The Haffner, yes! Thank you, that is in fact one symphony I can give it to Szell for being one of the best. The pointy rhythms and exuberance and all that. A jolly good show.

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    Quote Originally Posted by Brahmsianhorn View Post
    No one applies emotion. You either feel it or you don’t.
    You feel it and apply it.
    Furtwängler did exactly what came naturally,
    The excessive taffy-pulling, distortions are hardly natural sounding....I often find myself asking "WTH is he doing?, why did he do that??"

    The essential point is he felt free to investigate the score and its meaning.
    More like he felt free to apply his own excessive distortions and largely ignore the score.

    A tightly disciplined approach can result in a technical marvel, but it can likewise inhibit the freedom discussed above.
    An undisciplined approach can result in a real mess, and can fail badly to present the music convincingly

    And what could possibly be more antithetical to the spirit of Beethoven?
    Indeed!!

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    Heck148 writes of Furtwangler's conducting: "The excessive taffy-pulling, distortions are hardly natural sounding....I often find myself asking "WTH is he doing?, why did he do that??"

    Because he was a devotee of Schenkerian musical analysis. Furtwängler was always looking to find deeper psychological and emotional truths within the score, and willing to pull the tempo around, in order to achieve a greater expressiveness. All of the musicians that I've heard who were devotees to Schenkerian analysis do this--including Samuel Feinberg, Elizabeth Rich, Edward Aldwell, etc.. None of them keep a steady tempo, but instead pull it around. It's deliberate, and all to bring out and discover a greater expressiveness & meaning within the music. In other words, it's not due to sloppiness, as is sometimes claimed.

    Heinrich Schenker was himself a pupil of Anton Bruckner. & not surprisingly, Furtwängler's conducting style works particularly well in the music of Bruckner, which I think lends itself to Schenker's ideas (as they may partly derive from Bruckner). But Schenker also once declared that no conductor understood Beethoven better than Furtwängler.
    Last edited by Josquin13; Jul-22-2021 at 10:11.

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    It's so long since I've listened to any of Szell's recordings (back when I was first getting to know classical music) that I shouldn't really respond to this thread. But maybe you've come across a reaction by another famous conductor of his early experience of playing under Szell's baton:

    "He should be happy that I didn't kill him... "

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