HAYDN: Symphonies Nos. 93-98. George Szell conducting The Cleveland Orchestra. Sony Classical 8869748904-2: two CDs.
Certain recordings deserve to remain in the catalogue indefinitely, and these recordings belong among that select group. The first integral reissue of these recordings, made in the evening of Szell’s nearly quarter-century music directorship in Cleveland (between early 1967 and late 1969), was during the early days of the compact disc and was a disappointment: there was a disproportionate amount of tape hiss here and there. This was cleaned up in subsequent incarnations; in this three-disc set, we have the best remasterings yet and the symphonies are presented in their numerical sequence. The sound appears to be faithful to the original sources. Especially delightful are the sharp attacks of the strings (bowed and plucked alike) in the last movement of No. 97, the crisp articulation and solo violin and harpsichord bits in the finale of No. 98, the loud and obscene bassoon low C just before the final cadence in the slow movement of No. 93, the young Lynn Harrell’s cello solo in the middle section of the minuet of No. 95—and many other details, too numerous to mention here.
Originally, the recordings of Symphonies Nos. 95-98 presented here were released by Columbia a few months after Szell’s death; Nos. 97 and 98 did not appear, as I recall, until the latter part of 1971. Only those of No. 94 (taped in the spring of 1967) and No. 93 (recorded in mid-April 1968) appeared during Szell’s lifetime. In any event, they all were greeted with rave notices — easy to understand upon hearing them. The electricity of this kind of super-unified ensemble, precise articulation and edge-of-the-chair, never-complacent playing were (and still are) a delight to hear; we now have a clearer picture of how that kind of sound was achieved, and the toll it took on the musicians. The Cleveland Orchestra was on the verge of a major fiscal crisis during the time these recordings were made, and Columbia Records had announced its intention to terminate its three-decades-old association with the Orchestra after the spring of 1971. EMI had become interested in recording Szell and the Cleveland in the late 1960s, first releasing under its own labels recordings actually made by Columbia — the five Beethoven piano concertos with Emil Gilels. In the spring of 1969, EMI itself recorded the Brahms Double Concerto with David Oistrakh and Mstislav Rostropovich and the Brahms Violin Concerto with Oistrakh with Szell and his legendary band; days or hours (depending on whose account you accept) before the sessions for the Brahms Double, concertmaster Rafael Druian abruptly resigned and the late Daniel Majeske, then associate concertmaster, acted as concertmaster for the EMI sessions. Szell then appointed him concertmaster: Majeske wound up being the longest-serving concertmaster in the Cleveland Orchestra’s history, occupying the post until his final battle with cancer and death in 1993. Druian, concertmaster in Cleveland since 1960, had allegedly come to Severance Hall for a scheduled rehearsal and found no one there. He demanded an apology from Szell, who said the mixup over rehearsal scheduling had not been his mistake. Both these violinists can be heard on these recordings. The brief solo harpsichord part at the end of the last movement of No. 98 is played by then-assistant conductor Michael Charry, who is said at present to be working on a biography of Szell. These performances sound crisper and cleaner than ever and make the same impact — at least for this reviewer — that they did upon first hearing decades ago. They are elegant, forceful and uplifting, with nothing left to chance and everything put under the proverbial microscope before going onstage and subsequently before the microphones.
Szell’s regime of total control went beyond his fastidious musical preparations like marking the fingerings and bowings in the string parts—even though he was a pianist who had also at one time learnt to play the horn, and not known to have taken up a stringed instrument at any time, his knowledge nearly all aspects of instrumental technique was legendary. He forbade facial hair on male orchestra members, demanded that female staff at Severance Hall not wear miniskirts “or I will cause a scandal”, dictated to the custodial staff at Severance what kind of toilet paper to buy and proofread nearly everything that came out of the publicity department. A number of Cleveland musicians sought psychiatric treatment as a result of the friction of contact with Szell’s often overwhelming personality. Some of them even suffered aftershocks lasting well beyond Szell’s death, changes in the music directorship and their own retirements or moving on to other orchestras.
Even so, the results Szell achieved speak for themselves. Even the packaging by Sony seemed portentous: the front cover features an almost scowling Szell, impeccably dressed in a custom-tailored suit and elegant French cuffs. “Szell”, said a Cleveland musician who only saw the fusion of conductor and orchestra during the incipient days in the late 1940s, “was elegance itself”.
J.S. BACH: Fantasy and Fugue in g minor, BWV 542. Concerto in G (after Duke Johann Ernst of Weimar), BWV 592. Trio Sonata No. 1 in E-flat, BWV 525. The Six Schübler Chorales (transcriptions by Bach of his own cantata movements), BWV 645-650. Prelude and Fugue in C (9/8), BWV 547. Prelude and Fugue in G, BWV 541. Karel Paukert playing the Holtkamp organ at the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio. Azica 71248.
Another recording with Cleveland connections comes from sessions of four years ago, just prior to the retirement of organist Karel Paukert as music curator at the Cleveland Museum of Art. Paukert continues as organist and director of music at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in Cleveland Heights, where he presides (as he has for the last thirty years) over a more vintage and strikingly original Holtkamp organ dating from the mid-1950s, still in impeccable shape. The Czech-born Paukert has enjoyed a career in some ways not typical of an organist’s lot, including a stint as oboist in the Iceland Symphony Orchestra before coming to the United States. Sadly, the musical emphasis at the Cleveland Museum after Paukert’s departure has shifted away from the mix of organ, orchestral, choral and chamber music of various kinds to something called “world music”.
The Holtkamp sound is both transparent and brash. The brashness is one of its paradoxical attractions, though the obtrusive and overloud 16-ft, Posaune (i.e., trombone) stop in the pedals could be done without. Paukert knows this, and very adroitly reserves it for the very final cadence in the G major Fugue. Walter Holtkamp, Sr. is the man credited with taking the Cleveland organ firm into the thick of the so-called Orgelbewegung (“organ movement”) which emphasized placement of the organ more or less in the open, lower wind pressures and a heightened clarity of pipe speech. Holtkamp did not favor resonating cases to focus and project the sound of the various divisions which make up an organ as a totality: he placed all the pipework, except that enclosed in swellboxes which create an illusion of flexible dynamics by using wood or glass shutters operated by a foot pedal above the pedalboard, within easy view. As for the heavy trombone stop, it was one of Walter Sr.’s distinctive trademarks: on a tour to see and hear various old European organs in the early 1950s, taking along two talented friends to play them for him, Holtkamp was pointed out the very distinct but by no means earthbound pedal division of the eighteenth-century organ at Alkmaar, Holland. “Maybe”, one of his talented friends told him, “you can do away with the Posaune and create something else.” “No!” insisted Holtkamp. “I like my organs to stand on the ground.” And so it was; the Cleveland Museum of Art organ, built nearly a decade after Walter Sr.’s death (in 1971), stands on the ground.
Paukert himself comes too close to the ground a few times. The first trio sonata seems to lack the quality of airiness: the suboctave pedal register he uses almost kills it; the sixteenth notes in the outer movements seem not to dance enough. Paukert’s ironclad sense of structure and of the moment save him from staying on the ground. In the G-major Fugue referred to above, there is a fine opportunity for the player, right before the final measures, to make a brief cadenza. Paukert plays it straight and does not go off the page. The G-major Prelude and Fugue, thought by Karl Geiringer and other Bach scholars to be a work of the organist-composer’s maturity, is essentially a piece about repeated notes and it can be made into an essay on the differentiation of length of repeated notes. Paukert has rhythmic solidity to go with his sense of structure, but all of the repeated eighths and sequences of sixteenth notes in both companion pieces seem to sound the same. The g-minor Fantasy is full of boldness, but at times Paukert lapses into academic conventionality; in the Fugue, he detaches the upbeat that begins the subject — something favored by a lot of organists, but it does tend to weaken things in the thick of the development section, especially the place where the subject appears in one of the middle voices in a major key. Paukert may make his obeisances toward the consensus of modern scholarship, but he is thankfully of the older generation and not averse to switching to another sound or another keyboard for an episode in which the feet have nothing to do: a contrast between a fuller sonority and a lighter one, in other words. (This is generally against the grain according to what is “in” in more or less “authentic” performance of JSB.) Paukert’s playing is for the most part clear: he knows how he wants to approach a piece, and proceeds accordingly. His playing in some ways reminds this reviewer of the late Arthur Poister, who made at least one all-Bach recording in his time, but he was better known as a teacher than as a performer.
The room in which the organ is located sounds terribly dry, despite the best efforts of veteran tonmeister Bruce Egre. The organ could greatly benefit from a more “live” acoustical environment.