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The conductor George Szell was a tyrant, but boy, did he make sublime music. For nearly 25 years at the helm of the Cleveland Orchestra, he nurtured a sound from his players that brought them world renown. Reading the stories in this book, you can only conclude that the dictatorial fashion in which he did it would never wash today in a more egalitarian era.

Marcia Hansen Kraus, composer and widow of one of the Cleveland Orchestra’s longest-serving players, has interviewed a range of former members. Their testimonies form the basis of this book. The result is an entertaining read which contains some laugh-out-loud moments. For example, Szell was approached by principal violist Abe Skernick, requesting a pay rise as his wife was expecting a child. This was repeated with child number two. But the third time, Szell thought Skernick had gone too far. ‘Abe, haven’t you ever heard of f—ing for pleasure?’

Amusing anecdotes aside, these stories reveal the depth of Szell’s control freakery. His meddling in the musicians’ lives outside the concert hall was quite exceptional. Many forgave his tight hold, because they too aspired to make great music. They recognised his genius and his utter commitment to the art.

What is frustrating about this book is its structure. Testimonies from different individuals are gathered together under subject headings such as ‘World Tour’ and ‘Szell’s Methods’. But they essentially tell the same story about this great conductor, and start to become repetitive. As the book progresses, this approach starts to come apart at the seams, and various anecdotes from players are shoehorned into a chapter entitled ‘Prodigies, Masterpieces and Boulez’ – presumably because they couldn’t be made to fit elsewhere.

The stories in themselves are fascinating, but they would be better presented as individual interviews, edited for clarity and length. Chapters that concentrate on a single theme and have a narrative are the most rewarding: hearing how the orchestra’s summer home, Blossom Pavilion, came into being, makes for interesting reading. Even here in the unfamiliar world of architects and sound engineers, Szell made sure he was involved down to the last detail.

FIONA CLAMPIN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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