Was Georg Szell as horrid as described?

Was Georg Szell as horrid as described?


norman lebrecht

August 11, 2018

The London clarinet player Murray Khouri remembers visits from the Cleveland monster:

During George Szell’s twenty-four year tenure as musical director of the Cleveland Orchestra no less than forty percent per cent of the players were seeing or had seen a psychiatrist. Szell’s tenure in Cleveland produced an orchestra of world renown built by an autocrat who brooked no opposition, on or off the podium.

Szell spent his summers in Europe relaxing and conducting orchestras in Holland, Germany and England. I crossed paths with him in March 1969 when he came to conduct the London Philharmonic in a performance of Gustav Mahler’s 6th Symphony. I was amazed to see four or five rehearsals for this concert, an almost unheard of luxury at the time. On his London visits he’d usually conducted the London Symphony Orchestra but relations weren’t the best there, resulting in recordings made but not approved.

Things were much worse with the Philharmonia which had slid from the world’s best to a shadow of its former self, after being abandoned by its founder, Walter Legge. Players were smoking and reading newspapers in rehearsals, actions calculated to arouse Szell’s bitter condemnation. The London players weren’t receptive to his bullying manner. They were quite liable to walk out if abused.

The London Philharmonic was next on the list and I was agog at would transpire with us. Bernard Haitink introduced him at the first rehearsal, reminding us of Mr Szell’s eminence and hoping that we would all give him the greatest co-operation. That finished, Szell sprang to the podium and his words remain with me:

“ I last conducted this orchestra in 1937. I don’t see any familiar faces.” Staring at a half dozen players who’d been there then. “We’ll play the Symphony through, I trust there won’t be any technical errors.”

We then played the Symphony through, from beginning to the end with only a couple of stops. From Szell not a word.

It was just like that during the following days. I think he was watching and waiting, disappointed at not being able to take us apart and put us back together. The day before the concert he suddenly stopped. Pointing at Gordon Webb, our wonderful First Trumpet, “Mr. Webb, you’re the best First Trumpet I know”. That was all and we continued with the music. The morning rehearsal on the day of the concert he drove the orchestra to the point of exhaustion. The concert was a predictable disappointment. He’d taken everything from us at the rehearsal. He also made several mistakes in the concert, immediately pointing to himself as the offender.

But how extraordinary was this musical meeting, staring at a man who worked with Richard Strauss, recorded the Dvorak Concerto with Pablo Casals and had been a product of the best that central Europe had to offer. A musician in the line of  Fritz Reiner, Georg Solti, Bela Bartok and Antal Dorati.

Szell was born in Budapest in 1897 to a Hungarian father and Slovakian mother. The family moved to Vienna when Georg was only six, converting from Judaism to Catholicism. Vienna was, and still is, a notoriously anti-Semitic city. Szell’s musical gifts were manifest early and he was fortunate to study with some fine teachers, including Max Reger.

And let us remember that this was the Vienna of Mahler, Schoenberg and Zemlinsky. Szell heard the Vienna Philharmonic under Arthur Nikisch – an event that left a powerful impression.

Like so many of the Golden Age of conducting, Szell was an able composer, producing Brahmsian works that won him a contract with Universal Edition.

He’d played in public for the first time as an 11 year-old, performing Mozart’s Piano Concerto in A major K488. On holiday five years later, at the spa town of Bad Kissingen, came the lucky break that really set him on his way. The Vienna Symphony was in a summer residency there, together with the Szell family holidaying in these beautiful surroundings. The young Szell was to be found daily at the orchestra’s rehearsals and concerts soaking up the music. As fate would have it Martin Sporr, the conductor, fell ill with no available replacement at short notice. Never reticent about his abilities, the young man offered his services and in that evening his career was set in motion.

Szell was a product of the German opera houses. Coaching singers, conducting the chorus and playing for stage rehearsals. It was whilst doing a stint at the Berlin Royal Opera that he met Richard Strauss, the pre-eminent German musician. Strauss’s attraction for the young Szell was fired when the aspiring conductor played Till Eulenspiegel from memory on the piano, simulating percussion effects with his cuff-links on the keyboard. All very similar to the young Otto Klemperer who’d played his piano arrangement of Mahler’s 2nd Symphony for the flattered composer.

Szell’s operatic work culminated in a position at the German Opera House in Prague, previous home to some of the greatest figures in German music. His reputation was spreading beyond Central Europe and by 1930 Scotland, Holland and the USA were beckoning.

Szell had been present at one of Toscanini’s concerts with the New York Philharmonic in Prague, and experienced playing and conducting of undreamt of standards. It opened his eyes to the possibilities in the New World where wealth and vitality ruled the day. But before America there was England, Scotland and Holland, working with the new London Philharmonic, the Hague Residentie Orchestra and the Scottish National Orchestra. There was also a tour of Australia for the Australian Broadcasting Commission. From there he went on to America. The year was 1940 and together with so many other musicians, he decided to make New York his home. For nearly two years he was largely unemployed, doing some teaching at the Mannes School of Music. He busied himself making orchestral transcriptions for various publishers, orchestrating songs and major works – like Smetana’s Quartet No 1, called “From my Life” – to great effect.

His musical drought was ended by Edward Johnson who engaged him at the Metropolitan – a relationship which lasted for ten largely turbulent and unhappy years. Szell’s intolerance of slack management and performance standards finally came to a head not long after he took over the Cleveland position, resulting in a much publicized “walk out”. Not long after his departure a comment was made to the new intendant, Rudolf Bing, “ George Szell is his own worst enemy.” Quipped Bing, “Not whilst I’m alive!”

But Arturo Toscanini had taken an interest in the young Szell and had invited him to conduct his NBC Symphony Orchestra. With Toscanini’s endorsement, it was a short step to other orchestral invitations from the New York Philharmonic and Cleveland Orchestras. All this preparing for the moment when Artur Rodzinski, Cleveland’s Music Director, moved to the New York Philharmonic in 1943, leaving an opening in the mid-western city.

That opening wasn’t filled by Szell but by Erich Leinsdorf, another Toscanini protégé. Dogged by inexperience as a symphonic conductor and then being drafted into the army, his reign in Cleveland was a short one. It was no surprise to anyone when he was replaced by the dynamic Szell. When Georg Szell finally arrived in Cleveland he found an orchestra in excellent shape, blighted by serious problems. The period with Erich Leinsdorf had been well spent. Leinsdorf, a scrupulous musician of outstanding credentials, lacked only the last ounce of charisma which would have ensured his continuation as Music Director. Szell’s initial concerts had created a sensation and caused the Board to sway from Leinsdorf, their initial choice, to him.

The 2nd World War had seen many players drafted and this was only one of the problems Szell faced. The season of thirty weeks was short and the pay scale below the major East Coast orchestras. But that didn’t stop Szell from negotiating a rich contract for himself – a contract which gave him unprecedented powers, both musically and administratively. He was set to become a musical dictator.

He poached players from other orchestras, appointing them on short-term contracts, waiting for the war to end. At the start of each season he insisted on a full week’s play- through of repertoire to whip the orchestra into shape. He ordered all facial hair removed, jackets and ties to be worn on tour; he even chose the toilet paper for the lavatories!

A unique situation was being created in Cleveland. A situation in which perfectionism ruled without restraint, where one man decided everything – as one player joked, “Szell would have even been in the box-office selling the tickets”, if time had allowed.

His repertoire choices were conservative. He was devoted to the German and Viennese classics, working intensively on Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schumann and Brahms. Every detail was rehearsed exhaustively, every interpretive nuance repeated, every tempo indication set in stone. Before first rehearsals for a work, the principal string players would assemble in his room where he would communicate his bowings and fingerings to them. The effect, I believe, was to gradually erode each musician’s feelings of individuality, subjugating them to his will and the corporate mass. But, I hear you say, isn’t that what an orchestra is all about? Possibly, but let’s compare it with another way.

I offer you two schools of thought on what makes a great symphony orchestra. On one hand, it’s often said that an orchestra is only as good as its conductor, that the man on the podium can pull it all together whether or not he’s faced with players of premium quality. In 1965, George Szell was in Berlin recording the Strauss Four Last Songs with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf. The Berlin Radio Orchestra chosen for the recording was in poor shape. Even Szell was surprised at the mediocre playing and boasted, “I’ll soon whip them into shape.” Well, he couldn’t.

The other way is to have an orchestra of corporate quality which has style but not a style, which can respond to differing kinds of direction quickly and flexibly and deliver premium results whoever is on the podium.

An orchestra like the Vienna Philharmonic, which has no musical director -wary of one individual turning into a musical dictator. Despite having grown-up in Vienna, Szell hated the ‘Vienna mentality’, calling the phony “gemutlichkeit” a sham. When he occasionally conducted the Vienna orchestra, the resulting tensions and conflict could produce electrifying results.

Back in Cleveland, Szell was proceeding with grand plans. Unlike Stokowski he had little interest in the media and schools concerts, though he was very interested in getting his orchestra into Carnegie Hall to show off its qualities. It was still hard to hire the very best players because of the 33 week season, low pay and the feeling that Cleveland was an unattractive city. Gradually a summer season was established at the Blossom Music Centre.

The Cleveland Orchestra continued to improve through the 1950’s and the path of its rise was mirrored in Szell’s public boasting. Reading contemporary interviews given in newspapers and music magazines, certain themes are repeated with monotonous regularity. Assertions that he strove for and achieved complete homogeneity in strings and winds, and that his Orchestra was nothing more than a giant chamber music group, with every player listening to every other single member constantly. It’s difficult to agree with all this and I’ll let other commentators re-enforce my own misgivings about his assertions:-

From Joseph Horowitz, best-selling author of seven books dealing with American musical history:

“The many niceties of execution are more programmed than spontaneous. The chamber music is commandeered, not egalitarian.”

From John Culshaw, Szell’s English Decca producer:

“Szell had a notorious tongue and a reputation for eating anyone alive who crossed his path. With very few exceptions, orchestral musicians loathed him, although no musician worthy of the name could fault him artistically. On the podium he was incapable of generating warmth. When he died almost all the obituaries could not resist the comment that he did not suffer fools gladly, but it would be nearer the truth to say that he did not suffer fools at all”.

From Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, “Szell’s nervous obsession with speed, which usually led to time-consuming rehearsals, his compulsive need to always have an opinion different from others and his considerable paranoia when it came to the orchestra’s ill-will”.

Homogenizing the sound means removing the characteristics which gives each instrument its individual tone colour. It presents no problems for the strings, each of which makes its sounds in the same way.

It becomes a contentious issue for the woodwinds, each of whom is a section player and soloist. Szell’s woodwind players sound drained of individual expression, and lacking in personality and flair.

Sitting in the middle of the orchestra, with instruments separated by dozens of yards from each other, it is physically impossible mostly to hear what others are doing, especially for wind and brass, with mouthpieces resonating through their aural cavities. By the mid-Fifties, Szell had reached his high-point with the Cleveland Orchestra. Earlier he’d poached Joseph Gingold from the Detroit Symphony to be a great leader. Gingold, the gentlest of men, had all the qualities needed to improve the Cleveland string sound, and to act as the interface between a sometimes abusive and aggressive Szell and the rest of the orchestra. Towards the end of his career Gingold made solo recordings which demonstrate his warm-hearted, impeccable musicianship:

Gingold resigned from Cleveland in 1960, tiring of the abuse heaped on him, and left to take up a teaching career at the music school in Bloomington, Indiana. Speaking of his time after Szell he reflected, “For the first time in fourteen years I sleep well at night”.

The turnover in Cleveland continued at a high level. The departures were of two kinds – Dismissal by Szell, or departures brought on by the crushing demands of the job, coupled with a search for easier working conditions.

Rarely has a conductor been so single-minded in his quest for a musical vision. Stylistically he was intent on a lean classical sound, with emphasis on precision of articulation. That’s the difference between short and long notes.

His demands on the string instruments was at the opposite pole from Leopold Stokowski. Stokowski favoured free bowing, to create long seamless legato lines. Szell’s string players are unified by precise tightly- controlled bow strokes, creating a dryer sound with short notes really short.

We’ve already mentioned the homogenizing of the woodwinds, sacrificing individuality for blend, and to that is added a restrained brass section, quite unlike other American orchestras – all contributing to ‘the Cleveland sound’:

By the beginning of the 1960’s, Szell had been in America 23 years and one wonders whether he had become wholly or partly Americanized. In a rare slip after returning from Europe, Szell was overheard saying, “ I admire European manners. I’m still polite from Europe. In 10 minutes I’ll be as vulgar as the rest of you”!

He lived in great luxury in Shaker Heights, the most salubrious quarter of Cleveland, in a house filled with valuable paintings. Visitors to the house found him a considerate host, though all were perturbed by marital tensions fostered by a wife making a practice of contradicting every word he had to say.

If he was compliant at home he was dictatorial with the Orchestra’s management, making conductor – manager relations difficult. But as always, he retained the support of his Board, which in the main remained loyal to him and continued with the never-ending task of fundraising.

Tours to Europe had begun with the Cleveland Orchestra feted and admired wherever they went. Well, not quite everywhere. In England and Belgium critics were enthusiastic about the Orchestra, but not Szell’s conducting, finding his performances bland, lacking real energy.

It was on one of his visits to London in the early 1960’s to conduct the Philharmonia Orchestra, that he first met the Orchestra’s Orchestral Manager, Michael Maxwell – a New Zealander making his mark in the big city.

Szell and Maxwell met again only a few years later in New York, where Maxwell had become Assistant Manager of the New York Philharmonic.

Szell was impressed with this ambitious young man and made a mental note

that he was now in the United States. So when a similar position became vacant in Cleveland Maxwell got the job, with assurances of promotion.

Events moved quickly after that. After only two years, Maxwell was offered the post of General Manager of the Detroit Symphony and in order to keep him in Cleveland, Szell promoted the young Manager who very soon succeeded to the top job in 1969, after Beverly Barksdale, the current incumbent, was eased out.

For a time all was well with Szell and Maxwell, but following the conductor’s untimely death in 1970, Maxwell assumed dictatorial powers -which in turn led to a major orchestral strike and conflict with Lorin Maazel, Szell’s successor. Conflict which led to Maxwell’s resignation in 1976.

The 1960’s, the last decade of George Szell’s life, was the beginning of the record industry’s downward path, and especially in the United States where prohibitive Union demands had priced the orchestras out of the market.

Loyal as he was to Cleveland, it didn’t stop him recording in Europe, but unlike other eminent practitioners he had no organized programme with a single company.

The CBS work in Cleveland had yielded some important titles, especially Mahler’s 4th and 6th, and Bruckner’s 3rd and 8th Symphonies, and the complete Schumann Symphonies.

For English Decca – Brahms’s 1st Piano Concerto with Clifford Curzon, Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which he never sanctioned for release. And an early Brahms 3rd Symphony with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, which at a stroke solves all the performances’ difficulties that have mired most other practitioners. 

Among the finest of all Cleveland releases with Szell is the recording of William Walton’s 2nd Symphony and the Partita for orchestra. Those of us who have played in these pieces will confirm the extreme rhythmic and technical challenges that this music poses. Like some champion steeplechase, every obstacle is swept aside nonchalantly, the playing eliciting the composer’s highest praise.

When Szell’s rigor was applied to music from his homeland any thoughts of ‘folksy Dvorak’ were swept aside. Sentimentality is banished and the dance elements of the music brought into crisp focus.

There seems no evidence that Szell played any but the last three Dvorak Symphonies – the D minor, G major and E minor, called “from the new world”. These Symphonies, newly reissued on Sony Classical, make revelatory listening. The lyrical and the dramatic are perfectly fused, the structure taut and revealing. But more than that, Szell captures the scent and flavour of an old world Bohemia ruthlessly swept away by World War 2.

George Szell’s death in June 1970 brought to a close an era of music-making we won’t see again. His autocratic and despotic ways provoked a strong reaction immediately following his death, a reaction which led to the smiling face of orchestral democracy and the rise of the players’ committee within the orchestra, finally given power.

George Szell was a hard act to follow. His successor, Lorin Maazel, fought player hostility before departing for the Vienna State Opera. Truth to tell, Szell could have had no successor. He and Cleveland had fused as one.

A great music-maker was gone, and we are the richer for his legacy of fastidious perfectionism.




  • Been Here Before says:

    A fascinating read!

    • Colin says:


    • Myron Bloom says:

      I was Georg Szell’s principal horn for 25 years or so. It was the greatest musical experience imaginable. I am deeply saddened to read these disparaging remarks about him. Yes he was extremely demanding and “difficult” but if one understood where he was aiming,it became unimportant. I venerate Georg Szell and want to stand and dignify in every way his memory.
      Myron Bloom

      • Amos says:

        I believe Mr. Bloom meant 15 years (1955-1970). The article is one man’s opinion and interestingly after all the critical remarks, which I strongly disagree with, the last paragraph or 2 acknowledges the superb qualities of GS/CO performances. Anyone who characterizes Szell performances as lacking energy or the playing of principal wind players Lifschey, Marcellus, Sharp and Goslee as bland would do well to re-listen to virtually any of the recently re-issued recordings. The only bland recording I recall GS ever made was the Curzon Brahms D minor which pales in comparison to the Fleisher recording in Cleveland.

  • barry guerrero says:

    Szell was tough, but nowhere as abusive as Reiner. How do I know this? . . I knew players who had played under one or the other conductor. Many of Szell’s principals were quite loyal.

    • Keith MacLeod says:

      I completely agree with you on this. My teacher was Robert Marcellus and he never had a bad word for Szell. I also disagree with the remarks about the wind section being bland. I hear only a superb section with special notice of the principal oboe and clarinet.

  • Symphony musician says:

    Murray Khouri’s memory seems photographic, his knowledge seems encyclopedic and he writes frankly and with great authority. These orchestra-insider insights are amongst the best I’ve ever read. Do readers have other favourites?

  • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

    Maazel did not resign in 1976; he was MD through my high school years there, late 70s.

  • Hilary says:

    “Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony, which he never sanctioned for release”
    Now would be a good time to release it. Performers/conductors not always the most astute critics of their own work.
    Karajan said that Szell was a charming man, in an interview.

    • anon says:

      Well, of course Szell would be charming to Karajan.

    • anon says:

      On a youtube clip, Szell was also charming to his young charge and student James Levine.

      What if musicians had mentors and teachers who led professional lives that not only insisted on musical exemplarity but moral exemplarity, treating a musician under one’s baton with moral excellence, as a fellow colleague rather than as a subordinate one can piss on (or grope) and get away with it?

      Do conservatories today offer ethics course? Medical schools do, even business schools do!

      • buxtehude says:

        Even law schools do! — though this curriculum is mainly technical (I’m told) and centers on how to figure out exactly who or what one is representing/serving in complex situations.

        Come to think of it, that’s not a bad set of questions in orchestral music either.

    • Simon Brown says:

      The Tchaikovsky 4 is fairly well known and was released by Decca on lp (after Szell’s death I assume) and then on CD.


      • NIck2 says:

        Culshaw made some comments on that Tchaikovsky 4. He felt the performance that Szell was achieving, whilst precise, was somewhat boring, especially the last movement. To try and persuade him to put some fire into it, it is alleged he kept the volume down during the sessions. Prior to the final ‘take’ he mentioned to Szell that the overall volume was just too gentle. He was perfectly well aware this would infuriate Szell. It did. The end result is wonderful, almost white hot!

  • anon says:

    Conductors lack professional biographers. The anecdotal and the impressionistic are essential, but we need systematic biographical treatments. Bernstein is the exception, but then again, he was larger than life, and he himself recorded himself on TV and in film and in documentaries, and his fame naturally lent himself to biographies and memoirs, the multiplicity of all this provides a fairly full picture of the man.

    • Anonymous says:

      Read Michael Charry’s biography of Szell.

    • Cubs Fan says:

      There is an excellent biography of Szell, by Michael Cherry. Two Szell players, Angell and Jaffe, wrote a book of anecdotes, Tales from the Locker Room.

      • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

        Some really choice anecdotes in Gary Graffman’s autobiography, “I really should be practicing.” Often funny, which one wouldn’t expect for Szell anecdotes, but they’re from Gary Graffman %)

      • ML says:

        There is another one, more recently, called “George Szell’s Reign: Behind the Scenes with the Cleveland Orchestra,” by Marcia Hansen Kraus. What I found particularly interesting is the last couple of chapters saying Szell became emotionally attached from the Cleveland Orchestra and increasingly disillusioned with the US after the 1965 tour to the USSR. This is reflected in his remarks to the audience at the beginning of the May 7, 1970 concert.

        • monsoon says:

          I think you may have gotten your stories confused.

          The incident you’re referring to is when Szell asked for a moment of silence to recognize the recent Kent State Shooting. He said: “Would you please join us in standing silently for a few moments, in simple human recognition of the tragic events of this week.”

          • ML says:

            I know it is Kent State shooting. Did not quite know why you thought my story was confused? But that is not a big deal. The context of that is Szell got disillusioned with the US after the Cleveland Orchestra’s 1965 Russia tour where he read newspapers providing conflicting accounts of the Vietnam War, and he started to think the public had been misled by the Johnson administration. Szell was not impressed the American public’s attitudes towards that war either.

            According to Louis Lane, Szell became increasingly detached (emotionally) with the orchestra due to the strikes and other things.

            I probably should have made the contexts of these things clearer, at least in different paragraphs, but that depicted Szell’s mental state in his last years generally.

      • monsoon says:

        The Michael Charry biography is a bit too varnished about Szell’s behavior and glosses over Marc Lifschey’s firing which was a huge mistake. It’s the most talked about incident in “Tales from the Locker Room: An Anecdotal Portrait of George Szell and his Cleveland Orchestra,” and even the musicians who had good working relationships with Szell say he was too hard on Lifschey and he drove him out of the orchestra.

        The takeaway is that for whatever Szell thought he was able to achieve from being a tyrant came at the cost of losing highly talented musicians.

        The other interesting part of that book is that when Szell slimmed down the orchestra for Mozart, there was high demand to participate in those performances even though they all knew that Szell would be particularly exacting in rehearsals.


    surely the Tchaikovsky was released after he died? on Decca LP, since on cd coupled with Egmont

  • william osborne says:

    Interesting comment about so many of the musicians under Szell seeking medical help for psychological problems. People do not realize how conductors used to terrorize musicians and the human costs it had. Celibidache was one of the last that was tolerated. During his tenure at the Munich Philharmonic the general stress weighed heavily on the musicians. Under circumstances of constant stress and fear, dealing with life’s general problems becomes more difficult. Three musicians committed suicide during that approximately 17 year period.

    The author writes about Szell: “With very few exceptions, orchestral musicians loathed him, although no musician worthy of the name could fault him artistically.”

    I disagree. Abusing people denigrates art and is literally a form of vulgarity far removed from what is beautiful. It is distasteful to look at orchestras, or films of them, cowering in fear under a conductor. One can hear that vulgar sound of fear in the nature of their music. It is not artistic.

    A more sensible concept of human dignity and musical artistry evolved. I hope there will be fewer and fewer people willing to ennoble the behavior of people like Szell, Toscanini, Reiner, and others. Their behavior was an affront to human dignity and was not beauty. We can, and have done better.

    • Mark Mortimer says:

      William- excellent comments. I’m too young to remember Szell but have his recordings & what an incredible symphonic machine the Cleveland was then- arguably the most remarkable in history- unlikely to be surpassed- Szell’s Dvorak 8/Mahler 4 with them are stunning/transcendent.
      The man was obviously a deeply unpleasant character (perhaps with psychopathic tendencies) like many of the others you mention of that generation. But have conductors changed that much in all honesty- stories of Gatti, Dutoit, Levine do little to dispel the myth that conducting attracts arrogant egomaniacs who produce beauty & damage in equal measure.

      • william osborne says:

        It’s true that people like Gatti, Dutoit, Levine, and a number of others show that the move toward more humanistic concepts in classical music are a work-in-progress. Sexual abuse is one of the last hurdles still to be crossed.

        During the Szell/Toscanini/Reiner era, orchestras generally performed with much more technical precision than they do today. And they usually rehearsed more for concerts and recordings which allowed for more refinements of interpretation. Though there are times when Szell interfered with the work of the sound engineers in ways that harmed the recordings.

        Still, I think that many of today’s interpretations are also excellent, and without the dehumanizing costs of those earlier years. In the broadest terms, what has been lost in less technically precision (essentially very tight ensemble work) has been more than gained in concepts of sound (essentially the tonal richness and fullness of the musician’s sounds.) This isn’t just a matter of better recording quality. Large advances have been made in wind instrument construction, the performers understanding of sound production, and the pedagogy that goes with it.

        The real loss hasn’t been in any sort of orchestral discipline or uniformity, but simply in the loss of rehearsal time and the superficiality of jet-set conducting. There simply isn’t time to go deeply into the music. This is especially problematic for new works which receive little more the glorified sight-readings.

        It’s interesting that the author of the commentary speaks about the LSO. I don’t think any orchestra has suffered more, or has fallen more below its legacy and potential from these economic straits than the LSO. It’s still great, but has been constrained by the Reagan/Thatcher economic paradigms that pushed it into an excessive market orientation that has been harmful.

        • Bruce says:

          Don’t forget that Dutoit was hounded out of Montreal (in 2002? somewhere around there) for being an asshole to musicians, not for being a sexual predator.

        • Saxon Broken says:

          The LSO (and the other London orchestras) have never really been adequately subsidized to ensure they are in the top rank of orchestras. However, they have always been able to play more interesting repertoire than elsewhere and also benefitted from being at the centre of the recording industry (which considerably augmented their pay, making it comparable to elsewhere in Europe). The decline in the LSO is due to the decline in earnings from recordings. It has nothing to do with “the Reagan/Thatcher economic model”.

          • Patrick Gillot says:

            Which decline of the LSO? They never played better and just got the Berlin Philharmonic conductor as theirs, a first in history!

    • LP says:

      Speaking of “musicians worthy of the name”, Harnoncourt, who played for him in Vienna, apparently hated him too and for artistic reasons. He said in an interview that he wanted to kill him and there wasn’t any “music making” when working with him.

    • Bruce says:

      I am probably not a “musician worthy of the name” but I never could find anything of artistic interest in his recordings. Plenty to admire; not much to love.*

      I always thought Karajan had an equally well-tuned machine in the Berlin Philharmonic, but that machine turned out beautiful works of art, not [only] masterpieces of precision engineering.

      *(I’m pretty sure there is a name for that logical fallacy: all decent people agree on this, so if you disagree you are not a decent person.)

      • Scott Burgess says:

        I think that’s the No True Scotsman fallacy.

        I studied with George Goslee, one of the players Szell hand-selected for the orchestra when he took the reins in 1946. Mr. Goslee also never had a bad word for Szell, although that may be due to the fact that Szell’s meticulous style suited his musical temperament. I grew up listening to a Szell/Cleveland set of Great Symphonies (Beethoven 5, Schubert 8, and Mendelssohn 4, as I recall), and that record set my path in life, to a significant degree.

    • Herbert says:

      We should be only blessed today with the likes of a Toscannini, a Szell or a Reiner. These men were giants in their time and sadly, must suffer denigration after they are gone .

      • anon says:

        Who should be blessed? The musician who must put up the abuse? The audience member who pays $10 and thinks he is owed perfection from the musicians for $10?

        What are you, an accountant? Would you want your own boss to be the George Szell of accountants? Didn’t think so.

  • Robin Mitchell-Boyask says:

    One thing of which I’ve recently becoming increasingly aware is how underrated the humane if not musical legacy of Bruno Walter has been. I’ve read so many comments by conductors of the succeeding generations who’d been exposed to both him and people like Toscanini in rehearsals. Walter was revered by Giulini, Abbado and others.

    • Bruce says:

      I was going to mention him too. It’s funny how his name never comes up when people start listing terrible tyrants of the past.

    • Jerome Hoberman says:

      Robert Bloom on Bruno Walter: “He’d smile to your face while stabbing you in the back.”

    • Patrick Gillot says:

      Walter is not underrated . He just pales in comparison with Furt and Klemp.

    • DB says:

      I’m pretty sure it was Norman Lebrecht who wrote about how badly Walter treated his daughters. Maybe in his “The Maestro Myth.” Who would have thunk?

  • BillG says:

    I had an opportunity to talk with Barry Tuckwell during an interlude at a horn workshop at SMU in Dallas. The subject wound its way to directors with the DSO having it’s dust up with Van Zueden at the time. Tuckwell said of Szell when they were at the London Phil. the musicians hired the Music Director. Szell earned our respect, that’s why we renewed his contract.

  • Francois says:

    fall-rise pattern

  • Byrwec Ellison says:

    Speaking of Szell recordings, does anybody know why he cut 100 measures from the finale of Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra in his Columbia recording with Cleveland? Did he also do it that way in concert? I know he conducted it often. The recording’s a glorious document in every other way; even Szell’s finale has its unique logic. But that enormous cut is a real outlier of self-indulgence. Surely there must be a story to it.

    • David Taylor says:

      Bartok wrote two endings and Szell preferred the one rarely played today.

    • monsoon says:

      Szell simply thought he knew better.

      There’s no rationale explanation for it.

      But keep in mind that alterations here and there weren’t so uncommon during this era. Stokowski, for example, made his share of unnecessary additions to pieces’ orchestrations (but because it’s Stokowski, we look fondly on those edits).

      Obviously not quite the same, but the exposition repeats conductors then made in Beethoven would be unspeakable today.

      • barry guerrero says:

        No, as Mr. Taylor pointed out, there are two completely different endings. Ozawa also used that ending in one of his several recordings of the Bartok (the Philips one, I believe).

        • Monsoon says:

          No, that’s not it.

          Szell edited the commonly heard revised ending.

          Here’s Szell’s explanation:

          “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.”


          Whether or not Szell actually sent that note, according to the literature, Koussevitsky was the one who asked for the new ending shortly after the premier (see below). And by deliberately mentioning that Bartok was ill, Szell is insinuating that Bartok screwed up and he is really fixing his mistake. Puh-leaze…


        • Monsoon says:

          No, that’s not it.

          Szell’s edit is to the commonly heard revised version.

          Here’s his explanation:

          “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.”


          • Byrwec Ellison says:

            Thanks! That’s a good quote and explanation by Szell. I’d never seen it before – and it answers the question, Did he always do it that way in concert. As you pointed out, Szell’s revision IS different from the two alternate endings that Bartok wrote, a point that some respondents missed. I’ve heard the recording of Koussevitzky’s 1944 concert premiere with the BSO that uses the original short ending; only performance I’ve ever heard it.

          • Monsoon says:

            Well, here’s why everyone noticed the cut in Szell’s recording: The jacket notes for the original LP release points it out. It says:

            “Apparently, Bartok gave some latitude to conductors, allowing them to make deletions; at any rate, a plausible cut of 130 bars is made in the present recording just before the closing section, which leads directly to a pause before the coda. Furthermore, Bartok provided an alternative and more emphatic ending in which the descending figure of the original version is replaced by an ascending run of three-and-half octaves, along the pathway of the Lydian mode, reinforced by a glissando in the horns and trombones.”

            Nicolas Slonimsky wrote the notes; no way he wrote the “apparently…” line without being forced. I can totally see a scenario were Columbia insisted on warning listeners about the cut, and Szell demanding that the “apparently” be added.

            Listening to the last movement of Szell’s recording I forgot just how often you can hear him humming. His humming throughout his recordings is probably his most endearing quality.

    • John Marks says:

      Regarding Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra.

      I grew up in New England. I never cared a whit for the Patriots or the Celtics (sports teams). but for me, the Boston Symphony was what an orchestra should be; and, under Andris Nelsons, they are recovering much of the faded glory… .

      So, am I the only one who has heard this story?

      Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra was commissioned by the Koussevitzky Foundation, and was given in its original form in Boston, December 1, 1944. Bartok soon decided that the original ending was too abrupt, so in February 1945, he wrote the coda that has been the standard ending for decades.

      I think that a return to the version Bartok thought better of is wrong-headed, and a symptom of the “Conductor as God” disease.

      A provincial orchestra I am aware of, some years ago had as the cover of its program booklet shaded-down replicas of the signatures of great composers from Bach to Mahler, and superimposed upon them in full ink was the scrawled signature of the “legend in his own mind” who drove that orchestra deeper into the ditch.

      In my educated opinion, there is no legitimate musical reason to reject Bartok’s own revision to his last major work.

      Hicks from the sticks should not presume to think they are better than Bartok.


  • Pedro says:

    For me, Szell is a true music magician. Listen to the unsurpassed Scherzo of A Midsummer Night’s Dream with the Concertgebouw on Philips. Really incredible.

    • william osborne says:

      I would disagree. Instead of the skittering, dance-like lightness and lilting quality this scherzo should have, it’s pounded out with a march-like, machine gun precision. The martinet at work:


      • Simon Evnine says:

        That’s right, instead listen to Haitink do the Scherzo, about 12 mins into this


        Infinitely better

        • Cubs Fan says:

          Aw folks, they’re both fine. The Szell sounds different in part because the winds are recorded closer. Someone could make a case that Previn’s is the best, and on and on it goes. We’re just damned lucky that in the mid 20th c we had the likes of Szell, Rodzinski, Reiner, Steinberg, Ormandy, Mitropolous and several other European trained conductors come to the US to raise the standards of playing so high, and to a level that has not waned one bit. I do have one real gripe with Szell: that ridiculous cymbal crash in the finale of the Tchaikovsky 5th. Why, why, why?

          • ML says:

            Menegelberg and others (I could not recall on top of my head) also did that. It is probably a period thing.

  • David Taylor says:

    I remember asking Isaac Stern, who had recorded Mozart with Szell what it was like to work with him. He replied, “The man knew more about music than any man had a right to know!!” John Browning, who toured Russia in 1965 as soloist with the Cleveland/Szell said “It was like playing with God. He knew everything.” When I joined the Cleveland Orchestras as a violinist in 1974, just four years after the death of Szell I remember my first impression. . . .that it was like playing in a fine string quartet. The ensemble was incredible, with a blended homogenous sound. Those qualities still exist at some level. Traditions are handed down, often caught not taught. . . much like raising children! I only met Szell once, after he had conducted the Cleveland in Carnegie Hall back in the late sixties. I went to his room to get an autograph. I was then a student at Juilliard and had studied in Cleveland with Rafael Druian, then Concertmaster of the Cleveland, so I had a connection to Cleveland as an Ohioan. Szell politely signed my program, handed me the program with both hands and then . . pushed me away!!! I think I understood his intent: you got what you wanted, now get out of here! Another thought: When Szell died during the Blossom summer season in 1970 and the announcement of his death was made, there were many who wept at his loss. It’s one thing to love a man and another to greatly admire and respect him. Isn’t this a sort of love anyway?? Those days are gone forever.

    • william osborne says:

      These are almost classic associations with the patriarchal worship of conductors: knowing more than humans should know, being like God, the omnipotence of knowing everything, etc.

      The symphony orchestra evolved under the ethos of the nationalistic and industrial views of 19th century Europe. Conductors gradually obtained forms of dictatorial power that the music-world had never seen before. Transcendentally justified authority (“like playing with God,”) human objectification, and cultural nationalism were all part of the cultural values that sent Europe into a dangerous spiral.

      Power and public subjugation, threats, the whipping and slashing of the phallic baton, and the orgiastic build to climax under the watchful and absolute authority of the conductor are part of what patrons expect from orchestras. The expectations hint at vicarious satisfactions of sadism. To this day, we take these orchestral values for granted, even though there is no other system of musical organization like them in any other culture. It is a sign of progress that the symphony orchestra’s traditional values have become increasingly anachronistic even in places like Germany and Austria. As they continue to dissolve, what will come of symphonic orchestras as a genre? And of course, I know that a classical music fan site is not the best place to ask…

      • Bruce says:

        I think a tradition of “conductor as team leader” (for lack of a better phrase at this late hour) is steadily replacing the “conductor as dictator” model.

        Conductors often seem — or try to seem — like they’re in charge just because somebody has to be, not because they seek glory or authority. Work with musicians in rehearsals is more like colleagues working together than God issuing commandments. Meanwhile, the musicians know that their job is to do what the conductor wants: they don’t need to be beaten into submission. (Usually.) They will, however, put more of themselves into their work if they develop respect for the conductor’s choices: in other words, if he’s a good musician, they’ll play better for him. (Usually.)

        I’ve played under a couple of old-school tyrants and several of the other kind, as well as many in-betweeners, who try to be pleasant but their true colors start to show through when things get difficult. It’s more fun playing for the pleasant kind; and the musical results have zero correlation with the level of tyranny/ collegiality.

        • Pianofortissimo says:

          Don’t you think that conductors who in charge just because somebody has to be should consequently be paid as much as any other musician in the orchestra?

      • Mark Mortimer says:

        William- very interesting comments again. I studied with Benjamin Zander in my youth in a summer masterclass. A man not lacking confidence himself- one of his more memorable musings – ‘conducting is probably the only remaining example of benevolent dictatorship in modern Western Society’ Well- I suppose he’s right to some extent. But the word ‘benevolent’ is significant. Insidious bullying tactics including abuse (both physical & psychological) adopted by many esteemed maestros we care to name & all know about now (which is positive) demeans a beautiful art form. Musicians are, of course, just flawed human beings like everyone else, so we should perhaps be wary of judging them by the perceived lofty standards associated with a sophisticated art form. The same abuses happen all the time in the office/work place & has even been known to happen between surgeons at the operating table- whose job is meant to be amongst the most humane of them all- namely saving lives.

        For me the ‘horridness’ of Szell does not come out in his recordings- I get a great deal of warmth. But as you say- lovely music- nasty person- very difficult to reconcile. But music history is littered with them- Alfred Cortot for example- a sublime pianist- but ardent Nazi. We all know about Richard Wagner.

        We certainly life in more ‘collaborative’ times as regards music-making but probably some way to go also. Szell’s problem was that- probably owing to a personality disorder- he had no empathy with his musicians on a personal level & could not talk to them. This is still a widespread problem in modern society not just exclusive to the music world. Perhaps the topic of another discussion.

        • william osborne says:

          Thanks, interesting comments. I agree that a new model of the conductor is now commonplace. A study of what caused these changes would be interesting.

  • Simon Evnine says:

    The NYT had an opinion on the Szell cut in Bartok CfO


    Search for the part starting ‘cut that may sour this performance’

    Anyway, thanks for posting the Khouri article – which is great !

  • Lubino says:

    “… less than forty percent per cent of the players” — Now, I need a while to calculate this …

  • Rob says:

    Well he was a Leo, so he was probably full of himself.

  • Conducting Feminista says:

    More good reason why men are not fit to be conductors and why women are much better suited instead.

  • John says:

    The complete Columbia recordings (106 CDs) have just been released in much improved remasterings.

    • Robin Mit says:

      I wonder if those are the recordings that have suddenly appeared on Google Play, with the original jackets as icons. I’ve got the Bartok on right now and the sound is startlingly good.

  • David Oberg says:

    In 1957, Szell hired cellist Donald Wright, one of the very first black musicians hired by a major orchestra. The Cleveland Orchestra musicians took a poll to determine if they objected to Wright becoming a member. Four voted against Wright, but Szell hired him.
    In 1961, before a concert in Birmingham, Alabama, the stage attendants refused Wright admittance. The hall manager informed the CO’s manager there was a city ordinance that prohibited the appearance of blacks and whites together in any public place. Szell and the manager conferred and agreed that the Cleveland Orchestra either played with all members on stage, or would not perform at all. The mayor of Birmingham waived the ordinance.

  • Hal Weller says:

    I will always remember Szell’s wry sense of humor. After a concert in 1960, I was waiting outside his dressing room at Severance with a crowd of young musicians anxious to see him. The door opened….and a young sprout from the crowd pushed forward and asked breathlessly……”Dr. Szell! What did you think of Arturo Toscanini????” Sizing up his inquisitor, Szell gazed upward, with a quizzical smile and proffered….”Ah….Arturo Toscanini……One of the better……..of the third rate……….Italian………bandmasters!” The young chap took due note….and exited saying “Thank you, Dr. Szell, Thank you!” Good memories of a great man and musician.

    • Pianofortissimo says:

      It this is true then Mr. Szell was nastily ungrateful to the man (Toscanini) who made possible his further star career in the USA by hiring him as guest conductor for a series of concerts with the NBC Orchestra in 1941. By this time Mr. Szell had resigned himself to become a teacher.

      • Saxon Broken says:

        Er…Toscanini also banned Szell from conducting his orchestra. The story goes that he once came to see Szell rather pedantically rehearing his orchestra (repeatedly playing the same small phrase and berating the musicians), and flew into a rage, telling Szell “they are not children”. After that he never let Szell conduct them again.

    • Amos says:

      You should check Arnold Steinhardt’s blog, In The Key Of Strawberry, containing his account of GS accompanying him to his National Guard physical.

  • monsoon says:

    “His repertoire choices were conservative”

    That’s always been an unfair criticism.

    Conservative compared to whom?

    It wasn’t like Karajan, Ormandy, Reiner, etc. were programing tons of premiers and contemporary works. Even Bernstein was pretty conservative after his first NYPO season.

    Szell’s programs were heavy on Beethoven, Brahms, Tchaikovsky, etc. with a new work here and there — that’s pretty much what most major orchestras do today.

    Heck, Berlin compiled a list of the pieces Rattle performed the most during his tenure, and guess what, Beethoven and Brahms dominate the top 20.

    Szell was no Stokowski, but the music of Barber, Copland, Dutilleux, Hanson, Martin, Piston, and Walton, to name a few, were performed at Severance Hall during his time.

  • MADELINE says:

    Absolutely with orchestra members! (and not so nice EITHER with young musicians!)

  • Sue says:

    Well, thank heavens Beethoven isn’t around these days – with his furious temper and boorish behaviour he’d be guilty of all manner of atrocities.

    • anon says:

      And he was, even by the standards of his days, that’s why he had the lonely life he had, never had a sustainable relationship of any sort, neither romantic nor professional… Even the prostitutes he frequented didn’t care for his business (he was cheap on top of it)

  • Hilary says:

    “That’s good” he says at one point. Seems to strike a good balance in this rehearsal. Camerawork/lighting needs to be commended as well. :https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=YlyUti7BbCY

    Allegedly a character in the film Marathon Man was named Szell, inspired by the conductor.

    • Orchestra Musician says:

      The “rehearsal” in that video was a staged event for the Bell Telephone Hour, and the “concert performance” in the same program was also staged, with an audience made up of friends and family members of the C.O.
      A musician I studied with is in this video, and he told me that Szell was rarely that pleasant during actual rehearsals. He also told me that he was so controlling that playing under him was like “making music while being squeezed in a vise”. However, the same musician greatly admired Szell’s musicianship, and always praised him for what he did for his orchestra.

  • barry guerrero says:

    The almost unbelievable Szell/Cleveland recording that nobody (I think) has pointed out, is the ‘live’ Sibelius 2 from a Tokyo performance. Just amazing.

    • John Kelly says:

      +1. And Carlos Kleiber stated that Szell’s recording of the Dvorak Slavonic Dances was one of his favorite recordings. He’s right – it’s sensational.

    • Amos says:

      The performance is especially remarkable because by all accounts he knew he was dying and at an earlier performance of the 2nd apparently sufferable a “mild” heart attack which restricted his ability to lift his arms. Check You Tube for a live performance from Severance in 1966 which is similar but imo even better.

  • Susan Bradley says:

    Slightly to the side of the main topic, I had the privilege and luxury of studying under Gordon Webb, the first trumpet mentioned above, for several years when he lived in Melbourne. An incredible high standard of playing combined with kindness and patience. One of the major formative influences on my career.

  • Harry Levy says:

    I was a manager of the main Disc Records shop in Cleveland and I received a phone call from George Szell’s assistant just after His death, asking if I wouldn’t mind going to their home in Shaker Heights to catalog and help box up his record collection. Mrs. Szell was very gracious. I did go and while not an extensive collection, it was interesting. Of course, all the Cleveland LP’s but not one Karajan recording.

  • Mark J Henriksen says:

    The Wagner Ring Highlights and Brahms symphonies are two examples of great CO recordings with Szell, not previously mentioned. There is nothing “restrained” about the principal horn and trumpet playing in those recordings. Far from it.

  • Ilio says:

    Seems like Mr. Khouri uses a lot of second hand info, possibly hearsay. Be interesting to know who his sources are. Some of his comments are also opinions. Fun stories but some seem apocryphal.

  • Bordeaux says:

    A digression, just to say it’s so great to hear a voice from Disc Records in those years. I’ve found so little about the stores in recent searches, but that downtown store and the Severance Center one were a bedrock of my student years in Cleveland, 1967-72.

  • Joel says:

    I’m surprised no one has mentioned the Andre Previn / Szell encounter at Szell’s home. Several Cleveland insiders have told me the story as follows. Quotes are approximate:
    The (very young) Previn had gone to Szell’s home to work the concerto with the Maestro (as all soloists had to). Szell had him ushed into the living room and told him to play the coffee table. Previn thought he was joking, but played the opening on the table. Szell yelled “too loud!!” — Previn, still thinking this was a joke said: “I’m sorry, I don’t know your coffee table” — Szell threw him out. Previn got back to his hotel to find his agent on the phone telling him his appearance was canceled.
    I invite corrections from those who might know more!

  • Pedro says:

    I have read somewhere that when Karajan conducted the Cleveland Orchestra in Salzburg and Lucerne in 1967, Szell exclaimed more or less that it took five minutes to Karajan in the first rehearsal to destroy everything he teached the orchestra in twenty years. Can someone confirm the story?

    • monsson says:

      HK: Yes, Szell and I were great friends. He was always insisting that I conduct the Prokofiev Fifth, and I wondered what he wanted. So I did it, and in the interval of the rehearsal he came and said he was suffering from nervous shock because the moment I started he realized that I was doing exactly the contrary of all the things he had taught the orchestra. It seemed like a complete breakdown; but after a few minutes they were playing as if they had always played this way. And you know there is a passage at the start of the finale with the cellos. And in the interval of my concert he did some work with the players to ensure that it was perfect — now there is real dedication and generosity!


      • anon says:

        “And in the interval of my concert he did some work with the players to ensure that it was perfect”

        That’s just damning praise, it implies that unlike his own orchestra, Szell’s was not perfect, and it implies that Szell himself thought his own orchestra needed extra work…

    • anon says:

      Funny the story goes the same about why Karajan never invited Bernstein to conduct his orchestra because he feared Bernstein would destroy the Berlin sound, and indeed, it was the Berliners themselves who finally invited Bernstein to conduct Mahler 9th, and the first rehearsal did not go well at all, precisely because Bernstein wanted them to play differently…

  • luigi nonono says:

    The complaints of orchestra musicians about great conductors are sickening. I had the experience of joining a major orchestra for a week of concerts playing Bartok’s Concerto for Orchestra. The maestro Charles Bruck was brought in, I heard, because the orchestra was getting sloppy or simply too ego-centric. Indeed, I heard players complaining during rehearsal that they are so great, they should be in the New York Philharmonic! (They were not.)
    He went through the piece, phrase by phrase, doing each phrase three times, cleaning up details, pointing out improvements. It was an amazing learning experience. I felt so close to Bela Bartok. After a while, he used the Machiavellian approach and picked out the weakest player/personality in the group for severe chastising. Conductors do this to set an example for the others, but also, in this case, make a weak link toughen up, play stronger.
    As soon as there was a break, one of the loudmouth egotists stood up and started yelling about calling the union and making harassment complaints, and ensuring he would never work again. This old master was doing a great job, doing them a great service, at the invitation of the music director, but these egomaniacs could not appreciate, and they did effectively end his career. He did not deserve that.
    Too many orchestra players have no perspective, no balance, no sense of their own limitations. It is not enough to be competent. If you think you deserve a better job, audition for it. But stop complaining.

  • David Taylor says:

    Toscanini said, “In government, democracy. In music, aristocracy.” Obviously, they believed it.

    • Novagerio says:

      For the real definition of the word Abuse, try to find “Toscanini mangia l’orchestra” on youtube…
      Maybe Szell was the more “sophisticated” abuser betwen Arturo and Reiner, perhaps using a kind of manipulative form of sadism, but still, give the Toscanini a hearing!

  • David K. Nelson says:

    Thank you for publishing this most interesting overview and analysis of George Szell, his personality and his methods. The only two points that made me bristle were these:

    “Homogenizing the sound means removing the characteristics which gives each instrument its individual tone colour. It presents no problems for the strings, each of which makes its sounds in the same way.”

    Oh really, buddy? Maybe to players of band instruments it seems like that, but it ain’t so, either for stringed instruments or string players.
    And then: “Szell’s woodwind players sound drained of individual expression, and lacking in personality and flair.”

    Wow. Robert Marcellus lacked personality and flair? Not in any of the clarinet playing I heard in broadcasts or recordings, including his Mozart concerto.

    Alas the only time I heard him “live” he was not playing but conducting, when he was elderly and totally blind and relying on his memory: a Mozart piano concerto and the Szell arrangement of the Schubert Octet, with Wisconsin’s Peninsula Music Festival. I did not care much for Szell’s arrangement but the conducting hardly lacked for personality and flair, and you could only admire the grit and determination behind it. It might have been Marcellus’s last concert.

  • Gaffney Feskoe says:

    Of the many stories about George Szell the one that amazes me is the devoted friendship he had with Leonard Bernstein. I can’t think of two more opposite personalities but the warmth they had for each other was genuine. Upon hearing of Szell’s death Lenny wept.

  • Sharon says:

    Minor error: To my knowledge (and I have read both his autobiographies) Rudof Bing was never the intendant of the the Cleveland Philharmonic.

    • Richard says:

      Rudolf Bing was the new intendant of the Metropolitan Opera from which Szell resigned before taking up his Cleveland position.

  • john humphreys says:

    I was recently lucky enough to acquire Szell’s handsome music satchel which he’d given to Clifford Curzon and thence via Fritz Curzon to me. Szell’s name handsomely etched into the satchel tag. Wish owning it would bring some discipline into my music making but, so far alas no.