Telling tales out of Szell

Telling tales out of Szell


norman lebrecht

July 21, 2015

Musicians in the Cleveland Orchestra have been sharing memories of the good old, bad old times. There’s a book in it, apparently. We’re awaiting first copy.





  • Max Grimm says:

    This review of the book heightens the curiosity. While I have heard conductors demonstrate a masterly application of colourful expletives, I can honestly say that I have never heard anyone accusing a musician of playing like “a gypsy whore”.

  • John says:

    Hopefully it will provide a more complete picture of Szell the man than Michael Charry’s biography did. Szell’s temper was legendary, but Charry paints a much more benevolent portrait that seems at odds with everything else I’ve read about him (including accounts from musicians who worked with him, including major solo artists).

  • Peter Phillips says:

    Don’t forget Donald Rosenberg’s fascinating book, “The Cleveland Orchestra”.

  • Gary says:

    Reminds me of what Steve Shutt said about Canadiens coach Scotty Bowman: “364 days out of the year you hate his guts. On the 365th day you collect your Stanley Cup ring.”

  • Eric Koenig says:

    Once, while rehearsing the finale of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, Szell admonished the soprano soloist, Eileen Farrell, “Softer, softer! You’re singing too loud!” Without missing a beat, Farrell yelled back, “If you wanted a pops singer, why the hell didn’t you hire Dinah Shore?”

  • Mark Mortimer says:

    Certainly a superlative musician and some of his recordings with the Cleveland orchestra stand amongst the dozen or so greatest of all time . But surely one of the most unpleasant personnages ever to grace the podium. I read somewhere that as a child prodigy in Budapest, his parents, despairing of his nasty temper, carted him off age 9 to psychoanalysis with Freud in Vienna. Sigmund’s verdict- he was both a genius and psycohpath.

  • Tom Varley says:

    I recall hearing a story that several people at a party in the 1960s that was attended by Rudolf Bing of the Metropolitan Opera were discussing Szell and his abrasive personality. Someone said that Szell was his own worst enemy and Bing muttered, “Not while I’m alive.”

    • Tom Chambers says:

      Michael Charry’s biography completes that story– sometime later Szell’s wife Helene had occasion to say to him, “George, you are your own worst enemy.” Szell replied, “Not while Rudolf Bing is alive!”

      One of my most favorite conductors.

  • Amos says:

    I readily admit that I find the vast majority of the recordings from the Szell-era in Cleveland essential listening and some, Brahms D Minor with Leon Fleisher, Dvorak 7th, Schubert 9th, Mozart 40th, seminal. Rather than rely on 2nd or 3rd hand anecdotes I would urge anyone interested in Szell to read the first-hand Profile of Rafael Druian in Anne Mischakoff Heiles book America’s Concertmaster’s and the liner notes of CO CD-reissues written by Michael Charry which contain interviews with Myron Bloom, Cloyd Duff and Bernard Adelstein. The ends really don’t justify the means but the comments left to date regarding Szell are woefully incomplete.

  • Stephen says:

    In his recording of the Bartok “Concerto for Orchestra” Szell makes a cut of over 100 bars in the Finale because he “didn’t like them”. I’ve never forgiven him for this act of sacrilege!

    • Robert says:

      I don’t think your quotation is quite correct. Szell did not, to my knowledge, say that he cut the passage because “he didn’t like it.” Here is what he said in a 1969 Gramophone interview:

      And he is prepared to conduct anything of the past 300 years up to and including early Stravinsky and all Bartók, mention of whom brought me to asking him why he makes that famous cut in the last movement of the Concerto for Orchestra. ‘When I first heard the piece, conducted by Koussevitsky, I was immediately enchanted with it but I had a slight feeling of dissatisfaction over the last five minutes or so. I sent word to this effect to Bartók through his publishers – he was already ill by then – and, as a consequence, he wrote a second ending. But when I came to study the score, I discovered that my dissatisfaction was not with the peroration itself but with the stretch before it , and I’ve never heard it brought off satisfactorily so I always make this cut. Incidentally, Walton – whose music I love to perform – shares my doubts about this passage. I have to say that, with a single exception, no critic seemed to notice the cut until my recording came out – then I was taken to task’.

      • Amos says:

        Michael Charry’s liner notes for the CD re-issue of the Bartok, coupled with the Prokofiev 5th, discusses the cut and Szell’s reasoning vis-a-vis an earlier piece of Bartok’s.

  • Ilio says:

    Tales from the Locker Room: an anecdotal portrait of George Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra. Lawrence Angell and Bernette Jaffe. ATBOSH Media Ltd. ISBN: 978-1626130531.

    An engrossing view from the musician’s perspective of George Szell and what it was like to work in the Cleveland Orchestra during the era. Unlike Charry or Rosenberg’s books, this is the working man/women’s view of the Szell era. Those Szell stories that weren’t in those books or censored from primetime reading are here.

    Szell comes across as a very controlling, micro managing, sharp-tongued individual with a mind like a steel trap. Yet there were times where he could be a considerate and caring individual as well. He not only wanted to control the musicians at work, but outside of work as well. He’d tell men what brand of instrument to play, how to dress properly, or where and what to eat. Some musicians found it well meaning, but others really resented it. Some of the orchestra members really adored Szell, while others hated him with a vengeance. It seems like the more Szell cared for a musician, the more badly he mistreated him. The prime example of this is oboist Marc Lifschey. On the other hand he could dislike a musician and really bully him. It appears that only a few people like James Levine could just ignore his nit-picking and get away with it. One wonders what a shrink would have thought about his need for absolute control.

    The anecdotes also paint a picture of life in the orchestra through the Szell era. 32 week seasons were the norm, requiring musicians to take second jobs or find summer employment. Szell was opposed to the 52 week season saying that the musicians couldn’t keep the quality up. A week’s work often was 7 rehearsals and 2 concerts, unlike today’s 4/5 rehearsals and 3/4 concerts. Employment was at Szell’s whim with no recourse for appeal if a musician was fired. Auditions were not done behind a curtain, but in front of Szell and perhaps the section leaders. Some people had to re-audition for Szell several times before getting any tenure. The union seemed to side with management rather than the musicians. Friendships and feuds between musicians were also covered as was life on tour. The one common theme that I got out of the stories was that Marc Lifschey was the heart and soul of the orchestra despite sometimes making things hard for his fellow musicians with his ongoing love/hate relationship with Szell.

    Dis-n-Dat: It’s a quick read, only some 180 pages of content. The book could have used some spell checking. I would love to have an Ormandy and Reiner anecdote book like this.