MITROPOULOS CONDUCTS MAHLER
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
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.
CD 6 (73:48): Symphony No.9, New York Philharmonic, 23 Jan. 1960
Essay by William R. Trotter. Technical Reconstruction by Maggi
Music and Arts CD 1021 (6 CDs for the price of 4)
Ordering details and Real Audio samples on the Music and Arts web
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
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
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.