September 2006

Tchaikovsky - Symphony No. 5; Capriccio italien
Cleveland Orchestra, George Szell conductor
Sony Classical 82876-78744-2
Format: CD
Originally released: 1960
Re-released: 2006

by Richard Freed

Musical Performance ****1/2
Recording Quality ***1/2
Overall Enjoyment ****

George Szell, one of the most respected conductors of the last century, was associated primarily with the Viennese classics and the 19th-century German and Bohemian masters, but he brought similar distinction to his performances of Tchaikovsky, even if he recorded little by this composer. In all, I think, he did the two pieces considered here plus a Fourth Symphony with the LSO and two accounts of the First Piano Concerto, the later of which, a glorious one with Gary Graffman, was reissued by Sony/BMG a few months back.

Szell‘s 1959 recording of the Fifth Symphony, made at about midpoint in his 24-year tenure with the Cleveland Orchestra, demonstrates not only what a great orchestra he had built by then, but also what a fine piece this old war-horse is. Needless to say, Szell is never over-indulgent toward the work’s emotional content, but his insistence on clarity of texture and refinement in execution allows those elements to make their impact the more strikingly by seeming to rise directly out of the music, without any gratuitous interpretive overlay. This is a great Fifth, to be admired and enjoyed beside those of Pierre Monteux, Igor Markevitch, Charles Dutoit, Mariss Jansons, and (in a recording so far unissued) Carlos Paita. It was issued by itself on an earlier CD, but this latest remastering does perk up the sound to an appreciable degree, and the 1958 account of the Capriccio italien is on almost the same level of utter conviction.