Szell in Berlin

0 of 5 stars

Tragic Overture, Op.81
Don Juan, Op.20
Symphony No.2 in C minor, Op.61

Berliner Philharmoniker
George Szell

Recorded live on 26 June 1969 in the Philharmonie, Berlin

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: June 2005
Duration: 69 minutes

A mouth-watering prospect: George Szell and the Berlin Philharmonic in a programme of masterpieces. The warmth of applause greeting Szell is a testimony in itself; and then one remembers that Karajan had been in Berlin for over a decade and was amassing a formidable reputation and discography, not forgetting administrative and artistic power. He was choosy who conducted ‘his’ orchestra; and these works were regulars in Karajan’s repertoire, the Brahms and Strauss especially.

Szell had just over a year to live when this concert took place. The Brahms begins a little untidily, but it’s a compelling account, notable for the warmth of phrasing and Szell’s flexible approach; it is often noted that Szell conducting in Europe seemed a more malleable musician than when in Cleveland where he was music director. That’s debatable and, more likely, that Szell had built the Clevelanders into a remarkably precise orchestra over time and when he was guest-conducting the same discipline wasn’t attainable on a handful of rehearsals for one concert. Maybe he could enjoy a busman’s holiday.

But, as is demonstrated here, Szell, like all great conductors, could impose his will and get superb results for the evening; and his visits to Berlin Philharmonic were occasional. Here, the orchestra sounds less like Karajan’s creation (certainly what it would become later into his tenure) and more like the pre-Karajan ensemble; rather fanciful thoughts, maybe, but the players here seem let off the leash and, although Szell was a disciplinarian, there is a response here that is often electrifying and spontaneous, despite the occasional lack of co-ordination and a few bloopers.

A white-hot, somewhat unkempt Don Juan follows, one that sizzles with temperament: a dramatic if considered account that takes wing to overwhelming effect. There’s a curious change of ambience at 10’51”; it matters not when the music-making is so compelling.

It’s the Schumann symphony that crowns this release. This is a special work, and Szell was a very sympathetic interpreter of this composer even if he didn’t trust Schumann’s orchestration and made some texture-thinning emendations. The opening few bars, a little harried and not dovetailed enough, aren’t the most promising, but suddenly Szell allows the expression to blossom and the listener is launched into an account both taut and fantastical. The first movement proper is driven hard but with the right sort of impassioned spirit, and the scherzo is mercurial; surprisingly Szell makes the two trios in marked contrast, quite heavily underlining the first of them whereas the second is shot through with deep feeling.

The sublime Adagio is tenderly expressed at a spacious tempo and quietly ecstatic in climaxes; lovely oboe solos. The finale begins in sturdy fashion and is directed to a multifarious viewing of the extended coda where it is interesting to hear some Celibidache-like integration of texture with a paring-down of sound and volume. The charge to the finishing post mixes a shot of adrenaline and rhetorical summation en route to a gloriously triumphant final chord.

Very well recorded with plenty of presence, detail and depth, this archived concert is rather more than an appendix to Szell’s studio recordings of these works.

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