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[Off The Record]
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The relationship between George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra constitutes one of history’s outstanding musical partnerships. Of very few groups can it be said that one conductor was responsible for the creation of their sonic profile, but the Cleveland is a product of Szell’s iron discipline and stratospheric musical standards. The orchestra’s music director from 1946 until his death, he put the Cleveland on the map, and he’s a major reason it’s now widely thought to be America’s finest orchestra.

Szell’s passing came only two months after the Cleveland’s 1970 tour of East Asia, from which this two-CD set was taken. On the evidence of this May 22 concert, conductor and orchestra surpassed even their own critical benchmarks. Listen to the way Szell captures the studied whimsy of Weber’s Oberon Overture, its humor witty but not boorish. And those familiar with his studio recording of the Mozart G-minor Symphony (K.550) will be astonished by the greater flexibility and drive of the Tokyo performance.

Then there’s the reading of the Sibelius Second Symphony, which combines exhilaration and execution. The familiar perfections are here: lucid textures, perfectly judged balances, the musical architecture made absolutely clear. But there’s a fire and a passion in this performance that’s absent even from some of Szell’s finest studio recordings; it’s a rival to any other version. The wind playing alone would suffice to recommend this set, but the whole orchestra is playing at the very top of its game.

Also included is a recent interview with Pierre Boulez, who was conducting the orchestra the night Szell died. When the news came, he reports, "the orchestra was suddenly like an orphan." This recording — until now available only from Sony in Japan — is a magnificent tribute to a great musical alliance. It’s available directly from the Cleveland Orchestra —, at "the store," for $21.99 — and there’s no reason not to get it immediately.


Issue Date: December 6 - 13, 2001

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