George Szell

A Life of Music

by Michael Charry

Hardcover, 412 pages, Univ of Illinois Pr, List Price: $35 | purchase

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George Szell
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A Life of Music
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Michael Charry

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The first full biography of George Szell, one of the greatest orchestra and opera conductors of the twentieth century. From child prodigy pianist and composer to world-renowned conductor, Szell's career spanned seven decades, and he led most of the great orchestras and opera companies of the world.

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Excerpt: George Szell: A Life in Music

Szell returned to Cleveland in "an exuberant mood" to begin the 1949–50 season. With his conducting of several top European orchestras fresh in mind, "Szell held with more conviction than ever that the Cleveland Orchestra ranks among the five or six finest orchestras in the world." He boasted, "The standards of perfection in technique and reliability, in intonation, precision and balance and in general polish in ensemble playing, which are taken for granted among leading American orchestras, are not matched by European orchestras." With candor, Szell added that European orchestras "often have a warmth ... a joy in making music and a deep familiarity with repertoire, which, to a certain extent, compensates for their inferior technical finish."

The extra week of rehearsal, which Szell had given up, was clearly no longer a necessity: reviews of the orchestra's first concert of the season — Szell's fourth and the orchestra's thirty-second — were excellent. Szell intended for the program — Eroica, Firebird, Till — to make an impression, and it did. After three seasons, Szell had his orchestra close to where he wanted it. Elwell noted "ample evidence of the great strides that have been made in the balance of sonority, the refinement of tone quality, particularly in the singing strings, the just intonation, precision, blend and all that makes for expertness in the manner of presentation." He compared the orchestra to a gem of "living radiance."

The fiscal situation remained a problem. To avert another "financial flop," Sidlo reminded subscribers that the maintenance fund was still far short of its goal: less than half of the $150,000 needed for the present season had been pledged. Not only the season was at stake, but Szell's contract, indeed his continuance with the orchestra, had to be settled again before its end. The question "could Cleveland support a first-rate orchestra and conductor?" would soon be answered.

Works played for the first time included Delius's Brigg Fair, Norman Dello Joio's Serenade for Orchestra, David Diamond's The Enormous Room (after e.e. cummings), Alvin Etler's Passacaglia and Fugue, Hindemith's Concert Music for Strings and Brass, Poulenc's Sinfonietta (first U.S. performance), Arthur Shepherd's Overture to a Drama, Josef Suk's A Fairy Tale, Randall Thompson's Symphony no. 3, and the Suite from the documentary film Louisiana Story by Virgil Thomson. Szell may have preferred the great classics, but to his credit, he gave new works thorough preparation. In the case of the Thomson, Elwell wrote, "it was not played with conspicuous conviction, [but] the music itself is to blame ... This had some good descriptive spots and some charming folk-tune fragments," the critic observed, "but it was all in short segments and there was little sense of continuity or growth of ideas, except in the final fugue, which was concocted with amateurish counterpoint."

As chief music critic for the New York Herald-Tribune, Thomson held a powerful position. His reviews of Szell had not been especially appreciative. At the beginning of the 1949–50 season, Louis Lane was surprised to see the Louisiana Story Suite listed in the prospectus. He told Szell that he could not understand how Szell could play a composition, one of whose movements was titled "Boy Fights Alligator." Szell's reply was: "Let's just call this our Louisiana Purchase."

Szell's performance of Mozart's "Jupiter" Symphony must have been a marvel, for his musicians burst into spontaneous applause "in sheer admiration of his superb interpretation." Soloists that season included pianists Robert Casadesus, Clifford Curzon, Gary Graffman, Eugene Istomin, Leonard Shure, Artur Schnabel, and Rudolf Serkin, and violinists Josef Gingold, Szymon Goldberg, Jacob Krachmalnick, Erica Morini, and Joseph Szigeti. Many of these soloists could justifiably be called "the old and new friends of Szell." They appeared with him season after season in Cleveland, with the New York Philharmonic and other United States orchestras, and in Europe. Concertmaster Gingold and Assistant Concertmaster Krachmalnick appeared by dint of their positions in the orchestra, and Graffman as a Leventritt winner. Shure headed the piano department of the Cleveland Music School Settlement.

Musical and personal compatibility was essential to break into the charmed circle of Szell's soloists. A musical profile of his soloists displayed a nature given to probing for the depths in musical expression, total musical honesty, and technical perfection. Personally, a performer had to be open to Szell's frequent lessons — for after all, there was much to be learned from him — and with strong enough ego or nerves to prevent being shattered by his sometimes overriding manner. Rudolf Serkin, for example, said, "I've never been able to get over that feeling that he is a big boy and I am a little one."

That season, Curzon played the Beethoven Fifth Piano Concerto at Severance Hall and the Fourth in Carnegie Hall. We cannot know if Virgil Thomson's review of that Carnegie Hall concert — "Jupiter," Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, Beethoven's Fourth Piano Concerto—might have been as positive without Szell's having played his music earlier that season. Thomson found "Mr. Szell's sensitivity in drawing from his excellent orchestra sounds and curves no less noble [than Curzon], no less constantly fresh and surprising, completed, filled out one of the loveliest musical executions it has been my pleasure to hear in some time ... The Cleveland Orchestra, long an excellent one, seems to have taken on added musical quality under this conductor ... The Cleveland Orchestra ... bears comparison with the best we know."

Cleveland's guest conductors in 1949–50 were Dimitri Mitropoulos, William Steinberg, and Bruno Walter. Mitropoulos offered his usual hyperbolic appreciation of the orchestra: "I really honestly believe that the Cleveland Orchestra today is one of the greatest in our country, without any doubt, and this is certainly due to the invaluable efforts and greatness of an artist like Mr. George Szell. I am sure that the community spirit of the people of Cleveland must be proud of having such an orchestra and such a conductor, and that they will make even superhuman efforts to keep that torch alive, which is not only to the glory of the city of Cleveland itself, but to the whole country. With such orchestras existing, America can really compete with the whole world in matters of cultural achievement."

In a letter to Sidlo, Walter complimented Szell's work without actually naming him: "I feel I must write and express the great pleasure and satisfaction that last week's concerts and rehearsals with the Cleveland Orchestra have given me. Let me congratulate you upon the excellent work by which this orchestra has been raised to its present high rank among the finest in the musical world. I am sure your audiences and citizens in general will be proud of such achievement and recognize its importance for Cleveland as a musical center and thereby for the culture of our country." This kind of reassurance bolstered the orchestra's commitment to Szell's vision, and these expressions of approval provided ammunition for Sidlo in the coming battle of the budget.

Mid-December 1949 found Szell as guest conductor with the National Symphony in Washington, D.C. The National was happy with Szell — that is, until he lured away two of their best players — oboist Marc Lifschey in 1950, and clarinetist Robert Marcellus in 1953. This did not make national headlines, as had the flap over concertmaster Josef Gingold, but it was no less strongly felt by the orchestra. As might be expected, the National never again invited Szell.

From George Szell: A Life in Music by Michael Charry. Copyright 2011 by the Board of Trustees of the Unviersity of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of University of Illinois Press.