Classical Music Forum banner
1 - 3 of 3 Posts

1,517 Posts
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:

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:
--Klemperer, Oistrakh, Brahms Violin Concerto:

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):

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:
--Szell, Sibelius 2, Cleveland Orchestra, live in Japan (& I agree with Hurwitz that this performance is better):
--Strauss, Szell, Four Last Songs:
--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):

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.

1,517 Posts
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.

1,517 Posts
Don't you mean the *London* symphonies? AFAIK, Szell only recorded a couple of the Paris group.

But I agree about Szell's Haydn. I wouldn't necessarily call it "stiff", but to my ears, it's utterly lacking in charm - Haydn played through clenched teeth.
I was thinking of an LP box set that I owned briefly back in the 1980s, and specifically Szell's No. 88 in Cleveland. But you & Kreisler Jr. are right, I misremembered the contents of that set (sorry, it was a long time ago). I'm pretty sure that it did contain Symphony no. 88 though, and now that I think more about it, Haydn's symphonies in the 90s (93-98, perhaps). Which doesn't change my point of view. Szell fans rave about Szell's no. 88, 92, etc., yet in my nearly four decades of listening to classical music, I've never heard Haydn conducting that is so stiff. It's unusual, and distinctive. And therefore, it never fails to surprise me that others who listen to these same recordings don't hear Szell's stiffness (such as David Hurwitz, for example, who thinks that Szell's Haydn is the best out there!), or dismiss my view as being purely subjective. I don't see it as subjective. Not if you actually sit down with an open mind and listen to the examples that I provided. To my ears, it's glaringly obvious.

Yes, I completely agree, Szell's Haydn conducting in Cleveland (but not so much in Vienna & Salzburg) is "utterly lacking in charm - Haydn played through clenched teeth". But aren't "clenched teeth" just another way of saying his conducting is too stiff?, which is after all what happens when a person clenches their teeth, the jaw stiffens. So too does Haydn's music. By the way, the two examples that I provided in my previous post included Haydn's No. 88 from the "Paris" Symphonies. So, for any others that are interested, here are my links again, which easily represent the stiffest Haydn conducting I've ever heard, & surely I can't be the only one here that hears Szell's Haydn as overly stiff? considering that it is so extreme:

Heck148 writes, "Of, course, sloppy execution is not the intent, but often it comes off that way.....poor, imprecise execution, to me, and to where and how I was taught, does not further increased musical expression."

You asked about where Furtwangler's "taffy pulling" comes from?, & I merely answered your question: It comes directly from his being a strong adherent to Schenker's more psychologically oriented musical analysis. Which you didn't seem to know about, or understand, or if you did, I don't know why you would have asked the question. Schenker is not a footnote in Furtwängler's career, he had a major influence on the conductor, and therefore, on the conducting style that we hear on most of Furtwängler's records (as did Arthur Nikisch, and one of Wagner's proteges, Felix Motti). Indeed, Furtwängler worked closely with Schenker for 15 years! (between 1920-35). & one of the chief evidences for Schenker's strong influence over Furtwängler IS all the "taffy pulling" of the rhythms, whether you respond favorably to this less precise approach to music, or not.

But I wasn't trying to start an argument or be provocative, or defend or advocate on behalf of Schenkerian analysis, or Schenker's views on Furtwängler's Beethoven. Rather, I mostly kept my personal views out of it, except to say that I do think Schenkerian musical analysis can work well in the music of Bruckner, considering that Schenker was a pupil of Bruckner's; along with the excellent Bruckner recordings that I've heard from Furtwängler and Eugen Jochum (who was a disciple of Furtwängler & held his conducting as the gold standard, even though Jochum shows a greater classical restraint in his conducting style, nevertheless, Jochum likewise pulls the tempi around in Bruckner, & presumably also for expressive purposes--whether people agree with what he does, or not). But I wasn't trying to convince you or anyone else that those musicians devoted to Schenkerian analysis are always successful. I'd rather leave that for others to decide for themselves, because we're not all going to agree on it, either way.

I wrote, "But Schenker also once declared that no conductor understood Beethoven better than Furtwängler."

Heck148 responded, "Whoopee!! so what?? one man's opinion...."

Again, I wasn't trying to argue on behalf or defend Schenker or his point of view, as you seem to have taken it. Although I will say now that such a view isn't "one man's opinion". A large number of notable composers and musicians--who by the way had no training in Schenkerian analysis--have similarly expressed a high opinion of Furtwängler's conducting, such as composers Arnold Schoenberg, Serge Prokofiev, Paul Hindemith, Bela Bartok, & Arthur Honegger, as well as musicians Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, Pablo Casals, Yehudi Menuhin, Claudio Arrau, Maria Callas, Herbert von Karajan, Arturo Toscanini, Claudio Abbado, Carlos Kleiber, Otto Klemperer, Eugen Jochum, Bruno Walter, Nikolaus Harnoncourt, Daniel Barenboim, Sergui Celibidache, Vladimir Ashkenazy, & even George Szell!, etc. etc. So, it's hardly one man's opinion (i.e., Schenker's). Although I should point out that all of those musicians had the advantage of hearing Furtwängler conduct live in concert, or actually performed with him on stage. Which most likely makes a significant difference, since, in comparison, all we have are a bunch of lousy, single mic'd sound recordings. (Furtwängler had no patience for the recording process.)

Yet, in other quarters, Furtwangler does get criticized for being "criminally sloppy" and for having "lapses", ostensibly due to his unwillingness to rehearse. By all accounts, like Hans Knappertsbusch, Furtwängler wasn't interested in rehearsing much. & that is precisely what some critics (like David Hurwitz) have blamed his conducting style on--a sloppiness due to a lack of rehearsal time.

However, Hurwitz & others are basically wrong, because Furtwängler's "imperfections" are usually deliberate and happen due to the conductor's adherence to Schenkerian analysis, as mentioned. (In fact, his conducting scores are very detailed & thoughtfully considered.) & again, the intent or goal of Schenkerian analysis is to find a more meaningful and insightful musical expression. Which led the English critic Neville Cardus to write the following about Furtwangler's conducting style,

"He did not regard the printed notes of the score as a final statement, but rather as so many symbols of an imaginative conception, ever changing and always to be felt and realized subjectively..."*

In other words, to further quote conductor Henry Lewis,

"The score is neither the essence nor the spirit of the music. Furtwangler had this very rare and great gift of going beyond the printed score and showing what music really was."* (* both quotes are drawn from Wikipedia)

But whether you or anyone else hears Furtwangler's conducting as a distillation of the essence or spirit of the music wasn't my point. I was simply answering your question.

Although, if I were to say what I personally think about Schenkerian analysis, yes, I have heard certain performances where Schenker's ideas do work well, at times, in my opinion. To the extent that I suspect some of Schenker's ideas do go back to the earlier 19th century, especially considering what I know about how Franz Liszt taught his pupils, for instance, which isn't dissimilar, and therefore, perhaps some of these ideas do even go back to Czerny, Beethoven, Haydn, & Mozart (& got passed down to Liszt, Bruckner, Schenker...). Especially when I consider how Schenkerian analysis can work, at times, in pianist Elizabeth Rich's survey of Mozart's Piano Sonatas, for example (along with her Haydn Piano Sonatas):
. I also think that it can work well in Edward Aldwell & Samuel Feinberg's Bach playing:
. But as always, there are varying degrees of application, and I do realize that when it is applied to an extreme, as with Furtwängler, it's not for everyone. I also know that some people dislike Rich's Mozart, and Aldwell's Bach, for the very reason that they do pull the rhythms around and don't keep a steady or precise beat, but at times slow down and then speed back up, rather willfully. Fair enough. I don't think it always works either, and personally, I wouldn't want these performances to be the only recordings of these works that I own in my collection (& they aren't). However, I do think that the devotees of Schenkarian analysis can sometimes offer valid & interesting insights into the deeper content of the music.

I'd also bet good money that if we could go back in time and hear Mozart play his own piano sonatas (or Bach his own keyboard works), that they would NOT have rigidly adhered to a strict, unwavering, uniform tempo throughout an entire piece. But would have instead pulled it around, here and there, for expressive purposes. In fact, I don't overly care for the other extreme--which is an ultra strict & inflexible approach to tempo, such as practiced by a pianist like Walter Klein in Mozart, or Carl Seeman in Bach, for example, and I can't imagine that Mozart & Bach would have either. With Klein & Seeman, the music so seldom breathes or relaxes. It's all so relentlessly forward driven & inflexible, & it can be exhausting to listen to in larger doses. (Though I do realize that some people are fans of this kind of playing, which is fine. I just hear the music so differently.)

Klein, Mozart:
Seeman, Bach:

At the same time, yes, I'd be very surprised if Mozart & Bach would have pulled the tempo around to the same extent that Furtwängler does, since the extremes of Furtwängler's conducting style are most likely a product of the late Romantic era, rather than the classical era.

Heck148 writes, "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??

Yes, I agree that at times he pulls & stretches the scores out in ways that can take the music into a realm where he's "just making it up". But, at other times, it is arguably connected to what he sees as a deeper musical content within the score--what the music is about. Even though I agree that it is a wildly expressionist method of conducting, as there is little classical restraint, or any uniform adherence to a steady, precise tempo.

For example, both Furtwangler and Koussevitsky draw out the "death note"--as it is sometimes called, at the end of the 3rd movement of Beethoven's 5th--to an extreme length that no other conductor I've heard has dared to do. Is that extreme length justified by the score? No, I don't think so. So, it represents a huge shift in tempo, and a long, long drawing out of a note to emphasize--or rather over emphasize, depending on your point of view--the note's primary importance and central role in the musical content & context of the symphony. Both conductors then build very slowly towards the transition into the 4th movement (which I agree with). The only way to explain what they're doing here, as I see it, is to say that they've both chosen to extend the duration of the "death note" for a greater expressive purpose--whether they're successful at it or not, that's their intent. Is it overdone? Of course, some will say that it is. Others, no. But do these two conductors understand the content of the music? Yes!, undoubtedly. The "death note" is unquestionably of great importance to a deeper psychological and emotional understanding of the musical content of the 5th. Does it need to be so overemphasized and stretched out to the point where not a single person in the concert hall could possibly miss it? No, probably not.

However, on the other hand, is that better than the multitude of conductors that I've heard in recent decades that don't even know the "death note" is there? who fly through this section so quickly that the note becomes little more than a blur? or gets almost completely drowned out by overly loud timpani? Yes, I think it is much, much better, because at least Furtwängler and Koussevitsky understood the content of the music. They're not clueless, like most conductors today, even if you don't agree with the extreme length that they take in their musical perception.

Although personally--if I were picking for my desert island--yes, I would prefer a conductor that shows a greater classical restraint and precision here. I don't think that a conductor needs to stretch out the "death note" to such an expressionist length, as Furtwängler & Koussevitsky do, in order for the passage to fully communicate a deeper meaning and greater expressiveness. Bernard Haitink, for example, doesn't take these kinds of liberties with Beethoven's score in the 5th, & what he does actually works better, IMO:
. & I could say the same about Kurt Masur's last recording of the 5th with the New York Philharmonic (which is easily the best of Masur's three, in my view):
, or Eugen Jochum's account of the 5th with the LSO (as well as Szell & the Concertgebouw in their 5th, which I've already mentioned favorably). These conductors show a much greater classical restraint than Furtwängler & Koussevitsky, & yet are still able to achieve a strong degree of musical understanding & expression in regards to the deeper meaning and content within Beethoven's score, without messing around with his tempo, or turning it into some drastically expressionist form of music making.

At the same time, I think many conductors today would do well to listen to Furtwängler and Koussevitsky's Beethoven 5th recordings, because, from my experience, too many of them totally miss the content of Beethoven's music in the transition between the 3rd & 4th movements--which is at the very heart & crux of the symphony, & the older conductors do spell it out, clearly. To the extent that if you're listening carefully and you have a brain, it's very hard, if not impossible to miss. So yes, I do believe that this kind of 'expressionist' conducting has its purpose, despite that, if I were a conductor, no, I wouldn't want to emulate the extremes to which both Furtwängler and Koussevitsky take the music. But at least they have passion and understanding, & that's not a minor thing, either.

But I'm not disagreeing with your points, otherwise. Obviously, I think they're perfectly valid. Though, at the same time, your musical training apparently didn't include an introduction to Schenkerian analysis. So, it is something foreign to your own approach to music, and not a part of your experience--whether you agree with Furtwängler's approach to music or not. Therefore, I wouldn't totally dismiss Schenkerian musical analysis, either. As it may have its value, even though obviously I understand that that is not how you & many other musicians were trained (including George Szell).

P.S. If you're open to hearing a Schenkerian oriented pianist seriously pull the rhythm around in Mozart, have a listen to this:
. Do you or anyone else think that her less precise playing here is bad & misguided? or do you think that she offers some legitimate insights & perceptions into Mozart's intended subject matter--the area that exists beyond the mere ink blots on the page of Mozart's score?
1 - 3 of 3 Posts
This is an older thread, you may not receive a response, and could be reviving an old thread. Please consider creating a new thread.