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Is George Szell one of your favorite conductors?

20673 Views 273 Replies 48 Participants Last post by  FrankinUsa
If yes, why do you like him.
I find him kind of cold and unyielding.
Tell me about Szell.
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He’s a technician. His interpretations are reliably paced, but he barely skims the surface of the great symphonies.

I prefer him in shorter works that stress orchestral color and execution.
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For me the issue is not so much lack of warmth as much as it is lack of depth. I don’t feel like Szell is saying anything beyond a simplistically literal conveyance of the score, which for me is often painfully dull, except in those cases where the music lends itself to mere virtuosity as entertainment value.

I listened to his Eroica a few days ago. The outer movements were thrilling in their dexterity. Indeed, a machine but a good machine. The Marcia funebre was well-paced and sensitively played by the orchestra, but it barely skimmed the surface. So many greater conductors have left touching accounts. Even Toscanini, who makes me feel like I am listening to La Traviata in this movement, is showing personal connection to the music and saying something.

Music, as all art, is inherently individual and subjective. I don’t believe in objective regurgitation of the written score.

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Absolutely yes, he is, because he was an astounding musician and left us numerous superb recordings.

The rest is up to taste. For mine, I frequently find his recordings extremely satisfying.

I'm listening to the Szell/Cleveland Don Juan right now, and this recording still sweeps me away with its virtuosity, keen sense of drama, and thoughtful understanding of the dark side of the original poem that inspired Strauss to compose this.
Funny you mention it as that is maybe my favorite Szell recording. His Richard Strauss was great - the DJ, Don Quixote with Fournier, Tod und Verklärung, and Till Eulenspiegel all among the best.

OTOH, I can't think of a single case where I would name Szell's version of a Classical or Romantic symphony to be among the best, not even the famous Mahler 4th which I find clinical. They sound to me too by-the-numbers, too straight forward.

Maybe it's a case where to my ear Strauss tone poems play more to Szell's strength as an orchestral technician as opposed to a symphonic interpreter.

Szell's surgical, level-headed presentation of scores works well for me in Mozart and Haydn.
Until I pop in Beecham, Walter, Jochum, Bernstein, or Klemperer and realize Classical works can be done with warmth without losing the sense of proportion and balance.

Brahms first concerto with Curzon.
Yes, that Brahms 1st collaboration with Curzon is dramatic as hell, well engineered by Culshaw.

His underlying philosophy, that the emotional depth of a work is best conveyed by presenting it clearly (rather than hamming it up).
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.

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I strongly disagree with this caricature.
That's the literalist philosophy. Literally.
I'd prefer to say that strongly adding emotive interpretations to heavily emotional, romantic music like Tchaikovsky runs the risk of gilding the lily.
This goes back to my original point. Interpreting music in a naturally emotive way is no different than speaking in a tone that naturally conveys the emotion of the speech. You are not adding anything. But interpreting the music in a passionless, mechanical way strips the music of its natural essence. In that sense you are subtracting.

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.

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."
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.
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.
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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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."

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.
"deeper psychological and emotional truths" - the positing of such is indeed extremely subjective - it begs the question - is the conductor performer just making it up??
You have expressed several subjective opinions on this thread. Are you just making them up? Of course not. These are your honest impressions. I am a performer as well. Getting deeper into the heart of a piece is a process of discovery. And when you succeed, and the audience is with you, the result is often magical. It's most definitely not made up. I have never understood technicians who eschew heart and emotion. It is almost as if they are afraid of "mistakes" and so take the more reliable, less dangerous path in order to not be embarrassed in front of their audience. That may be the crux of the difference in philosophy.

Whoopee!! so what?? one man's opinion....
From John Ardoin's book, The Furtwängler Record:

It was my good fortune to know and spend time with Maria Callas, about whom I have previously written three books. She often amazed me with previously unsuspected areas of interest, but never more so than one day in August 1968. She was in Dallas recovering from a fall in which she had cracked several ribs. I picked her up one day for a doctor's appointment, and as I started the car, the radio came on. A symphony was being played. When I reached over to turn it off, she said, "No, leave it. The Beethoven Eighth is a favorite of mine.

That was a surprise - a soprano, even a Callas, who loved and recognized Beethoven's Eighth! As I drove and she listened, Callas became more and more impatient. "That phrase is wrong. Where's the line going? No! What's he doing there? It doesn't breathe. Oh, this is nonsense." We reached the doctor's office before the record had finished, and she insisted on sitting in the parking lot until the end to find out who the conductor was. After the final chord, the announcer said, "You have just heard a performance of the Eighth Symphony of Beethoven with the Cleveland Orchestra conducted by George Szell."

"Well, she sighed, "you see what we have been reduced to. We are now in a time when a Szell is considered a master. How small he was next to Furtwängler." Reeling in disbelief - not at her verdict, with which I agreed, but from the unvarnished acuteness of it - I stammered, "But how do you know Furtwängler? You never sang with him."

"How do you think?" She stared at me with equal disbelief. "He started his career after the war in Italy. I heard dozens of his concerts there. To me, he was Beethoven."

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??? Why do you assume that those conductor/performers who do not take the Furtwangler approach are "technicians" who eschews "heart and emotion"??
If you quote the entire post, I was specifically describing my experience as a performer.
It's a strawman that deserves to be ignored. Lesser performers (and I am certainly among them) have to concentrate on the technical aspects of playing and performing, because the first responsibility of any performer is to execute the notes that are written on the page. If you can't play the right notes, in tune, with the proper rhythm, and at a coherent tempo, there's little point to looking past the notes to find "heart and emotion", because the audience isn't going to notice - they're going to hear only the technical flaws.
From Alex Ross, The New Yorker:

" In an age of note-perfect digital renditions, what's most striking is Furtwängler's willingness-and his musicians' willingness-to sacrifice precision for the sake of passion. The conductor had a famously wobbly, hard-to-read beat, which inspired many jokes. A member of the London Philharmonic quipped that one should wait until the "thirteenth preliminary wiggle" of the baton before beginning to play. Furtwängler's renditions of Beethoven's Fifth tend to begin not with "bum-bum-bum-BUM" but with "b-bumbumbumBUM." The inexactitude was by design. It's the roughness of the attacks at the beginning of the "Coriolan" that provides a sense of catastrophic power. As Taruskin points out, Furtwängler was entirely capable of eliciting unanimity when he wanted to, as rip-roaring accounts of Strauss's "Don Juan" and "Till Eulenspiegel" attest. One never knows quite what to expect: spontaneity is the rule."
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One thing is for sure, no one else is more deserving of the acclaimed orchestral accompaniment recordings award:

Beethoven, piano concertos w/Fleisher
Beethoven, piano concertos w/Gilels
Beethoven, violin concerto w/Huberman
Brahms, 1st piano concerto w/Schnabel
Brahms, 1st piano concerto w/Curzon
Brahms, 1st & 2nd piano concertos w/Fleisher
Brahms, 1st & 2nd piano concertos w/Serkin
Brahms, violin concerto w/Oistrakh
Brahms, violin concerto w/Morini (live)
Brahms, violin concerto w/Heifetz (live)
Brahms, double violin concerto w/Oistrakh & Rostropovich
Dvorak, cello concerto w/Casals
Mozart, clarinet concerto w/Marcellus
Mozart, piano concertos Nos. 19 & 20 w/Serkin
Mozart, piano concerto Nos. 21-24, 26, 27 w/Casadesus
R. Strauss, Don Quixote w/Fournier
R. Strauss, Four last songs w/Schwarzkopf
Tchaikovsky, 1st piano concerto w/Horowitz (live)
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I mean, what is the "truth" of Brahms Symphony #1??
And here we go with the strawman
It's a strawman because it's a non-provable statement that someone wishes to use to argue that technical perfection is antithetical to musical expression.
That's not what strawman means. Strawman is when you argue against someone by distorting their argument.

And if the technical perfection is pursued as an end in itself, particularly if it's to draw attention to itself so as to impress the audience with the performer's technical skill, yes it is absolutely antithetical. This is why people will often delineate between performances that use virtuosity merely as an end to impress vs those that use it "in service to the music." The latter recognizes a deeper meaning in the music to which technique is subservient.
" subjective truth" - lol!! Good label...
The board needed a little revving up...things getting a little stale...:)
No one said anything here about "subjective truth." That was your contribution to the discussion.
You have talked about the truth Furty seeks in the music. If this doesn't denote a subjective truth, I don't know what the word truth means, but of course the question: "What is truth" was put already by Pilatus.
That is false. I have never stated it that way. I have stated that his interpretations are not "embellishments" or "adding" to the music, but they are what rings true as a natural expression of the music for him. Reread my posts instead of misquoting me.

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