Perhaps more than anything else, Dimitri Mitropoulos excelled
in large-scale works in which he had to direct substantial forces.
The Berlioz Grande Messe des morts certainly falls into
that category. In the booklet note Donald Rosenberg cites the
forces required as a reason why orchestras rarely programme
the work. He might well have added that Berlioz makes huge demands
on the singers, especially the tenors; that probably makes people
think long and hard before putting on a performance, especially
as a big chorus is required to match the size of the orchestra,
though the full band is sparingly used.
This performance, which I presume was a live account, though
there are no audience noises, was one of two that Mitropoulos
gave in the space of a few days of each other during his 1956
summer visit to Europe. The other was given at the Salzburg
Festival just a few days earlier, on 15 August 1956, a performance
that Mitropoulos dedicated to the memory of Wilhelm Furtwängler.
By happy chance that performance was also preserved and it’s
been available for some time on Orfeo (C 457 971 B). In Salzburg
Mitropoulos had at his disposal the Chorus of the Vienna State
Opera and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra; his tenor soloist
was Leopold Simoneau.
The start of the Cologne performance is a bit inauspicious.
The first chorus entries, especially those of the sopranos and,
to a lesser extent, the tenors, sound a bit strained. Also,
one is conscious of a studio acoustic. By contrast the Salzburg
performance, which was given in the Felsenreitschule, benefits
from a more spacious acoustic, which better serves this work.
The sound of the Cologne choirs takes a bit of getting used
to; their singing is a bit vibrato-heavy for my taste and, to
be honest, the sopranos often sound somewhat on the matronly
side during the performance. The Vienna choir isn’t ideal
either, though I think it has an edge over the Cologne singers.
In truth, the choral singing in both performances, though never
less than adequate - and often a good deal more than that -
shows how much standards of choral singing have risen in the
last fifty years.
Having said that our first encounter with the combined Cologne
choirs isn’t ideal I must encourage you to persevere because
the performance soon settles and the singers make a pretty good
job of Berlioz’s demanding writing. They offer committed
singing in the Rex tremendae, for instance. In the Quaerens
me some of the phrasing is just a little mannered, I feel,
though that’s down to the conductor. They cope very well
with the Lacrymosa and in this movement it’s right
to give a special accolade to the tenors who don’t quail
in the face of the demanding tessitura at Judicandus, homo
reus and then voice the Pie Jesu sweetly. Despite
a few instances of understandable strain I think the choir gives
a good account of itself during what is a long, taxing sing
- unlike, say, in the Verdi Requiem there are no movements
in which they can rest while the soloists take centre-stage.
In fact there’s only one movement that involves a soloist,
namely the Sanctus. Here he is Nicolai Gedda. I don’t
think he’s done any favours by the recorded balance, which
places him in a very ‘present’ way. However, I’m
not sure I agree with his approach to the solo. The notes describe
it as a “full-throated, heroic account” but is that
what’s wanted here? I think not. Gedda’s sound is
beautiful but there’s far too much of it. Switch to Simoneau
on the Salzburg recording and you’re in a different world.
True, Simoneau is more distantly balanced - which is as it should
be - but he’s much more subtle with the music. His singing
is softer, lighter than that of his Swedish rival; he floats
the line, no matter how high it goes, and, for my money, that’s
absolutely correct and much to be preferred to Gedda’s
forthright operatic way with the solo.
Mitropoulos is in total command of the score. There are one
or two aspects with which I’m not quite comfortable. For
example, the Hostias is a bit robust - on both recordings.
Here, the quieter, more prayerful approach of Sir Colin Davis
is much more satisfying - and in keeping with Berlioz’s
wishes. However, such moments of doubt are rare and most of
the time Mitropoulos is wholly convincing. The big moments come
over very well. The Tuba mirum - which, unlike on most
recordings, is not separately tracked (it starts at track 2,
4:56) - is very powerful and the Cologne brass bands stay together,
which isn’t easy to do; their Vienna colleagues don’t
quite manage it. In the Lacrymosa Berlioz’s musical
juggernaut rolls along implacably. However, Mitropoulos also
impresses in the quieter moments, of which there are many in
this score. He handles the Offertorium, a favourite movement
of mine, very well, helped by some very good playing from the
Cologne orchestra. The Agnus Dei, when Berlioz brings
the work full circle, also comes of very well. In summary, this
recording confirms what anyone who has heard the Salzburg performance
will know; Mitropoulos has the measure of this vast score and
is able to convey its gaunt majesty, its beauty and its grandeur.
I made a passing reference to the orchestra just then and should
expand on that by saying that their playing throughout the performance
is very good.
If you already have the Orfeo recording there is little need
to duplicate since the shape of the performances is pretty similar
and the Salzburg reading has the better soloist. However, if
you haven’t yet heard Dimitri Mitropoulos’ very
considerable interpretation of this great work then this Cologne
performance is well worth acquiring. As is the usual, regrettable
practice of this label, there’s a complete absence of
texts. I imagine it was a challenge to squeeze this performance
onto one disc. Perhaps that’s the reason why gaps between
movements are extremely short - three seconds between the end
of the Lacrymosa and the start of the Offertorium,
for example. You may wish to use the pause button on your CD
player at times.