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Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century: Dimitri Mitropoulos
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911): Symphony No 6 in A minor* [74í39"]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869): Roméo et Juliette. Symphonie Dramatique; Op. 17 - Excerpts ** [46í28"]: Introduction; Roméo Seul; Scène díamour; La reine Mab, ou la fée des songes; Roméo au tombeau des Capulets
Claude DEBUSSY (1862-1918): La Mer*** [22í36"]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949): Salome: Dance of the Seven Veils**** [8í49"]
*WDR Sinfonieorchester Köln (Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester)
New York Philharmonic Orchestra
Conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos
Rec. *Klaus-von-Bismark Saal, WDR, Cologne, 31 August 1959; 30th Street Studios, New York, **22 October 1952; ***27 November 1950; *****3 November 1956. ADD

The IMP/EMI series celebrating giants of the podium has been somewhat mixed and I think there have been several missed opportunities. In general I regret that more examples of Ďliveí recordings were not included and that much of the material that has been issued is or has been relatively easy to obtain on CD already. Most of the chosen conductors have been musicians fully worthy of inclusion in such a series but a couple of the choices have just been baffling.

Let me nail my colours to the mast at once and say that I believe that this present issue is one of the very best and most important in the series to date. Indeed, it may be the very best so far issued. I say this for several reasons. Firstly, though Dimitri Mitropoulos was something of a flawed genius, in music to which he was suited he was inspirational: truly a great conductor. Secondly, this release restores to general circulation several performances long absent from the catalogue. Finally, as I hope to show, the quality of the music making is very high and, in the case of one work, the recorded performance is unsurpassed in my experience.

To begin, as it were, at the end. The short Strauss item is a tantalizing glimpse of Mitropoulos in the opera house. Towards the end of his tenure at the NYPO he began an association with the Metropolitan Opera and indeed it was with Salome that he made a sensational house debut in 1954, confirming his enormous theatrical flair. Though Iím a great admirer of Straussís music I must say I regard this particular item as somewhat egregious. However, Mitropoulos adopts the only possible course and plays it for all itís worth. The recording is a bit close and brash but the performance is a vivid one and the conductor obtains some passionate playing. This recording was set down during his last full season at the helm of the NYPO Ė he resigned just a year later.

The account of La Mer may not be to all tastes. You will look in vain for the kind of subtlety that, say, Bernard Haitink brings to this score. In his very good notes Michael Tanner memorably characterizes the performance as "highly individual, more fire than water." The lines are sharply profiled and rhythms are always strongly articulated in an interpretation of great urgency. There are no washes of impressionist sound here. Instead in De líaube à midi sur la mer what we get is a warm Mediterranean vista, bathed in hot sunshine under predominantly clear skies. In Jeux de vagues you can almost see the white horses during a performance of abundant inner energy. The start of Dialogue du vent et de la mer is really biting Ė every accent counts. The rest of the movement is tremendously dramatic; the music is storm-tossed and thrillingly articulated. This is not a performance of La Mer for every day but, on its own terms, itís very exciting.

The set contains another major French piece in the shape of extended excerpts from Roméo et Juliette by Berlioz. This recording was made following concert performances and confirms that the music of Berlioz was eminently suited to Mitropoulos. Its colour, rhythmic vitality and unconventional sonorities must have appealed to him enormously. The excerpts given here just make me regret that apparently he didnít record the whole symphony.

The Introduction is turbulent Ė some may find it hard-driven. At the start of Roméo seul he conveys the longing and melancholy beautifully, obtaining some refined playing from the NYPO strings. Later the Capuletís Ball is a headlong, whirling, kaleidoscopic affair. The magical opening of the wonderful Scène díamour is not quite as hushed and perfumed as one might wish (the recording is balanced too closely for one thing.) However, the performance is splendidly atmospheric with every strand clearly laid out. The music moves at just the right pace. When Berlioz calls for it thereís burning ardour. Elsewhere the emotion is below the surface but just as evident. When we reach the exquisite, long-breathed and plangent song for the woodwind (track 3, 6í22") it may be felt that the pace is a little brisk (Sir Colin Davis, for one, is more yielding here.) However, it seems to me that this is consistent with Mitropoulosís urgent conception and I think the music can take it. Towards the end (13í19") his reading is headstrong and impulsive but, after all, Berlioz is depicting teenage lovers here.

The Queen Mab scherzo is gossamer light, as quicksilver as you could wish. Mitropoulos leads a performance that is fantastic (in the true sense) and alive. At the close of this selection Roméo au tombeau des Capulets is sharply etched and searingly dramatic. To summarize the whole performance Iíd say that this is not the only way to play this wonderful music but the Greek maestroís reading is incandescent, charismatic and highly involving.

This description applies even more to the performance that completes this anthology. If the music of Berlioz suited Mitropoulos down to the ground then he was surely born to conduct Mahler. James Chambers, principal horn of the NYPO between 1946 and 1969 has written of Mitropoulos in Mahler that "there was a remarkable conformity in style between composer and conductor." I donít think this conductor has really received his due for the part he played in the propagation of Mahlerís music after the Second World War. Among his many achievements on the composerís behalf were the first recording of the First Symphony (with the Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra in 1940) and the American première of the Sixth with the NYPO in 1947 (in a concert when he also programmed, incongruously, the Gershwin Piano Concerto!). All the recordings of him in Mahler that Iíve heard display an enormous talent for laying out cogently and dynamically the enormous, potentially sprawling structures and for playing Mahlerís complex scores with penetrating clarity. The colour, drama and sheer theatricality of Mahlerís symphonic canvasses must have appealed to him strongly and he did them full justice. (Iím amazed that he appears never to have conducted the ĎResurrectioní Symphony.)

This Cologne performance came during a busy time for him. Only a few days earlier in Salzburg he had conducted a visionary performance of Franz Schmidtís oratorio Das Buch mit Sieben Siegeln (once available on Sony Classics SM2K 68442 and well worth seeking out if you can still find a copy.) Iím not sure that heíd ever conducted the Cologne orchestra before but on the evidence of this performance there was a great rapport between conductor and players. As it happens an earlier Mitropoulos performance of this symphony is available on CD. This is a reading from April 1955 with the NYPO but itís only available as part of the lavish boxed set "The Mahler Broadcasts" issued by the orchestra a few years ago. I was bowled over by that performance when I acquired the set but I think in some ways this Cologne account is even finer; itís preserved in better sound and, of course, itís much more readily accessible to collectors.

One or two textual points are worth noting. As was the case in 1955, Mitropoulos omits the first movement exposition repeat, which I rather regret, especially when the reading is so fine. However, thereís a major change from 1955 in that, this time around, Mitropoulos plays the andante third (which I very much prefer). The other notable point concerns the cowbells that Mahler used as additional colour in the nostalgic episodes in all movements except the scherzo. Iíve listened carefully, using headphones as well, and canít hear these bells at all in either the 1955 recording or this one (the celesta, on the other hand, is perfectly audible both times.) Iím as certain as I can be that Mitropoulos omits them. Why he should do this is unclear for the score Iíve used to follow the performance doesnít indicate that they are optional and Iíve never known them to be omitted in any other performance Iíve heard.

Despite the fact that the period when Mahler wrote this symphony (in the summers of 1903 and 1904) was a happy time in his life it is, as Michael Steinberg so aptly puts it, "a work imbued with a tragic vision." It seems to me that Mitropoulos realises this vision magnificently. His tempo for the march theme of the first movement is steady and purposeful. Itís not as slow as Barbirolliís rather weary trudge but itís nowhere near as fast as the hectic pace adopted by Bernstein in his first, New York recording (I havenít heard his later remake.) To me Mitropoulos seems to judge the speed admirably and in his hands the music sounds, as Mahler marked it, "vehement but sturdy" ("heftig, aber markig.") Later the theme associated with Alma Mahler soars passionately. What is behind the closing pages of this movement? Superficially the music can sound abandoned and exultant. I donít hear that in this instance (unlike, say, Bernsteinís extrovert close at a much faster speed) and I think the ambiguity that Mitropoulos conveys is appropriate.

The scherzo is marked "Wuchtig" ("weighty"). Mitropoulos achieves that but he ensures that the rhythms have life and spring so that the music never sounds ponderous. This is a strong, purposeful reading in which Mahlerís grotesqueries are tellingly realized. Iím sure Mitropoulos was right to change his mind about the ordering of these two middle movements. There is a strong relationship of key and musical material between the first movement and the scherzo. Just as importantly, if the andante is placed third the listener is given something of a (very necessary) emotional respite before the finale. Here Mitropoulos does the tranquil passages of the andante, such as the opening four minutes or so, very well indeed, proving that he could respond successfully to lyrical music as well as more dramatic pieces. However, as the tension and intensity begin to increase, the conductor moves with the music and the extended, passionate climactic passage between 10í38" and 13í36" is breathtaking in its ardour. In the closing pages the music dies away beautifully with a lovely, poignant clarinet solo.

If what has gone before is extremely fine, the account of the massive finale is devastating. The orchestra plays out of their skins and cope heroically with the strenuous demands made upon them by both composer and conductor. There are a few fluffed notes in the brass but these are minor blemishes and, indeed, they heighten the sense of musicians giving their all. The performance is overwhelming but it never descends into hysteria.

Iím not sure what instrument(s) Mitropoulos used for the famous hammer blows. This is a most difficult effect to bring off and I donít think it quite works here (nor in the New York account either, for that matter.) I suspect that the hammer blows are achieved "merely" on a bass drum. The first blow (12í43") doesnít really register as it might. The second (17í29") is better (and more telling than in New York). What really matters, however, is that this second blow prefaces a musical catharsis in the pages that follow and in this performance it sound as if the notes are being torn out of the players. In the minutes that follow the second hammer blow we hear playing of white hot, molten intensity. True, the brass players do rather force their tone a bit but this can be forgiven in the passion of the moment. Ironically, the controversial third hammer blow (controversial because Mahler had second thoughts about its inclusion and not every conductor plays it) is the clearest of the three on this occasion. Mitropoulosís rendition of the doom-laden coda that follows leaves the listener looking into the abyss. Thank goodness that there is no applause to break the spell (this was a live studio recording but there are no sounds to indicate the presence of an audience.)

This is a unique document. Itís quite the most shattering performance of this incredible symphony that Iíve ever heard (or hope to hear.) By reason of the very intensity that informs it from first to last it may not appeal to all listeners. It is an unashamedly subjective traversal and those who prefer a more objective stance may not respond as positively as I did. I can only say, borrowing Michael Kennedyís felicitous phrase in reviewing a performance led by Haitink at the 2003 Proms, that I was "left drained yet elated by this devastating masterpiece of a symphony."

The Mahler is the highlight of the set but the whole anthology offers examples of great, inspirational conducting. This is music making that demands to be heard and I can only recommend this set with the greatest possible enthusiasm.

John Quinn


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