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Dmitri SHOSTAKOVICH (1906-1975): Symphony No 5 in D minor, Op. 47 [45’18"]
Alexander SCRIABIN (1872-1915): The Poem of Ecstasy * [18’40"]
New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos
Recorded: 1 December 1952 and *20 March 1953
URANIA RM 11.908 [64’03"]

In the foreword to his definitive biography of the conductor, Priest of Music. The Life of Dimitri Mitropoulos (1995) William R. Trotter points out that when the Greek conductor died in 1960 the American catalogue contained over one hundred commercial recordings conducted by him, mainly a legacy of his time as Conductor and then Music Director of the NYPO (1949 – 1957). Within a decade this number had fallen to a mere dozen. The situation has improved somewhat in recent years, mainly through off-air recordings coming onto the market. Only last year Mitropoulos was the subject of one of the volumes in EMI’s Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century series – one of the best in that series. Nonetheless, the work of this charismatic if uneven maestro is still under- represented in the catalogue so additions to his recorded legacy are welcome.

Unfortunately, beyond giving the dates of the recordings and the artist details, Urania provide no documentation whatsoever – a deplorable omission – so it’s not possible to comment on the sources of these recordings. I’m not aware that Mitropoulos made commercial recordings of either of these two works and I am as certain as I can be that they derive from air checks of public concerts, probably in Carnegie Hall. However, there’s no applause at the end of either performance, nor is it possible to distinguish audience noise during the performances. The date of the Shostakovich performance may well be correct (if so, it took place just a few days before the conductor suffered his first heart attack on December 7 1952. However, if one is to go by Tanner’s scrupulously researched book, the date of the Scriabin performance cannot be as stated for Mitropoulos’s comeback concert after that heart attack took place on 2 April 1953 (a programme that did not include the Scriabin, incidentally.) Unfortunately Tanner does not include a full discography in his book. However, he does list a few standout recordings. These include a performance of this same work dated 19 April 1953, which at the time of his book was available on CD as AS Disc 506. I wonder if that’s the same performance?

Leaving aside issues of attribution, what of the performances themselves? Well, as ever with this conductor, they will not appeal to all tastes but I find them pretty amazing. The recorded sound for the Shostakovich calls for quite some tolerance. Louder passages are usually rather strident and shrill (not entirely inappropriate in this music) and the finale in particular suffers from compression in the tuttis. However, even through the mediocre sound the quality of the music making shines through. Mitropoulos did not enjoy a smooth relationship with the New York Philharmonic but there’s some real edge-of-seat playing here, even if some technical frailties are also evident. My listening notes are peppered with terms such as "white hot", "passionate", "committed" and the like. The whole symphony is driven forward with great urgency and strength. There’s a palpable sense of rugged power in the first movement and the sardonic humour of the second movement is well conveyed at a tempo that is quite measured (but which imparts extra weight thereby.) The reading of the slow movement can only be described as towering and elemental, releasing great energy. Let me not give the impression, however, that it is in any way bombastic or crude; here, as in the first movement, the quieter passages are done with some refinement. This is especially true of the reflective close of the third movement (from 11’51"). The recording is at its crudest in the finale where there are a couple of unpleasant patches of distortion that are due to faulty masters, However, the poor sound can’t altogether disguise a scorching, coruscating reading of the movement.

This, then, is a performance of white-hot tension and emotion in which the music fairly seems to leap off the page. Yet Mitropoulos does nothing but play what’s in the score – but he plays it for all it’s worth in a no-holds-barred interpretation that must have been overpowering in the concert hall.

The Scriabin is a hedonistic musical hothouse. Once again Mitropoulos appears to pour himself into the music without restraint. I find it more difficult to judge this performance on account of the limitations of the recording. This is because Scriabin’s orchestration is significantly more prolix than that of Shostakovich and there really is not much inner detail distinguishable here. If one is to make sense of a performance of this piece then well detailed modern sound is really essential. However, one can discern the shape and sweeping drive of the performance, which is pretty immense. You may think, as I do, that as music the work is completely over the top but here it receives a molten, surging performance from a conductor to whom it was clearly well suited. The concluding, orgiastic climax was obviously tremendous but it would be idle to pretend that the recording does not compromise it. However, this was quite clearly an incandescent, not to say incendiary performance.

This is a CD which scores low marks on sound quality and no marks at all for documentation. However, the performances are of great interest and in particular they will be mandatory listening for admirers of this extraordinary conductor. For his account of the Shostakovich in particular I think it’s worthwhile putting up with fairly poor sound. I would recommend intending purchasers to sample the disc before buying. However, if you can take the sound there’s some remarkable music making here.

John Quinn


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