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Dimitri Mitropoulos (conductor) The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection
Mono/stereo RCA 19439888252 [69 CDs]
Dimitri Mitropoulos was not only one of the humblest maestri ever to mount a rostrum but, by most accounts, was also among the most generous and open-minded of men. A religiously inclined ascetic and athletic Athenian with a love of the outdoors (he was a keen mountaineer) as well as a discriminating reader, Mitropoulos was at his very best in music that tapped vast, imagined vistas - Mahler, for example, or the numerous modern scores that he so boldly programmed - and recorded – throughout his career. Like his successor at the New York Philharmonic Leonard Bernstein, Mitropoulos was a fine pianist, a composer, too, though little remains of his output, save, in the context of this wonderful set, his mightily impressive orchestration of Bach’s Fantasia and Fugue in G Minor, BWV 542 "Great". He had an eidetic (i.e. photographic) memory, hence his ability to rehearse and concertise without a score. He once said “I never use a score when conducting my orchestra. Does a lion tamer enter a cage with a book on how to tame a lion?” Point taken. And that uncanny ability to cut out the score ‘as middle-man’ comes across on so many of his recordings, which claim among their virtues leaping spontaneity.
There’s a thrilling video of Mitropoulos rehearsing part of ‘Mephistopheles’ from Liszt’s A Faust Symphony available on
YouTube where you can witness his electric rostrum manner for yourself, his darting eyes, lightning gestures and intense concentration. He’d wave dismissively if a passage failed to reflect his intentions while happily offering praise when things were put to rights. Musically, the results are stunning but ultimately it’s the discography that tells the truest tale, which is why this priceless collection – which principally features the Minneapolis Symphony (which he led from 1937 to 1949) and New York Philharmonic (1951-1958) Orchestras - so successfully elevates music’s most modest maestro to the status of a rostrum giant.
Regarding the shellac-based Minneapolis recordings it’s as well to remember that they were made at the Northrop Auditorium, the self-same venue that Mercury would soon be using for their ‘Living Presence’ LPs. There are indeed similarities between what we have here and what we would encounter via Mercury: namely, prominent timpani, a firm bass line, close-set strings, reedy woodwinds and powerful blasts from the brass. Mitropoulos’ 1940 Minneapolis Mahler One, a keenly assertive but largely unhurried performance, was the work’s commercial disc premiere and comes up fresh as new paint in this new transfer, save for the very beginning of the finale, which sounds like a freshly lit Catherine wheel. Other Minneapolis classics include a deeply committed account of Rachmaninov’s Second Symphony, Franck’s D minor where the expansive opening recalls Toscanini’s equally sombre broadcasts, Schumann’s Second and Third Symphonies, the former Romantically voiced, extremely dramatic and keenly pointed (witness the opening of the first movement), the latter malleable in the extreme.
Of two version of Mendelssohn’s Scottish Symphony, the richer-toned New York option more suits all weathers, whereas its principal coupling, the Reformation Symphony, glides into the finale without a hitch (so often conductors seem unsure whether to speed, slow down, or whatever). The same disc also includes driven but enjoyable accounts of the Hebrides and Ruy Blas Overtures. Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony has plenty of spirit, Berlioz rather less so in the (stereo) Symphonie fantastique which although perfectly adequate as a performance lacks distinction (save for the bell in the finale, which is backed by a piano). We’re told that Roméo et Juliette is ‘the complete orchestral score’. True enough, though to end just beyond the violent stab of ‘Romeo’s death’ – brilliantly performed I might add – is bizarre. Surely the ‘Oath of Reconciliation’ with the bass voice orchestrated might have proved a musically more fulfilling option. Still, a lovely disc of songs with Eleanor Steber, where the rostrum honours are shared between Mitropoulos and Jean Morel helps offer some compensation. Prokofiev’s Lt Kijé and Kodály’s Háry János Suites are no less vivid (although Kodály’s ‘Viennese Musical Clock’ could wake the dead) and there’s a stylishly played disc of Saint-Saëns shorter pieces (including Danse Macabre and Phaëton).
For Debussy’s La Mer, Mitropoulos has the ocean virtually overwhelm us (he opts for fanfares in the stormy finale), so vivid is his way with the composer’s multi-dimensional orchestration, the implied sea-swell and glitter. Time and again while listening, you sense an elemental force at work, the roaring tam-tam in Scriabin’s Poem of Ecstasy (New York Philharmonic) being a case in point, or the opening of Prometheus, perhaps the most unsettling chord in all of music (calling on Scriabin's base sonority of A D♯ G C♯ F♯ B) though the same work ends on a triumphant F sharp. Mitropoulos clocks all of this, as he does the blend of high-rise desolation and blind panic in Shostakovich’s 10th Symphony, the fast second movement more a murderous Battleship Potemkin crowd scene (i.e. ‘Odessa Steps’) than a portrait of Stalin. Karel Ančerl and Yevgeny Mravinsky might sharpen a more mercilessly lethal blade but Mitropoulos transports us to a time and place that’s more reminiscent of present-day Ukraine than 1950s Moscow.
I’ve never heard Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony open with such decimating force, a shocking premonition of gritty arguments tenaciously held later on (no mere ‘Soviet artist's creative response to justified criticism’, this), and as for the First Violin Concerto, Mitropoulos cues the brass-dominated, gangland opening of the ‘Passacaglia’ with even more presence than a rival (and contemporaneous) Leningrad PO/Yevgeny Mravinsky recording from Melodiya. By the time David Oistrakh reaches the increasingly frenzied cadenza, you realize what those menacing first minutes presaged.
Other impressive concerto recordings include the Bach E major, Tchaikovsky, Bruch First, Prokofiev Second and Saint-Saëns Third Violin Concertos with Zino Francescatti captured at the height of his powers, his tone rich and vibrant, his bowing virtually as fleet as Heifetz’s. Isaac Stern plays Prokofiev’s First Concerto - a good performance, though his stereo remake under Ormandy is better, and Francescatti’s stereo recording with Ormandy of the Walton Concerto – my personal favourite version of the work – turns up here coupled with a fine Mitropoulos-led Francescatti take on the four-movement Lalo Symphonie espagnole.
Francescatti’s regular piano partner Robert Casadesus lights up the night skies with one of the most dramatic accounts of Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain you’re ever likely to hear – a virtuoso tour de force in fact – coupled with three dances from The Three Cornered Hat where the conductor’s liking for flexible tempos (and phrasing) suggests rowdy tone poetry rather than ballet. Thick-set, unabashedly boisterous but always exciting, it’s a recording like no other. Likewise, Liszt’s Les Préludes and Strauss’s ‘Dance of the Seven Veils’, beefy and occasionally unkempt readings, confrontational too, their warring textures always a source of excitement.
Of Casadesus’s two recordings of Beethoven’s Emperor Concerto, the version under Mitropoulos (recorded with the NYPO in Paris) is maybe marginally punchier than its stereo Amsterdam successor under Hans Rosbaud (DG) but either recording enshrines a noble interpretation. Robert’s son Jean, who tragically died aged 44 in a car accident, plays Beethoven’s Third Concerto ‘live’ with a degree of energy and poise reminiscent of his father. All three Casadesus pianists (Robert, Gaby and Jean) perform a sensitive account of Bach’s 3-keyboard Concerto BWV1063, the central Alla Siciliana being especially. Another extremely good pianist, Philadelphia born, was Edward Kilenyi, Jr., whose approach to Chopin’s First Concerto is fairly straightforward, whereas Arthur Rubinstein soars on high for what is surely his most personable recorded performance of Tchaikovsky’s First Concerto. Both are with the Minneapolis Symphony.
Cellist Leonard Rose sits fairly close to the microphones in Bloch’s Schelomo but Mitropoulos raises a storm in the work’s raging orchestral tutti. Saint-Saëns’ First Concerto is a gentler beast but there too the playing is excellent. Borodin is represented by two recordings of the Igor-like Second Symphony (Minneapolis and New York) Tchaikovsky by a truncated version (why?) of the First orchestral Suite, and four symphonies, the Second (with the Minneapolis SO), the first movement too fast, the Fourth with some added ‘echo’ dynamics and awkward transitions, the Fifth heartfelt but muddy within the movement extremities (the coda is weak), the Pathétique admirably fleet to start with, warmly expressed when the main theme enters too, but the ‘march scherzo’ loses impetus towards its close. These are in general good performances but hardly represent Mitropoulos at his best.
Tchaikovsky’s idol Mozart has two main works on offer, both very well played, the two-piano concerto in E flat K.365 with Vronsky and Babin and the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra (the Philadelphia Orchestra’s name during its summer season held at Robin Hood Dell) and the 3-Piano Concerto No. 7 in F Major, K.242 (known as "Lodron”) with the Little Orchestra Society under Thomas Scherman where the same two-piano team is said to be supplemented by the great Josef Lhévinne, but as he died a couple of years before the recording was made I’m assuming the book compilers meant his wife, the pianist and teacher Rosina Lhévinne.
Even stranger was the unrealised potential of having Mitropoulos, a Busoni pupil, sit in as the third pianist, especially in view of his self-conducted (and riveting) account of Prokofiev’s Third Concerto, again with the Robin Hood Dell Orchestra, not to mention his playing – both forceful and delicate - in chamber music by Hindemith and Löffler. Mitropoulos had staggered a Berlin audience when he stood in for an indisposed Egon Petri playing, and conducting, the Prokofiev, to a tumultuous response. Here, he conducts Petri (in Minneapolis) for a typically aristocratic account of Busoni’s arrangement of Liszt’s Rhapsodie espagnole. Returning to Vronsky and Babin, we additionally have an invigorating account of Poulenc’s sassy Concerto for two pianos, the opening like temperamental film noir music that suddenly becomes adorably silly.
There are some terrific twentieth century pieces included. A disc of music by Gunther Schuller (Symphony for Brass and Percussion under Mitropoulos), J. J. Johnson, John Lewis (of MJQ fame) and Jimmy Giuffre approximates, in its sophistication and visceral impact, a Stan Kenton/Bob Graettinger production (the soloists are Miles Davis, J. J. Johnson and Joe Wilder). Leon Kirchner’s expressively concentrated Piano Concerto features the composer as soloist, the coupling Eugene Ormandy and the Philadelphia Orchestra performing William Schumann’s striking Credendum. Other newish works – or ‘newish’ back in the 1950s/60s – include Milhaud’s Cocteau ballet Le boeuf sur le toît (The Ox on the Roof), which the composer described as "fifteen minutes of music, rapid and gay, as a background to any Charlie Chaplin silent movie" - and that’s Mitropoulos’s performance to a T. Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht simmers on a back burner, the NYPO’s playing darkly romantic whereas the couplings, Schoenberg’s nightmarish Erwartung (with soprano Dorothy Dow) and Ernst Krenek’s highly eventful Symphonic Elegy for String Orchestra (In Memoriam of Anton Webern) are depicted on a far wider canvas. The Schoenberg and Berg Violin Concertos (the latter conducted by Artur Rodzinski) are played by the man who premiered them both, Louis Krasner, an old-style violinist, treating the music almost as if it were by Brahms (which no doubt would have pleased Schoenberg) though to be honest the best later interpreters are both more convincing and more compelling. Other approachable twentieth century works include the Third Symphonies of Wallingford Riegger and Peter Menin and Menotti’s Sebastian Ballet Suite.
If you want to hear how Mitropoulos and his players could launch into a modern symphony with a vengeance, try Roger Sessions’ masterly Symphony No. 2. No hint of that supposed imprecision here (an accusation often levelled at Mitropoulos). I know that Mitropoulos’s New York recording of Vaughan Williams 4 has its fans – it certainly locks on to the sullen, Grim Reaper aspects of the music – but turn to the composer’s own 1937 recording and bolts tighten while a sense of urgency rules throughout, especially in the last two movements. For me there’s no contest between them. Listen then to the Tallis Fantasia and it’s a whole different ball game, especially on the second (and swifter) of the two versions, the New York strings soaked in emotion but without losing dignity. The same might be said for a disc of extracts from Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet ballet, especially the intimate ‘Romeo and Juliet’ scene. Stravinsky’s Petrushka (1911 version) on the other hand wrings us ragged, as if we too were puppets, its brooding melancholy parading hand in hand with bouts of wholesale aggression. As Petrushkas go, this is among the most theatrical on disc.
Talking of theatre, two of the operas included were recorded ‘live’. A 1951 Wozzeck finds Mitropoulos truly on home territory, austere in tone yet a compassionate and deeply perceptive storyteller with Mack Harrell in the title role and Eileen Farrell as Marie, perhaps the most gripping recorded account prior to Abbado’s version for DG. Regarding Barber’s Vanessa William Mann in Gramophone (February 1978) observed, with an innocent pre-PC lack of tact, that ‘it is a women's magazine romance, but not altogether trivial’ adding ‘Vanessa has been enjoyable to listen to, relaxing, escapist, attractive, ‘Never-Never-Land’ opera, closer to Walton's Troilus and Cressida (1954) than Tippett's The Midsummer Marriage (1955), to name two English operas of the same decade’ adding that ‘Rosalind Elias had the lioness's share of the music and responded splendidly at all levels’. All is true though many modern audiences (and critics) will I suspect rate the work more highly than Mann did back in the 1970s.
1955 saw Mitropoulos recordings of Verdi’s A Masked Ball preserved from January and December respectively, the former on a disc of excerpts, the latter a complete ‘live’ Met performance that wasn’t actually released until 2011. Of central interest on both recordings is the charismatic Afro-American contralto Marian Anderson as Ulrica, a fortune-teller, who is ultimately more compelling ‘live’ although for her initial entry at the start of Act 1, Scene 2, she sounds a trifle nervous. Things soon improve however and Mitropoulos’ conducting has a Toscanini-like intensity about it (an impression that’s compounded by the stone-dead Studio 8H-type acoustic). Jan Peerce is a resplendently trumpeting Riccardo on both recordings (Roberta Peters and Zinka Milanov are also common to both) whereas Renato is Leonard Warren (on the excerpts disc) and Robert Merrill (in the ‘live’ performance). Both are superb.
Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov is presented, in English, in the 1874 version (the piano vocal score of 1874 was actually the first published form of the opera) as edited (and abridged) in 1952 by the German-Austrian Jewish composer Karol Rathaus. Mitropoulos conducts with impressive authority and nearly all the famous numbers are there. Giorgio Tozzi makes for an imposing and warm-voiced Boris while other celebrated singers include Charles Kullman, Norman Scott and Nell Rankin. My only gripe is that for the ‘Coronation Scene’ what sounds like a doorbell hardly approximates the clangourous racket you’d hear around the Moscow Kremlin. Many other works are included, not least various shorter ‘showpieces’ virtually all anticipating Leonard Bernstein’s unstinting enthusiasm for the same sort of music. Try Meyerbeer’s ‘Coronation’ March which speeds as if the participants are rocket-fuelled projectiles, or Skalkottas’s exotic-sounding and energetic Greek Dances, just four of them given the full works, a teaser for what could have been … all 36!
So, how best to sum up? Dimitri Mitropoulos was a lone force among twentieth-century conductors, introverted, intensely private (a gay man, he nonetheless felt no need to force a ‘cosmetic’ heterosexual marriage as camouflage), kindly, yet with a will of steel, who would surely have found today’s unapologetic commercialism a cheapening misrepresentation of an art form he so dearly loved and valued. Whatever passing faults one encounters in the course of listening to these recordings (and there aren’t many), one thing remains constant: an unwillingness to compromise for the sake of sugaring the pill. That ‘pill’ is either sweet or it isn’t and Dimitri Mitropoulos’s only concern was that it should be taken to aid spiritual enhancement. In that he was unique, as is his legacy though don’t forget various ‘live’ performances, especially of Mahler symphonies. The present set, which is produced by Robert Russ and enshrines top-notch re-masterings, is sturdily presented with a 187-page hardbacked book, an excellent essay by Gabryel Smith, numerous photographs and exhaustive discographical information.