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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.
While I have to disagree with your exclusion of all of Szell's classical or romantic symphony interpretations from being among the best, I do concur with your assessment of his Mahler Fourth. In no special order, I would prefer Kletzki/Philharmonia, Klemperer/Philharmonia, Kubelik/BRSO, Solti/Amsterdam (Royal) Concertgebouw, Horenstein/London Philharmonic, Bernstein/New York Philharmonic, Tennstedt/London Philharmonic and Walter/New York Philharmonic (mono).
 

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Szell’s surgical, level-headed presentation of scores works well for me in Mozart and Haydn, and I also think the late Dvořák symphonies, Schubert 9, and Sibelius 2nd suited his style quite well. However, some of his famous recordings like the Beethoven, Brahms, and Schumann cycles and the Mahler 4 leave me cold. Still, it must be admitted that he could draw breathtakingly beautiful, full-bodied sounds from orchestras and it’s a pleasure to put on one of his recordings when I just want to hear how well something can be played. As a matter of fact, my favorite Szell recordings are when he is functioning as accompanist - providing a secure and sonorous orchestral canvas for his soloists to work their magic. The Four Last Songs with Schwarzkopf is one of the most sublime recordings of anything that I know, and I love the Beethoven piano concerti with Gilels and Brahms first concerto with Curzon.
 

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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.

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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.
Yes, those are my favorites for Mozart and Haydn symphonies as well (particularly Walter and Klemperer in Mozart) for exactly the reason you cite, but I do find value in Szell's more "gruff," sharply-etched approach. It's what I reach for if I want a more HIP approach without the IMO unattractive sound of period instruments.
 
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As a matter of fact, my favorite Szell recordings are when he is functioning as accompanist - providing a secure and sonorous orchestral canvas for his soloists to work their magic. The Four Last Songs with Schwarzkopf is one of the most sublime recordings of anything that I know, and I love the Beethoven piano concerti with Gilels and Brahms first concerto with Curzon.
I do like him as conductor as I detailed earlier. As accompanist I would like to highlight his 1962 recording of the Dvorak Cello Concerto with Pierre Fournier with Szell conducting in that case the Berlin Philharmonic. My favorite recording of the great Cello Concerto by Dvorak.
 

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Well, Szell's Schubert's 9th (Epic lp and Sony cd) gives me the incisiveness and drive I prefer over all other interpretations I've heard.
It's not bad but it has one of the most jarring tempo relations between a (very slow) introduction and (rather fast) main section of the first movement which is a major downside for me. (The missing repeats in the scherzo could be an upside...;))
 

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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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Agree about Szell's "Eroica", not my favourite among his discography though I know some will disagree.

Your final paragraph however seems too sweeping to me. It is more than possible to "play as written" without it being a mere "regurgitation", as that Toscanini performance for one graphically illustrates.
 
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I revere Szell for his ability to bring clarity to a complex score. His underlying philosophy, that the emotional depth of a work is best conveyed by presenting it clearly (rather than hamming it up) resonates with me.

I recently acquired the complete Szell/Columbia box and am trying to make my way through it as fast as my life circumstances permit.
 

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His recordings served as my imprint versions of more Austrian/Germanic works from Mozart to Brahms than anyone else. His Mozart and Haydn remain top choices for non HIP recordings and his Schubert 8th and 9th have been matched but not surpassed.

And I do have the big box. Ordered it before it was released.
 

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I enjoy a handful of Szell's recordings. The very smooth and warm recording of Mahler's Symphony #4 that he made with the Cleveland Orchestra and Judith Raskin ruined every other recording of Mahler 4 for me becuase it is that good. The Mozart recordings of the Clarinet Concerto and Sinfonia Concertante made with in-house musicians is equally flawless. The Prokofiev Piano Concertos #1 & 3that were made with Gary Graffman are also very good. That said, Szells recordings of Beethoven and Brahms are very muscular but seem to lack warmth and spontaneity to my ears. I read somewhere that those who heard Szell live were deeply impressed and that may be part of the problem, in that we don't always know how well a conductor's musical vision can be captured in the studio compared to the concert hall.
 

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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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It depends on the composer. I think Beethoven can absolutely work as a non-interventionist manner (not that I mind more romantic ones), but Brahms symphonies less so.

If it helps, early in my listening, I really wanted "straight" performances of the work- because I had the idea that "I want to hear what the composer wrote!" and all that. I still do like that approach when approaching new repertoire but I don't care as much about it nowadays.

I think he's really good in extremely "romantic" work, oddly enough- stuff like Tchaikovsky and Strauss is so heart-on-sleeve that you can't help but get emotion from playing it straight.
 

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For me, Szell could be very great. His symphony recordings for Mozart Haffner, Beethoven 3, Tchaikovsky 4 and 5, Kodaly, Prokofiev, Wagner are among my favourites. His Schubert (much prefer Bohm), Brahms, Handel I can do without.

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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That's interesting. To me, Furtwangler sound sometimes artificial, and sometimes plain, but Szell seems to me much more natural. I don't feel he just follows the score literally at all, and knows how to bring things off cohesively, and expressively in a manner that's not cloying like how much of Bernstein comes across to me. I think it all has to do with a certain temperament of the listener, that certain conductors appeal to.
 
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