No one would deny that George Szell built the Cleveland Orchestra into a great American orchestra. Prior to his arrival in 1946, the Cleveland was a decent provincial ensemble no worse and no better than the orchestras of Pittsburgh, Minneapolis, or Cincinnati. When he died in 1970, the Cleveland was one of the great American orchestras, fully on the same level as the orchestras of Boston, Philadelphia, and New York. But for all their undeniable excellence, one never got the sense that Szell fully trusted the Cleveland. There is always something a bit too rehearsed and a little too polished about the recordings, something that undoubtedly produced music-making at an exalted level, but also produced performances that rarely relaxed and never smiled.
But on those infrequent occasions when Szell recorded with European orchestras, while the music-making was on the same exalted level, the performances were often relaxed and sometimes even smiled. As this five-disc set of his recordings with the London Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Concertgebouw Orchestra Amsterdam demonstrates, Szell trusted these orchestras. Listen to any recording in this set, from the manically driven Tchaikovsky's Fourth with the London Symphony in 1962 to the intensely dramatic Beethoven's Fifth with the Concertgebouw from 1966, to the powerfully heroic Egmont, incidental music, with the Vienna Philharmonic in 1969: these are interpretations that take it for granted that the orchestras will be able to fulfill all the conductor's intentions. And listen to the Handel recordings with the London Symphony from 1961: is this not a relaxed Water Music, is this not a comfortable Fireworks Music, is this not a smiling Minuet from Il Pastor Fido? The original recordings were masterpieces of their time; these remasterings are masterpieces of our time.