Beethoven
Symphony No.8 in F, Op.93
Symphony No.9 in D minor, Op.125
Heather Harper (soprano)
Janet Baker (mezzo-soprano)
Ronald Dowd (tenor)
Franz Crass (bass)

New Philharmonia Chorus

New Philharmonia Orchestra
George Szell

Recorded on 12 November 1968 in the Royal Festival Hall, London
CD No: BBC LEGENDS
BBCL 4155-2 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 37 minutes
Reviewed: October 2004
Another BBC Legends issue to set the pulse racing – George Szell conducting a London orchestra in Beethoven symphonies. The sound is mono, but the depth of perspective and fullness of tone is excellent (a very few moments of digital-mastering discoloration in the Choral aside) … and the performances are memorable.
The Eighth Symphony crackles with excitement from the first bar, a taut, muscular account, vividly detailed. Szell places terrific emphasis on lower strings, which gives this concentrated work quite a punch, and exultant horns cut through the texture with glee. Occasionally some accents are rather hammered, and there’s the odd ‘immovable’ moment when one wishes Szell could have been a little more flexible, a little more affectionate and wittier, although there’s no lack of meaningful dynamic contrasts and affecting lyrical playing. The finale is the highlight, quite enthralling, its finitely judged tempo – balancing articulacy and pugnacious drive – crowning an iron-grip performance that has the precision of a studio session coupled with the intensity of a live performance.
Szell and the Philharmonia Orchestra’s skilled achievement is maintained in the Choral. In the first three movements, Szell is respectively incisive, spirited and tender. Some of the more insistent moments registered up to now then rather undo the vocal finale, those relating to Szell’s rather blunt exactness and some wearing, thumping timpani (a Philharmonia characteristic rather than a Szell requirement, one must add; although at the most dramatic moments, the timpani-playing, presumably from Denis Blyth is thrilling). The finale is also, for all the discipline, maybe because of it, somewhat short of joy; and rather hectoring, the soloists barking out the words, the chorus responding with military exactitude.
Great to hear these performances though, and inspiring to appreciate what Szell could achieve as a guest conductor in a one-off concert away from his Cleveland base. One of the great conductors, certainly, here moulding musicians to his lucid view of the music and his explicit beat. If flicking through some concert bills, spotting Szell conducting the Philharmonia in this music would get a ‘I’d love to have heard that’ response. Now we can!

 

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