ANNIVERSARIES: George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra finished recording their Schumann cycle 55 years ago


Hungarian-born conductor George Szell (1897-1970) never intended to settle in the United States, but when World War II started in 1939, that's where he was, and he stayed. After well-received guest appearances with the NBC Symphony Orchestra, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York Philharmonic, in 1946 he became a U.S. citizen and became the Music Director of the Cleveland Orchestra, which he proceeded to raise it from mid-level regional status to one of the Big Five U.S. orchestras.

By the time of these 1958-60 recordings, not only had he spent twelve years refining the Clevelanders into one of the greatest orchestras not just in the U.S but in the world, he'd had them playing Schumann nearly every season, so by the time they went into the studio to record this cycle for Epic, they could produce through their unsurpassed precision exactly the sort of clarity that Schumann's thick orchestration needs. Szell also, with great taste and discretion, adjusted Schumann's orchestration at various points to make his own performing edition, and while that sort of thing is considered taboo nowadays, these performances are great enough to justify it.

Szell's perfectionism did not stilt the music's emotional impact; he makes the melodies sing beautifully and the rhythms flow vividly, perhaps because he insisted on recording movements in complete takes rather than piecing them together from multiple or fragmentary attempts. The rarely programmed Second (which the Clevelanders finished on October 24, 1960, concluding the cycle) gains in stature under Szell's direction; the ever-popular First (“Spring”) and Third (“Rhenish”) sound remarkably fresh and structurally taut. The effervescence of the Fourth is dazzling; the Manfred Overture is far more than filler.

In the past, some critics carped that these performances were dynamically limited, but the restricted sonics of the original LPs are gone; if these are not the sort of blockbuster masterings digital recording popularized, they certainly make up for it with a more natural sound than many a recent release. - Steve Holtje

Mr. Holtje is a Brooklyn-based composer, poet, and editor. Earlier this year, his soundtrack for director Enrico Cullen's film A Man Full of Days was heard at the film's debut screening at Anthology Film Archives, and more recently at the Lausanne Underground Film & Music FestivalThe CD of the soundtrack was releaseby MechaBenzaiten Records (distributed by Forced Exposure) on August 7.