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Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Romeo and Juliet, Op. 64 (excerpts) [44:29]
(Montagues and Capulets (Suite 2, No. 1) [5:17]; Juliet – The Little Girl (Suite 2, No. 2) [4:14]; Folk Dance (Suite 1, No. 1) [4:18]; Romeo and Mercutio Masked (Suite 1, No. 5) [2:17]; Balcony Scene (Suite 1, No. 6) [6:38]; Death of Tybalt (Suite 1, No. 7) [4:45]; Romeo and Juliet before Parting (Suite 2, No. 5) [8:23]; Friar Laurence (Suite 2, No. 3) [2:42]; Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb (Suite 2, No. 7) [5:55])
Modest MUSSORGSKY (1839-1881) Night on Bald Mountain [11:12]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953) Lieutenant Kijé Suite, Op. 60 [19:52]
(The Birth of Kijé [3:50]; Romance [4:36]; Kijé’s Wedding [ 2:48]; Troika [2:39]; Kijé’s Funeral [6:03])
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. St. George Hotel, Brooklyn, New York, 11 November 1957; * New York City, 9 January 1956. DSD


I’m a great admirer of Dimitri Mitropoulos who, on his day and in the right repertoire, could be an inspiring conductor so I’m glad to find some of his recordings comprising one of the first releases in Sony Classical’s new series. Prokofiev was a composer in whose music the Greek maestro often excelled – he quite a few times gave performances of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto in which he not only conducted but also played the solo part! So it’s good that the bulk of this disc is given over to Prokofiev’s music.

The odd piece out, so to speak, Mussorgsky’s Gothic orchestral showpiece, receives a cracking reading. This performance, which was set down at the same session as the Romeo and Juliet pieces, is viscerally exciting, featuring some edge-of-the-seat playing from the NYPO strings and brass playing of real bite and presence.  Mitropoulos doesn’t just excel in the extrovert passages, however. The last three minutes or so convey a real feel of “all passion spent”. This quiet ending includes wonderfully phrased clarinet and flute solos. It’s a tumultuous account of an old warhorse.

The Lieutenant Kijé Suite is also done well. The opening movement is splendidly spiky. ‘Romance’ includes a double bass solo in which the pitch is occasionally a little democratic but the solo has a nice sleazy air to it, as does the later saxophone solo. The movement as a whole is suitably affectionate. ‘Kijé’s Wedding’ gets a delightfully tongue-in-cheek reading and the music is tossed off insouciantly. The famous ‘Troika’ bowls along over the snow in splendid style and the final movement, which I’ve always known as ‘The Death of Kijé’ is sardonic but with a nice touch of pathos. You realise, listening to this, that Prokofiev has made us rather fond of the non-existent lieutenant. This is the oldest recording on the CD and it’s in mono. The sound is a bit close, as was often the wont of CBS in those days, but it’s perfectly acceptable and, to be honest, wears its years quite lightly.

The main offering consists of nine excerpts from the first two of the three suites that Prokofiev extracted from his wonderful ballet score. I should say at once that this is a very good performance. However, I thought I should make a comparison and in this music there really is only one comparison, namely the superb set of extracts recorded by Karel Ančerl and the Czech Philharmonic. Their recording was roughly contemporaneous with the Mitropoulos account – Ančerl’s version was set down in August 1959 – and there are seven pieces in common. The Ančerl recording is currently available on Supraphon’s Karel Ančerl Gold Edition (see review).

In ‘Montagues and Capulets’, the opening grinding dissonances are superb under Mitropoulos. However, the hushed string chords that follow really aren’t hushed at all here. Turn to Ančerl, who takes the passage more slowly, and the first thing you notice is that the dissonances are even more strident, with a sforzando at each terraced brass entry. The strings are almost inaudible when they enter but every detail registers and these short quiet passages are pregnant with atmosphere. Both conductors articulate the swagger of the syncopated music that follows – the ‘Knight’s Dance’ in the full ballet – very well.

Mitropoulos is good in the portrait of Juliet as a young girl but for me Ančerl, at a more fleet speed, conveys even more convincingly an image of the innocent, breathless excitement and vivacity of the young heroine. Mitropoulos does the ‘Folk Dance’ well but when we get to the movement more usually known simply as ‘Masks’ Ančerl just seems to offer that little telling bit of extra characterisation. The Greek conductor sounds a bit heavy by comparison and it’s his Czech counterpart who really reminds us that here we have two carefree young men out for a night on the town.

In the hands of Mitropoulos the ‘Balcony Scene’ glows splendidly. The music surges passionately. I think, to be honest, that the Czech Philharmonic plays with the greater degree of finesse in the quieter passages but there’s no doubt that Mitropoulos inspires some ardent playing from his New Yorkers. I ought to mention a couple of oddities of balance in the CBS/Sony recording of this movement. At 0:35 there’s a very short passage in the first violin part that registers with startling, and quite inappropriate, prominence. That must have been a momentary error by the original balance engineer, I feel sure. What listeners may find a bit more disconcerting in this movement, and in one or two other places, is the very forward balance of the saxophone. The sound that the player makes is a bit too redolent of a Big Band for my taste.

Mitropoulos is predictably exciting and thrusting in the fight scene that begins ‘The Death of Tybalt’. His strings really dig in and the sparks fly. Later the huge funeral cortège is powerfully intense. Yet, put Ančerl’s disc into your player and you’ll hear something very special here. He takes the fight at a much faster tempo, with thrilling results, and the corporate virtuosity of the CPO players is something at which to marvel. I was surprised to find, in fact, that it’s Ančerl, rather than the famously dynamic Greek, who conducts like a man possessed.  Ančerl also scores a small but telling point over his rival by making a crescendo on the last few of the fifteen hammered chords that precede the cortège. I think that by a whisker I prefer the slightly broader tempo that Mitropoulos adopts for the cortège itself but Ančerl is shatteringly intense and at the climax his first trumpet cuts through the texture like a knife.

Mitropoulos does ‘Romeo and Juliet before Parting’ very well indeed though, once again, some may find the saxophone intrusive. Ančerl is simply inspired here and his Czech orchestra plays superbly but the New York account will give great satisfaction. I like the affectionate portrait of Friar Laurence that Mitropoulos paints. ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’ is heartrendingly intense. Ančerl’s basic tempo for this movement is daringly slow – he takes 7:29 against 5:55 in the Mitropoulos version. I must admit that I do wonder if, at this speed, Ančerl’s breadth isn’t just a little too much of a good thing; could one dance to the music at this speed? Nonetheless his performance is a very special experience.

As a strong admirer of Mitropoulos I’m sorry that his traversal of Romeo and Juliet yields on a number of points to the Ančerl version but then the Czech version is, quite simply, one of the very greatest Prokofiev recordings I’ve ever heard. If you must restrict yourself to just one recording of extracts from this great score I’d have to advise you to opt for Ančerl but I should also say that I find the Mitropoulos “fillers” much more enticing than the Peter and the Wolf that Ančerl offers.

One or two oddities of balance apart, the old CBS recordings have come up very well. The documentation consists of the original sleeve notes for the Mussorgsky and for Romeo and Juliet and in the latter case the notes include the extracts from the Shakespeare play to which the music refers. Bizarrely, however, there are no notes whatsoever about Lieutenant Kijé.

Dimitri Mitropoulos was a very special conductor and the contents of this CD show his inspirational talents off to very good advantage. I hope Sony will follow this with more reissues of his recordings in this series. Could I put in a special plea for his recordings of Symphonie Fantastique and Shostakovich’s Tenth symphony? However, for now this CD is very welcome indeed and I’m very happy to recommend it. But do try to hear Ančerl as well in Romeo and Juliet. 

John Quinn


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