Monday, November 01, 2010

I Was Thinking Of George Szell . . .

When I encountered THIS.

Is this the worst album cover EVER?

It is the Columbia budget-label reissue, from 1973, of Szell’s 1961 landmark recording of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony.

Szell, who died in 1970, would have turned over in his grave if he knew how his recordings were being marketed only three years after his death.

Did Szell’s widow, Helena, a remarkable woman by all accounts, not have approval over Szell’s album covers? From the sight of this atrocity, I would guess not.

I asked my mother and father whether they recognized this album cover from visits to record shops in 1973. Neither recalls ever seeing this particular cover, which suggests that the marketing morons at Columbia quickly realized their boneheaded blunder (or had it pointed out to them) and pulled the cover almost instantly.

What were these people THINKING?


  1. I remember the cover well. I first saw it in the record bin at the Post Exchange in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, c. December 1973, if I recall. The US Government used to buy albums that hadn't sold. Then they would sell them at half-price to military personnel. If that particular jacket was issued in 1973, it must surely have laid an egg with retailers that year. I remember the record because I flipped past it many, many times between 1973 and 1975. I don't believe that anyone ever bought that record.

    By contrast, I had to buy Maazel's Decca "Romeo and Juliet," released the same year, at a commercial store in Munich. (I never saw that in the bins at the PX.)

    The war between Szell and Columbia over jacket "art" is the stuff of legend.

    As bad as the Beethoven Nine is, I don't think it is the worst of all time. I remember that in the late seventies Westminster Gold reissued a lot of Decca's older recordings. These reissues, in my opinion, were the tackiest things imaginable.

    One in particular, a record of Wagner overtures, featured a half-naked woman on the cover holding up two VW hubcaps over her chest.

  2. My parents swear they do not recall ever seeing this Szell cover—and I don’t think my parents suffer from Alzheimer’s quite yet.

    Is the cover art fake Norman Rockwell or real Norman Rockwell? I’m curious to know.

    I am also keen to learn about the battles between Szell and Columbia over cover art. I was unaware of such—although I would think Szell certainly would have battled over THIS particular cover had he still been alive.

    I think I’ve come across that VW hubcap album cover online at one time or another. I can’t imagine it would have stimulated sales.

    Another truly awful album cover is Adrian Boult’s final recording of “The Planets” issued on EMI in the 1970’s. Look it up sometime when you need a laugh.

  3. If that Holst record is the same as the Westminster Gold jacket reissue, I remember that, too, from years ago.

    Go to and view some of those classic covers, including the "The Planets."

  4. Yes, the Holst cover is one and the same. I somehow had it into my mind that it had been an EMI cover.

    Truly, I cannot believe how bad the covers are on that Westminster Gold website. I do not even understand the concept behind half of them.

    Again . . .

    What were these people THINKING?

  5. I think the people at Westminster Gold were thinking about marketing their products as "cross-overs" to the "real" record buyers - you know, the "hip," sex-crazed pop culture mavens (read "dumb teenagers") who thought everyone who listened to "classical music" was a hopelessly boring snob who hated to have any fun.

    The Holst jacket was designed, I suspect, after the huge success of "Star Wars." Perhaps the WG executives opined (rightly) that the average stupid teenager who had been so enthralled by that brainless film had never heard of Holst's "The Planets." (I remember the soundtrack recording of "Star Wars" actually making the "Top 40" list.)

    And so, it was reasonable for WG to pitch Boult's recording by suggesting to the naive window shopper that there was some connection between Holst and John Williams (the latter, in point of fact, had lifted, undisguise, some of Holst's chords directly from "Mars, the Bringer of War").

    Szell groused endlessly to everyone about the jacket art of his Columbia records, particularly after the Cleveland Orchestra moved from Columbia's budget "Epic" label to the main label.

    Szell called many of his record covers "ugly" and "vulgar." He hated, for instance, an abstract rendering of the Cologne Cathedral on the cover of his "Rhennish" Symphony disc. He finally demanded a clause inserted into his contract with Columbia, allowing him final approval of the artwork.

    The jackets that Szell approved turned out be the least "artful": a simple rectangle containing the names of the work, composer, Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra. The Brahms Symphony box is one such example.

  6. Judging from the catalogue number of Boult's "The Planets," the jacket design was created in 1970. But I distinctly recall that this title was everywhere in the stores after "Star Wars" was released in 1977.

  7. Since there are so few music stores now, I guess the issue of cover art has become irrelevant. Who looks at cover art when buying online? The last time I purchased a disc in a store was during the Tower closing sale.

    Do you have a favorite recording of "The Planets"?

    Mine is Ormandy's on RCA.

  8. And wasn't the biggest John Williams theft of all his decision to base an entire career on the Scherzo of Korngold's Symphony In F Sharp?

  9. I remember Ormandy's RCA disc, indeed. I owned the LP, and I think I bought that in about 1980, if memory serves (not often lately). Speaking of jacket art, that record LP had a beautiful blue, starry field all over the front. I haven't heard that version in about 27 years, however.

    What I loved about the Ormandy was the last movement - "Uranus." Ormandy practically made that finale a tone poem in its own right. It remains the best "Uranus" I've ever heard.

    Overall, my favorite "Planets" is Haitink's, c. 1971, with the London Phil. It was my first recording of the piece. I think it was reissued once on CD some years back, but it's out of print now. Haitink's take was certainly less "exciting" than others. But Haitink invoked a quiet "other-worldly" atmosphere throughout that no conductor since has matched. The Phillips recording was outstanding.

    I certainly don't pay attention to cover art when I order CD's.

    Yes, Williams DID like that Korngold Scherzo. Fortunately for him, few people have ever heard that Symphony. (I think Welser-Moest's recording with Philadelphia is very good, by the way.)

    Williams also loved to redress Prokofiev and R. Strauss, to his unabashed heart's desire, even way back when he was known in Hollywood as "Johnny Williams."

    Astute ears will complain forever about Williams's stealing Strauss's "transfiguration theme" from "Tod und Verklaerung," using the hatcheted motif as the love theme in "Superman"; but I still remember his Prokofievian underscoring for one of my least favorite childhood TV shows, "Lost in Space."

    When I first heard the Prokofiev Fifth in high school, on the radio, I remember thinking, "Oh no! That's 'Lost in Space'."

  10. Sorry, the last movement of "The Planets" is, of course, "Neptune," not "Uranus." Ormandy's "Neptune" is still the best.

  11. I would have guessed that your favorite "Planets" was the recording made by William Steinberg and the Boston Symphony.

    My father has the Haitink on LP, and I suspect I must have heard it at least once.

    I agree with you about the Welser-Most Korngold recording. I touted it once over on Pliable's website, and was beaten down by lovers of the Rudolf Kempe.

    I think Ormandy was a very undervalued conductor. In most works composed between 1900 and 1950, he was as good as anyone, and better than almost everyone.

  12. Have you heard the Karajan/BPO "Planets" on DGG?

    I think it is fascinating, but perverse. He layers the sound as if he is conducting Bruckner. He has the strings find 10,000 different colors and textures, and the recording is riveting as a study of a great technician at work.

    A satisfying performance, however, it is not.

  13. I have never liked the Karajan for the same reasons you mention. I admire it, but from a cold distance.

    Whenever Karajan sauntered outside his own musical turf, whereon he hardly had a peer after George Szell's death, it was always hit or miss; and when he missed he could miss bewilderingly, as with "The Planets."

    But when the maestro "hit" outside his turf he often hit spectacularly well.

    I'm reminded, for instance, of the Nielsen Fourth on DGG, which must be heard to be believed. Critics have brutally slammed that hair-raising Nielsen Fourth on account of its "anti-Danish" Germanic marbling - not unlike the way musicians loved to diss Szell's recording of Debussy's "Das 'MERDE'."

    So what? I say. Sometimes there are more important things to hear in a performance. Can any of those naysayers of Karajan's Nielsen cite another performance of that work by any other orchestra whose execution alone comes remotely close to that?

    I also remember Karajan's Stravinsky's "Jeu de Carte," another reading that many critics hate. Why? The only other recording of that lesser creation from Stravinsky that engaged my attention throughout was Abbado's.

  14. I agree with you about Ormandy. Why was he regarded by the press as a common American "Kapellmeister"?

    Ormandy was never as bad as Karajan at his worst. Ormandy conducted everything well, from Hindemith to Prokofiev. I in fact love the Ormandy Prokofiev Fifth on Sony more than Szell's.

  15. I think Ormandy's 1957 Prokofiev Fifth on Sony is the finest recorded version of that work.

    I have never heard his RCA remake from the 1970's. Have you?

    A very good Prokofiev Fifth in modern sound is, unbelievably, Rattle's. It is one of his few good recordings.

    Do you remember that I mentioned to you, probably two years ago, that I liked that particular Karajan Stravinsky recording, his only recording of the work?

  16. I DID buy the 1977 Prokofiev/Ormandy on RCA and I was sorely disappointed with it. It seemed to me as though Ormandy's peak had come and gone by the time of his 40th anniversary in Philadelphia.

    I haven't heard Rattle's. I'm surprised, however, that he would conduct anything well.

    Yes, I remember you pointing out the Karajan "Jeu," which I hadn't heard before. I ordered it on your recommendation; now you know how I feel about it. Yes, it's "weird," but it works very well.

    Here's a challenge:

    If you were forced to live the rest of your life on a desert island, with all your needs for food and drink provided; and you were given also a listening room equipped with a sound system valued at $ 100,000, donated and set up by Naim Audio, what choices would you make if you were allowed to take with you into exile a baker's dozen of CD recordings, the total number of discs not exceeding 50?

    Here is my own list (subject to revison):

    1. Bach: Orgelwerke (Richter) - 3
    2. Bach: Kantaten (Richter) - 26
    3. Beethoven: Late Quartets - 3
    4. Hindemith "Mathis der Maler" - 3
    5. Lotte Lenya Sings Weill - 1
    6. Bruckner: Symph 8 (Karajan) - 2
    7. Bruckner: Symph 3 (Inbal) - 1
    8. Prokofiev: "War and Peace" - 4
    9. Puccini: "Tosca" (DeSabata) - 2
    10. Hindemith/Walton
    (Ormandy/Szell) - 1
    11. Mozart: Piano Conc's (Gulda)- 2
    12. Mahler: "Das Lied" (Klemp.) - 1
    13. Matt Gattens sings "Chita" - 1

  17. This is an impossible exercise, and my choices would change practically every day.

    Thirteen discs I enjoy immensely, and that come immediately to mind:

    Klemperer’s “Magic Flute” on EMI
    Klemperer’s “Fidelio” on EMI
    Karajan’s 1976 Brahms Requiem on EMI
    Karajan’s 1964 Brahms Second on DGG
    Walter’s 1959/1960 (?) Brahms Fourth on Sony
    Firkusny/Primrose in the Brahms Viola Sonatas on EMI
    Beecham’s “La Boheme”
    Janet Baker in Elgar’s “Sea Pictures” and Mahler’s “Ruckert Lieder” on EMI
    Fritz Reiner’s “Das Lied Von Der Erde” on RCA
    Barbirolli’s Elgar First on EMI
    Charles Munch’s 1955 “Daphnis Et Chloe” on RCA
    Kalman’s “The Duchess Of Chicago” on Decca
    The original cast album for Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” on RCA

    (And I am not joking about the final two entries on my list.)

  18. And I like these thirteen just as much:

    The Krips recording of Schubert’s Ninth on Decca
    Szell’s set of Schumann symphonies on Sony
    Solti’s “The Flying Dutchman” on Decca
    Reiner’s Pictures At An Exhibition on RCA
    Monteux’s Dvorak Seventh on Decca
    Previn’s complete “Sleeping Beauty” on EMI
    Szell’s Tchaikovsky Fifth on Sony
    Karajan’s 1988 VPO Bruckner Eighth on DGG
    The Sawallisch recording of Strauss’s “Capriccio” on EMI
    Mackerras’s “Jenufa” on Decca
    Boulez’s NYPO recording of Bartok’s Concerto For Orchestra on Sony
    Stravinsky’s own recording of “The Rake’s Progress” on Sony
    A particular disc of Victoria De Los Angeles in opera arias on EMI

  19. Good choices.

    I can understand why you would include "Pacific Overtures." That's not my favorite Sondheim, but in purely musical matters I think it's his best work.

    Can you believe that I have never heard Reiner's "Das Lied Von Der Erde"?

  20. Upon reflection, I realize I neglected to place on my list, "Let's Get Together With Hayley Mills", a grievous oversight on my part.

    I will not say anything about Reiner's "Das Lied Von Der Erde". If you ever pick it up, I want you to hear it with fresh and open ears.

    I never thought of Inbal as a Bruckner conductor. My father has Inbal's Mahler discs on Denon, but I'm pretty sure my father does not have any Inbal Bruckner discs.

    I could never get into Bruckner's Third. Bruckner is difficult for me. I like numbers 5, 6 and 8, and no others. I cannot even appreciate numbers 4 or 7, and I have heard what are supposed to be incomparable versions of both.

    For now, I guess I'll have to stick with my Hayley Mills music.

  21. And are the many Bruckner and Mahler discs Lopez-Cobos recorded in Cincinnati for Telarc any good?

  22. My favorite Bruckner is, in order of admiration, 8, 3, 5, 6, 9, 4, 7.

    I could live a happy life without No's 1 and 2, especially 2, which I've never been able to survive without falling asleep. I must be less than one per cent of the Brucknerphile that Welser-Moest is: His first Bruckner love affair was over Nr 2, a recording with which (he confessed) he drove his mother crazy when he was a teenager.

    The only reason I picked Inbal for the Third is because his Teldec recording is the least unsatisfying performance of the original 1873 version, which I prefer over all others.

    If you find the Bruckner Third to be difficult, you should try the original version of it. The symphony runs much longer that the two revised scores; the composer employs inflated note values throughout the first movement, making for a slooooow start.

    I haven't heard any of the Lobos-Cobos / Telarc discs. I have been advised by Brucknerites that they are to be avoided at all cost.

    Bruckner takes a long time to warm to. I hated Bruckner in my youth and loved Mahler. Recalling my revulsions back then, I can fully apprehend why Josh did not wish to hear the Bruckner 8th two nights in a row.

    Today I find Mahler vulgar and hypertrophic much of the time. If I had to pick a Mahler symphony to take with me, I'd pick Nr. 6. I think the Sixth is just the best structured among his later group.

    Perhaps Bruckner is best appreciated by older music lovers who are not Franz Welser-Moest - all people (other than Franz Welser-Moest) who actually remember who Hayley Mills is.

    Maybe twenty years from now you may include the Bruckner Third on your list.

    I'm glad you included on that list the Karajan / Brahms 2 from 1964. That is a beautiful Brahms 2. I think the conductor arrived at his peak during the early-mid sixties.

    Now, about that Hayley Mills record: I'll have to dump something from my list to accomodate that.

    Let's see, how about Klemperer's "Das Lied Von Der Erde"?

  23. I have conflicting thoughts about both Bruckner and Mahler, just as I have conflicting thoughts about Richard Strauss (and Hayley Mills, too, for that matter).

    There is one thing that irks me about the old Klemperer recordings: they have, as a general rule, been badly remastered by EMI, especially the Klemperer Mahler recordings. In cleaning up the sound, EMI has removed too much of the orchestral material. This is especially true for the Mahler Fourth and "Das Lied" recordings my father owns. So much of the orchestral material has been removed that the recordings sound like chamber reductions.

  24. I remember the Szell/Beethoven cover well. Odyssey was a major part of my collection-building in the 70's with Ormandy, Szell, and Walter reissues. This was a single-disc 9th, making it more marketable than Munch's or Bernstein's. Never owned this issue-had the complete set on Columbia. For some reason Walter's Columbia discs transferred very well to Odyssey remasters, but both Ormandy & especially Szell's reissues were painfully shallow & strident.

    The Westminister label has had a long journey. Started as a fairly prestigous operation with Scherchen & Rodzinsky leading many releases. I recall the W. Gold as a crass offering by ABC music group, including other acquired performances from the Command label. the 'Gotterdammerung' cover did have wry humor-the crumbling cookie I suppose suggesting "That's The way The Cookie Crumbles." Westminister re-appeared in the late 80's via MCA, with very decent transfers and simple but inoffensive graphics. By the late 90s Universal group had acquired the masters and began a upscale marketing, first in the late 90's as 'Millenium Classics' then a few years later as 'Westminister the legacy.'

    Worst album covers? The Mercury reissue of Skrowaczewski's Schubert 9th w. Schubert driving a Plymouth Funny Car; the CBS 'Great Performances' newspaper graphic covers in general; and, to reaffirm that bad cover art is still alive, Marc Minkowski's Mozart 40 & 41 w. tomato-red print on lime-green graphics-in fact the performances match the cover art perfectly!