I could start off with all the reasons I’ve come to prefer George Szell’s recordings of Ludwig Van Beethoven’s symphonies, but I’ll give the real reason instead.
They were cheap.
Back in my music student days, building a classical music library was essential, but it was an expensive endeavor on a student income.
Sony Classical, in an attempt to play on the same field as budget label Naxos, priced each disc in the Szell cycle of Beethoven symphonies for $7.99. I wasn’t picky enough to choose between an $8 Szell recording and, say, a $16 Leonard Bernstein recording.
At one point in my life, I actually owned two copies of Beethoven’s Fifth — the other with Lorin Maazel conducting the New York Philharmonic. I sold it when I needed some on-hand cash and stuck with Szell.
From most accounts, Szell was a bastard. He rode the Cleveland Orchestra hard, and if memories of my high school band teacher are any point of reference, that kind of dictatorial approach unites an ensemble to spite its leader.
What results is perhaps some of the most jacked up readings of Beethoven around.
The Fifth Symphony — with the four most recognizable notes in classical music (and perhaps the only four notes most people will have heard in their lifetime) — takes on a manic energy under the baton of Szell.
He and the Cleveland Orchestra pretty much barrel through that first movement with the urgency of people all ready to get into each other’s shit.
However much the first movement of the Fifth Symphony has seeped into the cultural subconscious, it’s the other three movements that are dear to me. (Maybe it’s because those first four notes are so instantly recognizable.)
Beethoven, breaking free of Franz Josef Haydn’s influence, opts for theme and variation instead of sonata or rondo form in the second movement. And the segue between the last two movements? Any number of superlatives can be substituted here.
But the way Beethoven returns to that rhythmic motif — short-short-short-long — in all the movements of the Fifth is what sells me on the piece. The first movement doesn’t exist in a vacuum — it provides material threading all 30 minutes of the work.
Sony Classical, of course, doesn’t let a buyer off so easily. Each of Beethoven’s “popular” symphonies — nos. 3, 5, 6, 7 — are paired with a work of less critical esteem.
On this recording, the Fifth is paired with Beethoven’s Symphony No. 2, a work still beholden to the influence of Haydn. Back when I was a student, I was thankful for this approach — I managed to get a complete cycle of Beethoven for a cheap price, and I can’t play favorites with any one disc.
I’d recommend getting Szell’s complete cycle, but if you have to start anywhere, start with the work that’s perhaps the most ubiquitous.