Saturday, October 10, 2015

Columbia SAX 2510: Szell conducts Beethoven's 7th

Columbia SAX 2510

Beethoven: Symphony No. 7 in A Major, Op. 92
Wagner: Tannhäuser Overture

George Szell, conductor
The Cleveland Orchestra

Pressing: UK, ED1 (blue/silver)

Condition: NM-

Date first published: 1960

Stampers: YAX 1031-3, YAX 1032-1

Performance: 9/10


Sound: 7/10

Price range: $69-1130 (mean $535) on popsike.com 

Comments: This is certainly one of the rarer and more valuable Szell SAX records (see Meles' post "Cream of the SAX Crop"), and one that I have been particularly curious to audition for some time now to find out ... is this LP really all that it is made out to be?

Well, for the purpose of science, I took the nosedive and did the experiment.  

I don't think I need to say much about the performance.  Szell's Beethoven cycle for Epic/CBS was one of the best cycles produced by an American (or any for that matter) orchestra in the 1950s-60s and continues to this day to be a reference set.  This 7th is excellent.

So, does the sound of the SAX match the performance?  If you are looking for the audiophile recording of these works, you may have to look elsewhere.  I'm not even sure I myself have identified the audiophile recording of Beethoven's 7th.  If you have previously enjoyed these Szell/CO performances and are looking for what could be the best pressing of these performances, then read further.  The YAX matrix numbers on this LP would indicate that UK Columbia remastered these from the US tapes.  In the US, Szell's recording of Beethoven's 7th filled both sides of Epic 1066 without the accompanying Wagner, so some extra work had to have been done to produce this SAX.  So, did EMI's engineers work any magic?  Listening first through speakers and then up close on my headphones, I was reasonably satisfied but not blown away with the result.  With regards to tonal fidelity, strings are a bit of a mixed bag.  Violins can sound a tad dry and occasionally more recessed on the left.  However, violas and cellos, particularly in the second movement of the Beethoven, have a much richer sonority.  Winds have excellent clarity and are quite beautifully imaged.  Bass is tight with good depth.  Dynamics are decent and communicate the conviction of these performances.  There is a touch of very mild distortion in louder passages in the Beethoven, but it doesn't get in the way of musical enjoyment.  One thing that I think the EMI engineers may have succeeded in doing is giving the orchestra a slightly more laid back presentation and capturing more hall acoustics.  Many of Szell's Epic/CBS records have a more immediate presentation and drier sound.  My own listening observations would have me believe that EMI changed this with its own remastered pressings.  However, I now know better than to expect a signature EMI sound from any of these Szell recordings.  It's simply not going to happen.  Why the Wagner is paired with the Beethoven is also unclear to me.

So, final verdict?  In my humble opinion, this LP is not worth its price in gold.  It's expensive, because it's rare.  I'm afraid I have to say that in my experience with these Szell SAX recordings, most of which contain outstanding performances and sell for a lot of money on Ebay, none of them are exceptional records and are overpriced.  For 1/10 the mean price of this LP or less, you can get the entire box set of 9 Beethoven symphonies on blue label Epic.