I’m a great admirer
of Dimitri Mitropoulos who, on his day and in the right repertoire,
could be an inspiring conductor so I’m glad to find some of
his recordings comprising one of the first releases in Sony
Classical’s new series. Prokofiev was a composer in whose
music the Greek maestro often excelled – he quite a few times
gave performances of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto in which
he not only conducted but also played the solo part! So it’s
good that the bulk of this disc is given over to Prokofiev’s
The odd piece
out, so to speak, Mussorgsky’s Gothic orchestral showpiece,
receives a cracking reading. This performance, which was set
down at the same session as the Romeo and Juliet pieces,
is viscerally exciting, featuring some edge-of-the-seat playing
from the NYPO strings and brass playing of real bite and presence.
Mitropoulos doesn’t just excel in the extrovert passages,
however. The last three minutes or so convey a real feel of
“all passion spent”. This quiet ending includes wonderfully
phrased clarinet and flute solos. It’s a tumultuous account
of an old warhorse.
Kijé Suite is also done well. The opening movement is
splendidly spiky. ‘Romance’ includes a double bass solo in
which the pitch is occasionally a little democratic but the
solo has a nice sleazy air to it, as does the later saxophone
solo. The movement as a whole is suitably affectionate. ‘Kijé’s
Wedding’ gets a delightfully tongue-in-cheek reading and the
music is tossed off insouciantly. The famous ‘Troika’ bowls
along over the snow in splendid style and the final movement,
which I’ve always known as ‘The Death of Kijé’ is sardonic
but with a nice touch of pathos. You realise, listening to
this, that Prokofiev has made us rather fond of the non-existent
lieutenant. This is the oldest recording on the CD and it’s
in mono. The sound is a bit close, as was often the wont of
CBS in those days, but it’s perfectly acceptable and, to be
honest, wears its years quite lightly.
The main offering
consists of nine excerpts from the first two of the three
suites that Prokofiev extracted from his wonderful ballet
score. I should say at once that this is a very good performance.
However, I thought I should make a comparison and in this
music there really is only one comparison, namely the
superb set of extracts recorded by Karel Ančerl and the
Czech Philharmonic. Their recording was roughly contemporaneous
with the Mitropoulos account – Ančerl’s version was set
down in August 1959 – and there are seven pieces in common.
The Ančerl recording is currently available on Supraphon’s
Karel Ančerl Gold Edition (see review).
and Capulets’, the opening grinding dissonances are superb
under Mitropoulos. However, the hushed string chords that
follow really aren’t hushed at all here. Turn to Ančerl,
who takes the passage more slowly, and the first thing you
notice is that the dissonances are even more strident, with
a sforzando at each terraced brass entry. The strings
are almost inaudible when they enter but every detail registers
and these short quiet passages are pregnant with atmosphere.
Both conductors articulate the swagger of the syncopated music
that follows – the ‘Knight’s Dance’ in the full ballet – very
good in the portrait of Juliet as a young girl but for me
Ančerl, at a more fleet speed, conveys even more convincingly
an image of the innocent, breathless excitement and vivacity
of the young heroine. Mitropoulos does the ‘Folk Dance’ well
but when we get to the movement more usually known simply
as ‘Masks’ Ančerl just seems to offer that little telling
bit of extra characterisation. The Greek conductor sounds
a bit heavy by comparison and it’s his Czech counterpart who
really reminds us that here we have two carefree young men
out for a night on the town.
In the hands of
Mitropoulos the ‘Balcony Scene’ glows splendidly. The music
surges passionately. I think, to be honest, that the Czech
Philharmonic plays with the greater degree of finesse in the
quieter passages but there’s no doubt that Mitropoulos inspires
some ardent playing from his New Yorkers. I ought to mention
a couple of oddities of balance in the CBS/Sony recording
of this movement. At 0:35 there’s a very short passage in
the first violin part that registers with startling, and quite
inappropriate, prominence. That must have been a momentary
error by the original balance engineer, I feel sure. What
listeners may find a bit more disconcerting in this movement,
and in one or two other places, is the very forward balance
of the saxophone. The sound that the player makes is a bit
too redolent of a Big Band for my taste.
predictably exciting and thrusting in the fight scene that
begins ‘The Death of Tybalt’. His strings really dig in and
the sparks fly. Later the huge funeral cortège is powerfully
intense. Yet, put Ančerl’s disc into your player and
you’ll hear something very special here. He takes the fight
at a much faster tempo, with thrilling results, and the corporate
virtuosity of the CPO players is something at which to marvel.
I was surprised to find, in fact, that it’s Ančerl, rather
than the famously dynamic Greek, who conducts like a man possessed.
Ančerl also scores a small but telling point over his
rival by making a crescendo on the last few of the fifteen
hammered chords that precede the cortège. I think that by
a whisker I prefer the slightly broader tempo that Mitropoulos
adopts for the cortège itself but Ančerl is shatteringly
intense and at the climax his first trumpet cuts through the
texture like a knife.
‘Romeo and Juliet before Parting’ very well indeed though,
once again, some may find the saxophone intrusive. Ančerl
is simply inspired here and his Czech orchestra plays superbly
but the New York account will give great satisfaction. I like
the affectionate portrait of Friar Laurence that Mitropoulos
paints. ‘Romeo at Juliet’s Tomb’ is heartrendingly intense.
Ančerl’s basic tempo for this movement is daringly slow
– he takes 7:29 against 5:55 in the Mitropoulos version. I
must admit that I do wonder if, at this speed, Ančerl’s
breadth isn’t just a little too much of a good thing; could
one dance to the music at this speed? Nonetheless his performance
is a very special experience.
As a strong admirer
of Mitropoulos I’m sorry that his traversal of Romeo and
Juliet yields on a number of points to the Ančerl
version but then the Czech version is, quite simply, one of
the very greatest Prokofiev recordings I’ve ever heard. If
you must restrict yourself to just one recording of extracts
from this great score I’d have to advise you to opt for Ančerl
but I should also say that I find the Mitropoulos “fillers”
much more enticing than the Peter and the Wolf that
One or two oddities
of balance apart, the old CBS recordings have come up very
well. The documentation consists of the original sleeve notes
for the Mussorgsky and for Romeo and Juliet and in
the latter case the notes include the extracts from the Shakespeare
play to which the music refers. Bizarrely, however, there
are no notes whatsoever about Lieutenant Kijé.
was a very special conductor and the contents of this CD show
his inspirational talents off to very good advantage. I hope
Sony will follow this with more reissues of his recordings
in this series. Could I put in a special plea for his recordings
of Symphonie Fantastique and Shostakovich’s Tenth symphony?
However, for now this CD is very welcome indeed and I’m very
happy to recommend it. But do try to hear Ančerl as well
in Romeo and Juliet.