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Symphonies 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9 & 10 (Adagio)

Conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos
CD 1 (77:04): Symphony No. 1 & Adagio from Symphony No. 10, New York Philharmonic, 9 Jan. 1960 & 16 or 17 Jan. 1960
CD 2 (78:35): Symphony No. 3 Beatrice Krebs, New York Philharmonic, 15 April 1956
CD 3 (70:32): Symphony No. 5, New York Philharmonic, 2 Jan. 1960
CD 4 (74:33): Symphony No. 6, Cologne Radio Orchestra, 31 Aug. 1959
CD 5 (79:48): Symphony No. 8 Vienna Philharmonic, Sängerknaben, State Opera & Musikfreunde Choirs. Mimi Coertse, Hilde Zadek, Lucretia West, Ira Malaniuk, Giuseppe Zampieri, Hermann Prey, Otto Edelmann, 28 Aug. 1960
CD 6 (73:48): Symphony No.9, New York Philharmonic, 23 Jan. 1960
Essay by William R. Trotter. Technical Reconstruction by Maggi Payne
Music and Arts CD 1021 (6 CDs for the price of 4)
Ordering details and Real Audio samples on the Music and Arts web site:
Mitropoulos Conducts Mahler CD-1021 released in 1998 as a "six for the price of four" $59.80 set

In early 1960 the New York Philharmonic mounted a festival to commemorate Mahler's centenary. It was not, as you still sometimes read, a complete cycle. There were no performances of the Third, Sixth, Seventh or Eighth Symphonies. Neither did Leonard Bernstein conduct all the performances, as you also sometimes read. He took part, so did Bruno Walter, but the major share was in the hands of Dimitri Mitropoulos and it's these performances by him of the First, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, plus the Adagio from the Tenth, that make up the majority in this box.

The Tenth Adagio is a good place to start as it gives the flavour of the sound quality on the 1960 recordings, the playing, and the kind of interpretations of Mahler Mitropoulos offers generally. The strings are occasionally shrill but it's playing of the highest quality by an orchestra that has always played Mahler well. The woodwinds also impress, though they are closely balanced which is another aspect of these performances and of Mitropoulos's approach to Mahler in general. There are also a lot of coughs and movements from the audience which goes some way to confirming what William R. Trotter tells us in his liner notes about New York audiences at the time. "…the impossible-to-please attitude of an audience more spoiled, more fickle, than any on earth." Listen through all these and you will not be disappointed. Specifically in the Tenth's Adagio, Mitropoulos uses an old edition of the score that you'll notice differs slightly from what we are now used to. However, at that time he and other conductors knew no different. This was also before performing editions of the whole work (by Deryck Cooke and others) had been published so the rest of the work, apart from the Purgatorio, was largely unknown and Mitropoulos would only be aware of having to make the movement work as it stands. I think this has a lot to do with the superb performance he gives of the fragment, surging and pulsating with life, utterly believing in its importance. By the way, the date given in the notes for this performance is January 17th 1960. This is the same performance contained in the expensive 12 CD NYPO "Mahler Broadcasts" box published by the orchestra (with the Purgatorio movement) where the date is given there as the 16th. A small point but it might save some confusion to make a note of it.

The first movement of the First Symphony strikes a fine balance between a very romantic, dark-hued world delivered by the main Wayfarer theme and some sharp, almost "tart" birdcalls. This approach means tension occasionally flags, though not seriously. The second movement is much too wilful in its tempo lurches and vibrato, though, and I can imagine on repeated hearings these would irritate. Then the coarse-grained double bass solo at the start of the third movement shows that Mitropoulos never tries to prettify Mahler. A perfect example of entering into the sound world Mahler is aiming for, as also is the solo violin at the start of the march reprise later. Younger conductors should take note of all this. The finale doesn't disappoint either. Mitropoulos let's rip with the opening, tears into the music with abandon and encourages his players to go for broke. Then in the lyrical second subject, whilst passionate and noble, he is never indulgent. The rest sees a performance at the highest level of commitment. You cannot really compare this kind of "one off" performance with any studio version, I think. Not least Mitropoulos's own version on Sony which is the only Mahler he ever officially recorded. This is especially the case with the "Pesante" coda that carries all before it and will have you joining in the applause at the end.

The Fifth is more controversial for reasons I will come to. There is a lot in it to admire and to enjoy, however. Not least the first movement which delivers great weight and power in the funeral march and splendid attack in the first "Trio". Mitropoulos certainly has the measure of the mood swings. The military band sound he produces - something that seems beyond most present-day maestri - is also idiomatic. I also liked the way he reins back the tempo in the lead up to the "Klagende" marking towards the end of the movement. This means the great crash itself, ushering in the coda, is superbly "placed". As ever Mitropoulos aware of Mahler's "way points". The second movement doesn't disappoint either with a frantic start and assured steerage through the peaks and troughs, not least in the monody for cellos at which is refreshingly edgy. It's surprising the number of conductors who find themselves all at sea here. The problems start with the third movement Scherzo. The way Mitropoulos tears into it, even catching the orchestra out, says a lot about how I think he misses the point of the movement and with it the whole work because the symphony pivots on the way this movement can provide a "junction box" for the war between positive and negative poles. Mahler lamented the fact that conductors would take the movement too fast and his fears are all too obvious in a performance like this where the music is never allowed to breathe and dance and so be a completely different entity to what has gone and what will come. You just cannot treat the third movement as an extension of the second, which is what I feel Mitropoulos does. The eleven-minute Adagietto fourth movement after it comes as a welcome respite and there is no doubt Mitropoulos manages to justify his tempo by clear melodic lines. But I think the symphony is already fatally wounded. The reprise of the Adagietto in the last movement is interesting in that Mitropoulos takes it very slowly and makes the connection between the two movements better than many. A novel solution before a triumphant conclusion rounds proceedings off. It's always interesting to hear both this conductor in Mahler and any great conductor and orchestra in such full flight as they are here. This remains a dramatic, compelling performance that deserves its place in this box. Though not a high one in the Mahler discography generally, I feel.

The Ninth completes the recordings from the 1960 Festival. Once you get used to Mitropoulos's idea of Mahler's "Andante comodo" the first movement should come over as a forward-looking, edgy conception with Mitropoulos taking fewer liberties than he does in the Fifth. In all, this Ninth is a surprise after the Fifth for the restraint, detachment and clarity Mitropoulos brings to it. His and his orchestra's concentration is impressive and a real alternative to some of the frankly safer versions you hear today. For an example of Mitropoulos's sharpness of focus listen to the passage 211-266, searing in its honesty. Then the "crowning" of the big climax at 314-318 where the trombones don't hammer home their rhythmic figure with the same force as Klemperer or Horenstein, to name but two conductors from this era. The second movement receives very quick performance, four minutes faster overall than Horenstein on Vox, for example. The Tempo I Landler that opens the movement tests the orchestra and something of the music's ethnic character is certainly sacrificed especially when you bear in mind Mahler wanted an "unhurried" Landler. But the Tempo II Waltz is wild and turbulent with the sour woodwind that are excellent right through. In the Rondo Burleske the basic tempo is steady enough for each note to tell yet there is fire and power that puts me in mind of Walter's 1938 Vienna recording. The last movement gets a searing performance. At twenty-one minutes it's also one of the quicker ones but, as is so often the case in Mahler, since all Mitropoulos's tempi overall are quicker you shouldn't really notice and what matters is how they all relate within the performance. One thing a performance like this illustrates is the feeling that tempi in Mahler performances have become slower over the years. Some find him stiff in this last movement. I find his overall conception of the whole work justifies this reading even though there are others that move me greater.

The sound quality on all these 1960 New York performances is limited with the orchestral colours not as rich as you would get in modern studio versions. But that is often the case in important sets like this. They are thankfully free of much distortion though there is some "crowding" during heavy passages. The violins are rather shrill also but I found using a slight treble cut did wonders. If you are used to hearing historic recordings you won't be disappointed.

The Third Symphony is also with the New York Philharmonic but from 1955. This is the one really disappointing recording in the box as there are cuts in the first and last movements I believe were imposed so the performance would fit a broadcast schedule with adverts and announcements. This might also account for some fast tempi without which, one suspects, there might have needed to be even more cuts made and these inject a degree of impatience into passages of the work that is inappropriate. Another oddity is the fact that the fourth and fifth movements are sung in English. So the contralto sings "Oh men, give heed" in the fourth whilst the children in the fifth appear to sing "Boing-Boing" instead of "Bimm-Bamm"! On its own, this would be a recording to give a very wide berth to. We do know Mitropoulos had the measure of the work from another recording of a concert in Cologne in 1960. A pity Music and Arts were unable to secure the rights to that one along with the Cologne version of the Sixth that I shall deal with next.

There is, of course, another Mahler Sixth conducted by Mitropoulos and, like the Third above, that is from 1955 with the New York Philharmonic. But this was clearly not available to Music and Arts and anyway appears in that expensive "Mahler Broadcasts" box so would have resulted in duplication. I dealt with that one extensively in my survey of recordings of Mahler's Sixth elsewhere on this site and rated it, though a very personal interpretation, among the best. The critic Henry Fogel described it as "a dramatic, intense reading of molten heat and energy," and I concur with that. However, I think Fogel's opinion of the Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra Sixth from 1960 in this Music and Arts box ("Very disappointing; loose jointed, not at all as well knit together as the NYP reading, and badly played too") rather harsh. True, it isn't the equal of the 1955 reading, but I still believe it deserves its place here. Mitropoulos was even more interventionist in this performance than five years before, especially in his very deliberate treatment of the fate rhythm in the first movement (shorn of Exposition repeat) and I think this could become annoying in repeated hearings. There are also some awkward gear changes in the Development (and one eyebrow-lifting break-slam in the movement's final bar) but, as so often with Mitropoulos, he can also bring out the sharp, uncomfortable sound of Mahler and that is to be welcomed. In his 1955 performance Mitropoulos had the order of the inner movements as Andante followed by Scherzo. Not surprisingly as this was prior to the 1963 critical edition that confirmed the order as Scherzo followed by Andante. In this Cologne performance Mitropoulos appears to have played the order Scherzo-Andante in anticipation of the critical edition, unless Music and Arts have re-ordered the movements for this issue. The Scherzo itself is tough and full of character. The orchestra does betray some lack of tone, especially compared with the New Yorkers, but Mitropoulos has trained them well. The woodwind are especially malevolent which, by now, should be a familiar Mitropoulos characteristic. A fine Andante of some eloquence then leads to a gripping account of the immense last movement. Again the playing doesn't carry the power of the New York version. The players don't have the staying power necessary. However, Mitropoulos still has the measure of the movement - dramatic, biting, exhilarating and, at the end, overwhelming. The build-up to the place of the final hammer blow carries all before it. Though the 1955 performance is even more stunning which goes to show what an experience that is. So, for greater playing, better sound and less agogic touches, the 1955 version is the ideal version to have for Mitropoulos in this work. However, that is expensive to obtain and if that had never been available this one from Cologne would still have represented Mitropoulos well.

This Eighth Symphony from the 1960 Salzburg Festival is the most distinguished performance in this box. However, I'm bound to point out it's also available singly on Orfeo d'Or (C 519 992 B). On the other hand Music and Arts fit their version on one disc where Orefo d'Or needs two and I also think Maggi Payne's remastering for Music and Arts sounds better. The Orfeo d'Or is clear but there is some distortion at higher frequencies and a slight "fizz" on the violins. Payne seems to have cleaned up the sound, reducing distortion as well as providing body and atmosphere. So there is a touch more bloom and a nice perspective for the soloists: electronically produced, maybe, but discrete and musical. There are some odd balances in the master tape and an aeroplane flying over the Felsenreitschule during the Prelude to Part II, but that's a small price to pay for a record of such a great occasion weeks before Mitropoulos's death in Milan whilst rehearsing Mahler's Third.

In LP days this and Flipse's version from the Holland Festival of 1955 was for some years the only Mahler Eighth collectors could get to take home. The organ you hear first is not promising and Mitropoulos's tempo is some way from the "Allegro Impetuoso" asked for. Indeed, the approach through Party I is grandeur and solidity and Mitropoulos's performance illustrates what can be lost if some heavy-footedness is allowed to drag proceedings. One benefit is in passages like the short orchestral interlude prior to "Infirma nostri corporis" which emerges with good detail, and those where the soloists sing together allowing us to hear every line. At "Accende lumin sensibus" Mahler's instruction to the horns to lift bells for the blast heralding the choir's double fugue indicates a thrilling of the blood, but there are performances that do that more than Mitropoulos's. However, as the double fugue progresses, a sense of cumulative momentum does build up. In Part II Mitropoulos's ability to bend with the music delivers a moving experience: a real contrast to the first part that may be what Mitropoulos was aiming for. The "Poco adagio" is warm and expressive with passionate outbursts crowned by the horns of the Vienna Philharmonic. Then, as the soloists appear, their fine qualities are confirmed. Hermann Prey is lyrical and reflective, Otto Edelmann overcomes intonation problems to emerge commanding, and Giuseppe Zampieri flies above his key contributions with heart-stopping emotion even at these tempi. Mater Gloriosa is serenaded by the strings of Vienna Philharmonic with phrasing only they could produce and "Blicket Auf" penetrates to the core, sending shivers down the spine as the end is in sight. The women are no less impressive and I was taken with the trio at "Die du grosen Sunderinnen" where Mitropoulos's reining back of the tempo and the forward balance of the soprano and two contraltos allows us to hear every line once more. The closing pages maintain the long line Mitropoulos established and in some ways justify by balancing his steady approach in Part I.

There are no liner notes about the music itself, or the performances, in this box and I suppose you could argue anyone buying this set already knows their Mahler. What you get instead is the long and fascinating essay on Mitropoulos by William R. Trotter. I value that greatly and it's probably more appropriate anyway.

This is an essential box for admirers of both Mahler and Mitropoulos. It's a window into the way Mahler was performed just prior to the boom that took place in the early 1960s. With the caveat that the version of the Third is best left alone, I recommend it enthusiastically and especially at the price.


Tony Duggan 

Overall rating:

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