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Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)
Mitropoulos Conducts Mahler
Symphony No.1 in D major [51:21]
Symphony No. 3 in D minor [78:35]
Symphony No. 5 in C sharp minor [70:32]
Symphony No. 6 in A minor [74:33]
Symphony No. 8 in E flat major [79:48]
Symphony No. 9 in D minor [73:48]
Symphony No. 10 in F sharp minor: Adagio (ed. Jokl) [25:34]
3: Beatrice Krebs (alto)
8: Mimi Coertse (soprano); Hilde Zadek (soprano); Lucretia West (alto); Ira Malaniuk (alto); Giuseppe Zampieri (tenor); Hermann Prey (baritone); Otto Edelmann (bass)
Wiener Sängerknaben; Konzertvereinigung Wiener Staatsoper; Singverein der Gesellschaft der Musikfreunde
New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1, 3, 5, 9 & 10)
WDR (Köln Radio) Orchestra (6)
Wiener Philharmoniker (8)/ Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. 1956-60 (see end of review for details)
MUSIC AND ARTS CD-1021 [6 CDs: 77:04 + 78:35 + 70:32 + 74:33 + 79:48 + 73:48]

Experience Classicsonline

This set, first released in 1998, makes a welcome reappearance in the catalogue, the reissue inspired, perhaps, by the Mahler anniversary celebrations. On several occasions I have reviewed discs that have already been appraised for MusicWeb International by other reviewers. However, on this occasion I approach the task with some trepidation for on opening this box I find that the booklet note consists of nothing less than the 2000 review for MusicWeb by our leading Mahler writer, Tony Duggan. His comments on this set have replaced the note by William R Trotter, the biographer of Mitropoulos, which appeared first time round.

The earliest of the performances here is the Third Symphony. It will be noted that the timing for the whole performance is a mere 78:35 and from that you may well deduce that the score is not presented complete. Alas, that’s the case. Tony Duggan surmises, correctly, I’m sure, that the performance had to be squeezed into the time available for a radio broadcast. As a result, swingeing cuts are made in the first and last movements and some of the speeds Mitropoulos adopts are eccentrically brisk. What a shame that Music & Arts were unable to include instead the Cologne performance that Mitropoulos gave on 31 October 1960 – the very last concert he conducted. That performance presents the score complete and, I’m sure gives a proper representation of his way with the symphony. Moreover, the sung contributions are in German, as they should be, whereas an English translation is used for the New York account. Some idea of the truncation of the score in this New York account can be gained by comparing the timings of the two performances:-

New York
Cologne
I
25:32
34:24
II
7:39
9:11
III
13:35
15:38
IV
8:56
9:23
V
4:31
5:10
VI
18:08
20:47
Total
78:35
94:32


Given these drawbacks you might feel that this mutilated torso of the symphony need not detain us long but I’m not so sure. For one thing the playing of the NYPO is very fine indeed. Furthermore, on reflection perhaps we shouldn’t be too censorious about the cuts or the use of English. If compromises had to be made to accommodate the national radio schedules I wonder if, back in 1956 that wasn’t acceptable; how else would someone living in, say, rural Virginia or Kansas have an opportunity to hear this work? And English may well have been used for the benefit of radio listeners, who would not have access to the text and a translation. As it happens, the 1960 Cologne performance has just been issued on another label and I’ll be reviewing it very shortly so admirers of this conductor can invest in this present box safe in the knowledge that they can now also acquire that complete reading of the score.

The pace at the start of I is pretty brisk and one can’t escape the feeling that the music is being rushed. However, the playing is very fine – the big trombone solo (from 6:03) is excellent. Though I started off being frustrated by the cuts – and remained so – the sheer energy of the performance draws one in. Incidentally, the audience applauds at the end of the movement. The brisk pacing continues into II and here, I’m afraid, the music does suffer: for much of the time the interpretation sounds rather matter of fact and there’s little charm in evidence. However, III is light and lithe and the posthorn solos (from 5:08) are well done, if a trifle hasty. Bernstein’s 1961 recording remains the benchmark here. Beatrice Krebs sings well in IV and Mitropoulos achieves a suitable degree of mystery.

In V, as Tony Duggan comments, it sounds as if the uncredited choir is singing “boing-boing” at the start. The boys’ choir is quite good but the ladies sound a bit matronly and their words are unintelligible. The pace set by the conductor is fresh and lively. Mitropoulos finds nobility and expansiveness in the finale – though here, too, there are cuts – and the orchestral lines are impressively sustained. A lovely flute solo (12:31) paves the way for the trumpets to begin (at 13:17) the ascent to the final apotheosis. Mahler’s great D major ending is imposing and draws an ovation. Despite the obvious drawbacks this performance of the Third is worth hearing.

Chronologically, the next performance is that of the Sixth. I discussed this in some detail in a review in 2004, to which I refer readers, and I haven’t changed my opinion. It’s a shattering account of this symphony though it won’t be to all tastes. Mitropoulos omits the exposition repeat in the first movement, which I regret, but he places the Andante third, which I applaud. There is another Mitropoulos recorded performance available; it comes from 1955 and is a live performance with the NYPO. Tony Duggan prefers the New York account; and, on balance I now agree with him, if only on account of the quality of the NYPO playing However, it should be noted that in 1955 Mitropoulos placed the Andante second – though, consistent with this Cologne performance, he left out the exposition repeat in the first movement. The NYPO offers better playing – the Cologne players are audibly tiring towards the end, though they play with enormous commitment throughout. On the other hand, so far as I know, the 1955 account is only available in a very expensive Mahler boxed set on the NYPO’s own label (review). Since I think the EMI set in which I first encountered this performance is long deleted the attraction of having it in the present Music & Arts box is very great. In his note Tony wonders whether Music & Arts may have re-ordered the second and third movements but I don’t think so. Since Tony wrote that note EMI have also issued this Cologne performance and there too the scherzo comes second. So I suspect both this and the 1955 recording report accurately what Mitropoulos did on each occasion and that he simply changed his mind in the intervening period. And, by the way, I still can’t hear the cowbells in this recording.

Next we have a clutch of recordings of performances given at the New York Philharmonic’s Mahler centenary festival in 1960. The first of these, in order of performance, is the Fifth. There’s tremendous weight and foreboding at the start of I and Mitropoulos sustains the power and drama superbly through what is an electrifying reading of this funeral march. This is a most impressive, doom-laden account of the movement with the NYPO providing high-octane playing. Perhaps the first trumpet’s bright, vibrant tone is too much of a good thing at times - try the passage from 5:32. This remarkable performance of the movement is as searing as I’ve heard; it must have rocked the audience back. The intensity – vehemence, even – is carried over into II. Despite a few rough edges, the NYPO rise to their conductor’s fearsome demands – only a virtuoso orchestra could play the music like this, especially as far back as 1960. When the chorale arrives in all its grandeur (11:04 – 12:14) it’s as if the clouds have parted to reveal a shaft of sunlight after all the preceding angst.

As Tony Duggan very fairly points out, the interpretation goes somewhat awry in III, which is, as he says, a “pivot” in the symphony’s structure. It’s as if the conductor failed to appreciate that the symphony, though in five movements, is cast in three parts, of which the scherzo is the second. Mitropoulos overlooks the qualification ‘nicht zu schnell’ at the head of the movement and sets a fast pace. As a result the music is rather fierce and unsmiling. He does relax occasionally (for example between 2:20 and 3:14) but otherwise it’s all a bit unremitting and there’s little evidence of good humour. The playing is far from flawless in this movement – one wonders if the players were uncomfortable. The important first horn part is very well played, however - sample the passage between 13:24 and 14:35. There are some moments of great exuberance (such as 11:08 – 11:24) and I wonder if this was what Mitropoulos was seeking to convey overall. I’m not sure I’d quite agree with Tony Duggan’s verdict that this reading means that the performance as a whole is “fatally wounded” but it’s still a major disappointment after the first two movements have been touched by greatness.

The famous Adagietto – not, perhaps, quite so famous in those pre-Death in Venice days – is treated very expansively and intensely and the lines are sustained superbly by the NYPO strings. I prefer this movement to flow a bit more but there’s no denying the depth of feeling in this performance. There are plenty of high spirits in V – and more virtuoso playing. This account of the movement is exuberant and dynamic. The reappearance of the chorale (15:14-15:37) is a moment of triumph before the breakneck – but controlled – dash for the finish line. Despite my reservations over the reading of III I’m profoundly glad to have heard this gripping account of the Fifth and especially the shattering performance of its first two movements.

A week later came the performance of the First Symphony. Here, unfortunately, is another example of the insensitivity of at least a section of the New York audience; their bronchial coughing is a serious distraction at times in this performance and in the others. Some coughers do their best to disrupt the pregnant, tense opening of I – but don’t quite succeed. Overall, Mitropoulos sets a good, natural tempo for the main allegro, though there are some instances of point-making where he slows down in a way I don’t entirely care for. The reading of II is a touch on the fierce side and the phrasing of the trio (2:39-5:11) is a bit mannered with a surfeit of little hesitations and surges. The tuning and tone of the double-bass solo at the start of III is rather queasy, though this may be by design, and once again the coughers make their mark. Despite their intrusive contributions, the tension and sense of foreboding that Mitropoulos achieves as Mahler’s canonic treatment of the simple tune builds up is impressive. The ‘Lindenbaum’ episode (5:31-7:08) is well played; the melody on the violins is beautiful, really light in texture and with just the right degree of sentiment.

The finale is indeed ‘Stürmisch’. The music is unleashed like a tornado. The orchestra plays with white hot energy and it’s all hugely exciting. Yet despite the frenetic assault of the music the pace is controlled well. The memorable expansive episode in D flat major (3:48–6:22) is warmly inflected – the NYPO strings are superb hereabouts – but Mitropoulos doesn’t make a meal of the passage and allies ardour with momentum. The reprise of the opening tumult (6:50) is electrifying. The orchestra plays this movement like men possessed – whether the dynamic is pp or fff. The conclusion (from 17:14) is incendiary, though the conductor elongates the tempo a bit more than most from 18:04. The final two chords, which can be something of a damp squib, sound like whip lashes, bringing, to an end a hugely committed, if provocative, reading.

Eight days later Mitropoulos played the Adagio from Mahler’s Tenth – remember, this was before Deryck Cooke’s performing version of the composer’s sketches for the whole symphony saw the light of day. A fine interpretation is compromised somewhat by the contributions of another inconsiderately bronchial audience. I can only concur with Tony Duggan’s view that this is a very good account of the movement and that the NYPO rises to the occasion with some excellent playing – listen to the ripe moment when the horns reinforce the melodic line at 5:10. I think that Simon Rattle, with his fastidious attention to detail, has subsequently brought more light and shade to this music but Mitropoulos’s intensity is compelling; he conducts as if his life depends on it. The great climax (17:41-18:50), with its grinding chords and piercing trumpet, is savage and then the dying away to the end of the piece, superbly managed by Mitropoulos, has genuine pathos – despite the volley of coughing.

The last of these New York performances came a few days later when Mitropoulos gave the Ninth. Tony Duggan is right to praise the clarity achieved by the conductor in the first movement – I presume he refers to clarity of thought as well as musical texture. This amazing movement, in which Mahler pushes the boundaries of nineteenth-century tradition to the limits and beyond, rarely fails to stir me and this performance is certainly stirring – and unsettling. Tony Duggan uses the word “edgy” and the interpretation certainly sounds that way – though I do wonder if the sound quality contributes to that feeling; that’s not a criticism of the transfers, by the way. Perhaps Mitropoulos doesn’t tap the lyrical vein as well as some other conductors do but this is a searching, often combustible reading. This is a gripping traversal of one of the twentieth century’s most profound symphonic movements.

The Ländler is rather too brisk for my taste – to use Tony Duggan’s description of the interpretation of the preceding movement, Mitropoulos’s approach is too ‘edgy’. However, the second waltz (2:03) is better paced and very dynamic. The Rondo-Burleske snarls and spits – here the playing has great bite and virtuosity. I concur with Tony Duggan’s use of the word ‘searing’. At 6:13 the central trumpet-led section finds the conductor relaxing a bit but still one is conscious of powerful tensions running not far below the surface of the music. Later, at 10:42, the return to the rondo itself is expertly prepared and from 12:23 the movement whirls to a close in a stunning display of orchestral pyrotechnics.

In the great concluding Adagio we don’t find Mitropoulos lingering unduly. His is an objective view of the movement, one that’s of a piece with his reading of the rest of the symphony. Just out of interest, however, I got out my copy of Bruno Walter’s celebrated ‘live’ 1938 traversal with the Vienna Philharmonic and, lo and behold, he despatches the movement in a ‘mere’ 18:20 – Mitropoulos takes 21:12. Indeed, it’s striking that Walter’s entire performance runs for 70:13, compared with 73:38 for this New York version. The characters of the respective performances are very different but it’s interesting to note the comparable sense of urgency. Though Mitropoulos’s fairly swift pacing may disconcert the listener at first I find that once you get into it, after a couple of minutes, the strength of his conception is very convincing; there’s often a sweeping urgency that commands attention and respect. From 12:32 there’s tremendous power and ardour in the build-up to the main climax (reached at 13:26) and once the climax is attained there’s no lack of expansiveness in the pages that follow. Equally, in the closing pages (from 18:11) there’s the appropriate expression and spaciousness. Sadly, there’s only a second or so of silence before the applause starts – frankly, the performance deserved better from the audience by way of a more sustained and attentive silence. Overall, while there are unsettling features to the interpretation – indeed, should there not be in this symphony? – this is a conspicuous traversal of the Ninth.

The last of these recordings takes us back to Europe and to the 1960 Salzburg Festival at which Mitropoulos marked the Mahler centenary with a performance of the Eighth Symphony. This recording has been available in various guises down the years, most recently on the bargain Immortal Performances label, in a transfer which I’ve not heard (review), and also in an Orfeo set, which I heard some years ago. This is a performance that’s not without drawbacks – the egregious sound of the (electronic?) organ for one thing – but it also has a great deal going for it. The speeds that Mitropoulos adopts in the first movement are surprisingly steady and I wonder if this was a pragmatic concession by the conductor, given that he was working with large forces, many of whom would have been unfamiliar both with him and with the music. He undoubtedly sacrifices quite a bit of excitement - and I don’t mean superficial excitement, either; Mahler wrote a veritable paean here and I don’t think his conception is quite realised here, lacking some of the electricity and impetus that one has heard in other readings. That said, the sacrifices of speed and headlong excitement are balanced, to some extent, by a gain in nobility and clarity. The solo team register pretty well in the sound-picture and serve the music well while the choirs sing with fervour. It must be said, however, that the ‘Accende’ lacks that essential electric charge at Mitropoulos’s surprisingly conservative tempo. In the last three minutes or so of the movement Mitropoulos invests the music with grandeur, his solo sopranos soaring aloft and coping heroically with his broad tempo. It’s a very individual account of the movement but the performers bring a huge collective fervour to the music, audibly giving their all.

The opening to Part II is broadly conceived and the VPO plays marvellously as Mitropoulos sketches in the musical landscape. Hermann Prey is splendid at ‘Ewiger Wonnebrand’ but in the next solo some of Otto Edelmann’s pitching is decidedly wayward, though he improves as the section unfolds. The passage involving the various choirs of Angels, Blessed Boys and the like comes off well. The tenor, Giuseppe Zampieri sings in a somewhat Italianate style, which one is not used to hearing in this music, though his ardour and the fearlessness with which he approaches Mahler’s demanding tessitura is highly commendable. However, parts of his Marianus solo are taken too fast – for which one must blame the conductor – and, as a result the singing sounds far too emphatic. But at ‘Jungfrau, rein im schönsten Sinne’ his ringing tone is admirable and the tempo is just right. A little later, the gorgeous passage for strings with harp and harmonium – the latter a bit too wheezy in tone – is glowingly played by the VPO.

The female soloists all do well, if not, perhaps, challenging the best we’ve heard on disc over the years – and it’s not clear which of them is singing which part. I presume that as only seven soloists are listed it is one of the two named sopranos who doubles as Mater Gloriosa. Though his timbre is again rather Mediterranean, Zampieri is commanding at ‘Blicket auf’ and from here on the performance catches fire even more with everyone giving of their best. At the very end the recording can scarcely contain the volume of sound. This must have been a great occasion in Salzburg. Some two months later Mitropoulos was dead, felled by a heart attack while rehearsing Mahler’s Third.

I may not agree with every interpretative decision in this set but still I admire Mitropoulos’s work on behalf of Mahler enormously. What we have here is often high octane stuff – there were never any half measures with this conductor – and his Mahler is very often unsettling. But Mitropoulos constantly challenges the listener and even if what we hear on these discs may not accord completely with what has become ‘received wisdom’ about the performance of these scores I’d argue that they are pretty essential listening for anyone who takes Mahler seriously

However, I come away from the set with one or two regrets about what might have been. To the best of my knowledge Mitropoulos never conducted either the ‘Resurrection’ Symphony or Das Lied von der Erde. I’m not entirely sure that Das Lied would have suited his style – though I’d still like to have heard him conduct it – but a Mitropoulos-led ‘Resurrection’ Symphony would have been a pretty combustible experience, I think. The other major regret is that this great conductor died as early as he did. Apart from anything else he might have accomplished had he lived for, say, another decade, he died before Deryck Cooke’s work on Mahler’s sketches for the Tenth Symphony came to fruition. Mitropoulos might have been among the ranks of those conductors who declined to take up the Cooke performing version but, given his inquisitive approach to new music I bet he’d at least have considered performing it. On the basis of the Adagio included in this set he might well have become an early and effective advocate for the Cooke version.

The presentation is up to Music & Arts’ usual standard, which is to say very high. The 1998 transfers by Maggi Payne are very successful. Although we are dealing with sound that’s now at least fifty years old any sonic limitations don’t get in the way of enjoyment and appreciation of the music-making. The essay by Tony Duggan mixes knowledge and expert critical evaluation, as usual, very successfully.

This is a set that deserves a place in any self-respecting Mahler collection. It will challenge some of the ideas we’ve come to have about Mahler interpretation over the last five decades or so. Remember, Mitropoulos was a Mahler pioneer and he was one of those who carved out a path which others followed, not least Bernstein, who succeeded him in New York. As we celebrate the Mahler anniversary in 2011 it’s very good that this important set has been reissued.

John Quinn

Recording details
1: Carnegie Hall, New York, 19 January 1960
3: Carnegie Hall, New York, 15 April 1956
5: Carnegie Hall, New York, 2 January 1960
6: Klaus-von-Bismarck-Saal, WDR, Köln, 31 August 1959
8: Salzburg Festival, Felsenreitschule, Salzburg, 28 August 1960
9: Carnegie Hall, New York, 23 January 1960
10: Carnegie Hall, New York, 17 January 1960

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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