George Szell, conductor
The Cleveland Orchestra
Pressing: ED1 (semi-circle or magic notes first)
Price range: $48-214, mean $141 on popsike
Comments: This may just be my favorite compilation of Bohemian orchestral music on a single disc. The repertoire is a nice and varied assortment of works by two dominant Czech composers: Smetana's Moldau (or Vltava) and three dances from The Bartered Bride as well as Dvorak's Carnaval Overture and four Slavonic Dances (#1, 3, 10, 15). All of these are performed superbly by the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of George Szell.
Side 1 opens with the enchanting flute solo/duet which sets the stage for the sweeping theme of The Moldau, gorgeously played by the strings. Orchestral textures are very clear throughout this piece, enabling the listener to appreciate the many wind and brass parts which enrich the string melodies. The three dances from The Bartered Bride are light and joyous and are all equally enjoyable. Side 2 gets off to a vibrant start with Dvorak's Carnaval Overture. Szell's timing for this work (9:25) is a little longer than Reiner's (8:54), Silvestri's (9:17), and Bernstein's (8:59). Szell's tempo for the first of the Slavonic Dances -- my favorite -- feels, in my opinion, perfect. Other conductors often take this a little too fast (e.g. Jean Martinon with the LSO) or a little too slow (Bernstein and the NYP); not so here.
I have not heard the U.S. Epic release of this album (though I probably should for direct comparison), but I thought that the sound quality on this record was very good but not quite up to EMI/Columbia's highest standards. Not their fault exactly, considering that they licensed the recording from the U.S. I listened to the record on both my loudspeakers and on my headphones. Amplification was quite different for the two different systems, which could explain the difference in quality. The record sounded more natural and transparent on my Von Schweikert VR-2's (powered by the Musical Fidelity M6i), more gritty and constricted on my Beyerdynamic T1's (powered by the PSAudio GCHA, which is likely to not be the best pair for the T1's). In general, while dynamic range was pretty decent, I felt that clarity and an overall sense of hall presence could have been better. Treble sounded a little bit bright to my ears.
Importantly, though, the selling point of this album is its music. The performances are simply wonderful. Szell was well regarded as a conductor of Czech music, and this album is exemplary. I only wish it had been recorded by English engineers for EMI! For the budget conscious, since this record was licensed from Epic (and the matrix numbers on this pressing are Epic's), it might be worthwhile to try to find the U.S. Epic release for much cheaper before pulling the trigger on the SAX. Most of this recording has also been released on CD.