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Dimitri Mitropoulos in New York
Johann Sebastian BACH Chorale, Sleepers wake (orch. Eugene Ormandy)* [5’19"]
Carl Maria von WEBER Symphony No 1, op. 19 ** [21’59"]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN Symphony No. 2 in D major, op. 36*** [30’24"]
Johannes BRAHMS Symphony No 2 in D major, Op. 73**** [36’02"]
Hector BERLIOZ Les Nuits d’été Op. 7 ***** [24’45"]
***** Eleanor Steber (soprano)
New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos
Rec. venues not stated, *5 April, 1953; ** 1 April, 1951; ***29 November, 1953; **** 2 November, 1952; ***** 5 April, 1953. Mono ADD
TAHRA 531-532 [58’21" + 67’51"]


This set will be of great interest to all those who, like myself, are admirers of this charismatic conductor.

It is particularly valuable for two reasons. Firstly, apart from the Berlioz, I believe that Mitropoulos made no commercial recordings of these pieces. Secondly, many of his surviving recordings are of the late nineteenth- and twentieth- century repertoire of which he was such a gifted exponent. Here we glimpse him in the staple classical repertoire.

A few words about production values in this set: There’s a useful biographical note in English and French. This covers the whole of the conductor’s life. Personally I’d have welcomed a bit more detail about his period as Music Director of the New York Philharmonic (1950 – 1957) but the notes serve as a good introduction. The recordings are taken from radio broadcasts. To my ears the recordings have been capably re-mastered for CD although inevitably, the sound quality betrays the age of the recordings. However, I found that my ears soon adjusted and there was no barrier to enjoyment of the performances themselves. Most of the performances are followed by applause, which is savagely cut off after a couple of seconds. I actually found this a distraction. If one is going to listen to a live recording I think it’s preferable (and more natural) to hear a few seconds of applause, which is then faded down. However, it may well be that the treatment of the applause is nothing to do with Tahra and was a feature of the original source recordings. In any case, this aspect may not bother other listeners. The venue of the recordings is not stated but I would imagine that all the performances took place in Carnegie Hall, New York. I should also point out one editorial slip. This concerns the Weber symphony where, according to the track listings, the second movement, the andante, lasts 3’38" and the scherzo, which follows, 6’37". In fact the cue point is in the wrong place and the andante, which actually lasts 6’36", runs on into track 4; the scherzo itself takes 3’44". Whilst it’s right to point this out I should say that this little slip will be of no consequence whatsoever unless someone wishes to listen to the scherzo in isolation.

But it’s the quality of the performances that matters most and here there is much to admire. The Bach arrangement is one I’ve not heard before. It’s a very full orchestration, albeit the orchestral texture is built up gradually. Mitropoulos plays the piece in a smooth and steady way, emphasizing grandeur, especially towards the end. This is an arrangement that proclaims its Philadelphian origins but the New Yorkers seem equally at home with it.

The Weber symphony, the first of two that he wrote, is not heard all that frequently either on disc or in the concert hall and I suspect it was an even greater rarity, and therefore an enterprising piece of programme planning, back in 1951. Mitropoulos’s way with the piece reminds us that its composer was, first and foremost, a man of the opera house. He gives a mainly strong and thrusting account of the first movement, though when the music relaxes so does he. The orchestra observes the accents sharply but there is also some perky, affectionate wind playing (for example at CD 1, track 2, 1’55"). The slow movement is atmospheric and darkly dramatic while the performance of the scherzo is full of vigour and rhythmic drive but also displays wit. The bustling finale is given with tremendous vim. Here, as elsewhere, the tuttis sound a bit fierce but I suspect this may be as much to do with the recording as with the playing itself.

The Beethoven symphony receives a big, trenchant reading that often bristles with energy. In Mitropoulos’s hands the first movement begins with a very positive and powerful adagio introduction. Some may find this reading overdone but I wonder if this is Mitropoulos showing us Beethoven, the revolutionary. The main body of the allegro proceeds with great verve and brio – the exposition repeat is not taken. Again, I should warn that some listeners may find this too hard driven. I’m not sure I’d want to listen to this way with the music every day but I find the energy of the music-making stimulating and invigorating, even if the NYPO trumpets can seem a bit overwhelming.

The start of the larghetto features warm, quietly intense playing. Generally Mitropoulos sustains the rather Haydnesque mood of affection, though the climax of the movement is typically emphatic. The scherzo, in which all repeats are observed, has the appropriate amount of fire in its belly. I’ve heard more playful accounts of the music but the rhythms are alert and the trio is nicely phrased. The finale surges along and, once again, accents are observed with needle-point precision. The very end is a bit too forceful for my taste - the brass is pretty fierce – but overall, of its kind, this is a successful, strong performance of the symphony.

The Brahms Second is my personal favourite in the canon. In his definitive biography of the conductor, Priest of Music. The Life of Dimitri Mitropoulos (1995) William R. Trotter quotes many contemporary concert critiques that suggest that Mitropoulos was not a good conductor of standard classical and romantic music. I was fascinated, therefore, to hear what he would make of this symphony. In fact, I enjoyed it very much. The opening of the first movement is nicely relaxed and glowing (despite the best efforts of a bronchial audience, whose coughing is a feature of the whole symphony.) The tempo becomes more flowing when the violins enter at figure A (CD 2, track 1, 1’14") In general the music is phrased warmly. The section between letters G and J (track 1, 5’30 – 7’30") may strike some as being pressed too much but I found it exciting.

In the andante the orchestra is encouraged to sing out and Mitropoulos judges the tempi nicely. The intermezzo is relaxed and genial. The passacaglia finale has plenty of the famed Mitropoulos energy. The pace is consistently urgent and I rather missed a sense of repose where the music calls for it. Here, as throughout the symphony, there’s some marvellously committed playing from the NYPO who make the ending properly exultant. Overall, this performance of the symphony is one of substantial contrasts. I found it satisfying, coherent and enjoyable and a rebuff to those who suggest that Mitropoulos didn’t do "the classics" well.

According to the radio announcer, the performance of Les Nuits d’été was given to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the composer’s birth. William Trotter tells us that this was the first complete performance of the cycle in New York and it (and the Bach) formed part of one of the very first concerts that Mitropoulos conducted on returning to the NYPO podium after his first heart attack. Eleanor Steber was one of Mitropoulos’s favourite artistes and they later set down a studio account of the same work on 21 January, 1954, a reading that Trotter describes as "Lovely. Just lovely." I must say that I wasn’t entirely convinced at the start though the performance grew on me. The first song, ‘Villanelle’ is taken at a rather deliberate pace and this, together with the singer’s strong projection rather robs it of any lightness of touch. I wondered if the projection was simply due to Miss Steber endeavouring to sing out into a large hall, which might make it difficult for her to attempt the sort of subtleties that an artist singing into a studio microphone can attempt. However, comparison with Dame Janet Baker’s 1975 live account from another big hall, London’s Royal Festival Hall (with Giulini, on BBC Legends), shows that Baker was able to find a much greater lightness of touch (and Giulini’s speed is much better judged. Overall I felt Steber missed some playfulness and optimism in the song, as compared not just with Dame Janet but also with Susan Graham, from the modern generation, and the great Régine Crespin.

By contrast, Steber and Mitropoulos are much fleeter in the marvellous second song, ‘Le spectre de la Rose’ and I rather like the flowing tempo. However, Steber is not as languorous as Susan Graham. Steber’s reading lasts just 5’59" whereas Baker and Giulini take all of 8’01". Yet for all its slowness, theirs is a rapt, confiding account. The third song is ‘Sur les Lagunes’. Baker’s is a daring performance, full of half tones and those veiled pianissimi that were such a unique feature of her style. Crespin, who places this song fourth, is regally commanding here. This is the song which, of the three heard to date, suits Steber’s style the best I think. She and Mitropoulos combine to produce a darkly dramatic reading that the song can certainly take.

In ‘L’absence’ we find Crespin full of deep feeling. Graham is the most sensuous and Baker is the most daring, displaying awesome vocal control. Steber‘s singing is very full and dramatic but she also demonstrates a good deal of fine shading and responsive phrasing. Hers is a fine performance. She displays similar virtues in ‘Au cimetière’ and to equally good effect. Finally both she and her conductor catch passionately the surgings of ‘L’île inconnue’. There is just a bit more brio in this account when compared to the Baker performance (where the recording is oddly muffled at the outset.)

All in all, this is a reading that grows in stature as it progresses. The first two songs are eclipsed, I think, by some of Miss Steber’s rivals but the last four songs are all splendidly done, with the histrionic power and imagination of a great opera singer (and a great operatic conductor.)

The recent volume devoted to Mitropoulos in the ‘Great Conductors of the Twentieth Century’ series, which I reviewed recently which I reviewed recently, concentrated mainly on the sort of the music in which he was particularly highly regarded, including a shattering, once-in-a-lifetime Mahler Sixth. This valuable set from Tahra shows us that he could be a considerable conductor of the more standard repertoire too. You may not agree with everything that he does but the commitment, energy and need to make music that drove Dimitri Mitropoulos throughout his career are consistently apparent. The readings are never less than challenging and thought-provoking. They are certainly not dull.

I’m not sure if the aforementioned CBS recording of Les Nuits d’été is currently available and, to the best of my knowledge, there are no recordings of any of the other pieces by this conductor. Thus Tahra put us greatly in their debt with this issue which broadens our view of an extraordinary musician. Sonic limitations do not in any way reduce the listener’s pleasure in and admiration for such characterful music making.

I do hope that Tahra will issue more recordings by Dimitri Mitropoulos. His legendary CBS recording of Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony is languishing in the vaults somewhere. I wonder if there is any chance of Tahra either licensing it or unearthing a contemporaneous radio broadcast? I’d also plead with them to reissue their deleted set of Mitropoulos in Mahler’s Third Symphony, the very last concert that he ever gave. In the meantime this set will be self-recommending to all admirers of this artist and I warmly recommend it also to anyone with an interest in great conducting.

John Quinn

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