George Szell was a Hungarian-born American conductor and composer. He is widely considered one of the twentieth century’s greatest conductors. He is remembered today for his long and successful tenure as music director of the Cleveland Orchestra, and for the recordings of the standard classical repertoire he made in Cleveland and with other orchestras. Now the shell of the Sony era recordings collected 49CD-half of the box configuration Will be released, and here is the interview with George Szell, who spoke to Alan Blyth for Gramophone in August 1969…
Szell is as measured and meticulous in conversation as he is in his music-making. Press him to an indiscretion or an unintended self-revelation and you will be unlucky. Seek the considered truth and you will find. Over 70, he still describes himself as ‘an inveterate and passionate learner’. In former years, he went to the familiar founts of knowledge – Nikisch, Strauss, Weingartner, Furtwängler and Walter – as well as being instructed, in negative fashion, by the bad conductors of those times. ‘Today, I still learn from my younger colleagues – the gifted as well as the less gifted’.
For a conductor in his 22nd year of association with the Cleveland, it must seem depressing that his junior brethren do not like taking on the burdens and challenges. After that length of time, he can look back with Olympian calmness on the orchestra’s gradual climb to ascendancy and come up with what Edward Greenfield has so aptly described in The Guardianas ‘one of his finely gauged, vituperative sentences, which winds itself into complicated syntax and then – under the control of the disciplined thinker – emerges at the end grammatically unscathed’.
Szell said: ‘The success of our collaboration is not something that has happened from one day to another but it has gradually become more and more established until all the qualities of realisation and conception have become second nature to everyone so that now, in Cleveland, I feel that some of my players have become more expert than I, which gives me the somewhat satisfying experience of knowing that I’m not the pinnacle of those qualities that Europeans characterise by the pejorative use of the word “perfectionist”‘.
He finds his brief associations with other orchestras, especially British ones, equally absorbing. When we met, he was in London to conduct the New Philharmonia, for instance, and during the season he conducted two others – the LSO and LPO. ‘It’s very interesting to try to realise a certain style and approach to orchestral playing in a relatively shorter period of work and time. Sometimes a first rehearsal with a European orchestra that doesn’t know me produced a sort of shock effect of a mutual nature, which then gradually evaporates or is rather changed into a working understanding, moving in the direction of what I’m trying to achieve’.
His views on our Festival Hall were less complimentary. ‘Its short reverberation period makes for a clinical sound; I like it to be at least three times as long as it actually is. My ideals are the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, the Vienna Musikvereinsaal and the hall in Leningrad. You see, in the 19th century they still worked with an educated, cultured musical ear, with imagination and intuition, when building halls, whereas in our own day they use measuring gadgets that can never replace the schooled ear. Besides, I believe that modern building materials such as glass and concrete, as well as flat, unornamented surfaces, are hostile to musical sound’.
His views on recording are equally decided. ‘Sometimes I like it , sometimes I don’t. In America, economic conditions require records to be made under extreme pressure; in Europe one can be a little more leisurely, at least. None the less, Cleveland gives me most gratifying results because we usually record a work the day after we have given it in a concert so that it is already thoroughly rehearsed. After a brief warm-up, mostly for balancing purposes, we run straight through the piece, and we use second “takes” only for correcting the odd spot, as a rule. We did Beethoven’s King Stephen overture in one go, for instance, and to me it seemed impeccable, but the first trumpet insisted he had played one wrong note so, as a point of honour, and though it could not be heard, we repeated that bit’.
He has no particular pet works he would still like to record. ‘I like to be stimulated by the company telling me what gaps they have in their catalogue – although, of course, I don’t always fall in with their suggestions’. 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’.
On his touching up of Schumann’s orchestration – ‘I think he is a composer who has to be helped occasionally. He had a wonderful imagination for individual instruments but his notions of balance were based on his experiences of the very poor provincial orchestras in Germany – and, I daresay, on his own experiences as a not-all-too-professional conductor. But I keep my re-touching to the bare minimum’.
He later expanded on his previously implied views of today’s music. ‘I have reached the age where it is my obligation to hand over traditions as I’ve absorbed and formed them in the great works of the symphonic literature of the past 200 years, whereas conductors of a younger generation are certainly more sympathetic and better able to serve the most advanced trends in contemporary music, which I find, quite frankly, not complicated but often plain boring’.
He is always being asked if and when he will return to the operatic world – he has, of course, conducted in the past all over Europe and at the Met. ‘If I had a cast that was ideal, enough rehearsal time, and veto-power over what was happening on stage I would consider it but producers rule the roost today and they seem to delight in going against what the composers and their librettists expressly demanded. They are often even antagonistic to the music and will not hesitate to do the insipid, the preposterous, and the tasteless – if only to be different from the past. There is also, for me, the question of time. I am so busy with what I’m doing with my own and other orchestras, it would really be a sacrifice to work in an opera house again’.
Comparing performances of today with those of yesterday, he commented: ‘We are used to greater tidiness of execution and we would not put up with some of the spontaneous, glowing but ultimately messy performances with which conductors could get away 40 or 50 years ago’.
He was not prepared to make any comparisons between his pre-war records and those of today. ‘Recollection cannot bring them on a possible level of comparison – and anyhow the question is too broad to give a quick answer to it. But certainly the Dvořák Cello Concerto with Casals is still memorable’.
I left Szell, as in the past, with the impression of a dedicated, worldly-wise leader of men and musicians who would not tolerate foolishness or inefficiency gladly, one who is accustomed to discipline but only as a means to an end not as an end in itself.