For dedicated fans of Hungarian-American conductor George Szell, this three-disc Orfeo set containing his performances at the 1957 Salzburg Festival with the Berliner Philharmoniker will be mandatory listening. The first disc appropriately contains three pieces by Mozart, Salzburg's favorite son, from the August 4 concert: his symphonies in A major (K. 201) and G minor (K. 550), plus his Piano Concerto in C major, K. 503, with pianist Leon Fleisher. The second and third discs contain the whole of the August 9 concert: Debussy's La Mer, Mendelssohn's Violin Concerto, and Beethoven's Third Symphony with violinist Nathan Milstein.
Let it be said upfront that these are uniformly fine performances with lucid leadership from Szell and virtuoso playing from all involved. There can be no disputing Szell's mastery of the music and of the conductor's art. From the A major Symphony's elegant Andante to towering climaxes of "Dialogue du vent et de la mer" to the grandest rhetoric of the Third Symphony's Marcia funebre, Szell's direction is clean, direct, subtle, and often quite driven. Nor can the Berlin orchestra's brilliance be gainsaid. The orchestra built by Furtwängler performs for the most part with its customary technical excellence. But there seems to be no tangible relationship between the conductor and orchestra. Szell provides the cues and the Berlin provides the response, but these performances have little warmth or excitement. The Andante's elegance is more style than substance and the Dialogue's climaxes more form than content. Szell's recordings of these pieces with the Cleveland Orchestra are canonical, especially his Mozart and Beethoven, and anyone interested in the repertoire should hear them. The recordings here will be of interest only to his deeply dedicated fans. Orfeo's monaural sound is dim, distant, gray, and grim, but not altogether unlistenable.