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Pyotr Il’yich TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony no.5 in E minor, op.64 (1888) [42:46]
Capriccio Italien, op.45 [16:14]
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Dimitri Mitropoulos
rec. Columbia 30th Street Studio, New York; 27 March 1954 (symphony) and 22 April 1957 Capriccio Italien)
GUILD HISTORICAL GHCD 2396 [59:00]

It would be an exaggeration to suggest that the name of Dimitri Mitropoulos has faded into complete obscurity. After all, given the rarity of conductors of Greek origin, it at least enjoys the advantage of sheer memorability. That said, I suspect that, if only because his recordings are only spasmodically reissued and promoted, Mitropoulos remains something of a cult figure to the select few, rather than widely appreciated. A comprehensive Toscanini edition has been available on CD for a couple of decades now. Just this year a complete Fritz Reiner RCA edition has appeared. Stokowski collections proliferate and I hope that it won't be long before someone collects George Szell's Cleveland oeuvre in a box. I wouldn't hold my breath for a Mitropoulos edition.
 
It isn't that he didn't record much. As Stathis A. Arafanis's The complete discography of Dimitri Mitropoulos (Athens, 1990) makes plain, Mitropoulos, whose rather under-characterised bust stands in pride of place outside the headquarters of the Athens State Orchestra (see here http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Dimitris_Mitropoulos_bust_Athens.jpg.) was actually quite at home in recording studios - usually those of the American Columbia label. When the indefatigable John Hunt subsequently compiled his own discography, he significantly included it as part of a volume he entitled Back from the shadows, in which he bracketed Mitropoulos, Mengelberg, Abendroth and van Beinum as conductors in some need of reputational rehabilitation (John Hunt, Back from the shadows ?, 1997).
 
Poor Mitropoulos, by all accounts quite a saintly but personally tortured soul, died too soon. In retrospect, his nine years (1949-1958) as Director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra - billed here under its more formal and cumbersome name - is regarded as artistically distinguished. He was eventually forced into resignation by such venomous critics as the New York Post's Howard Taubman who asserted outright that the conductor had been "overmatched by the requirements of the post" (quoted in Joan Peyser, Leonard Bernstein, London, 1987, p.215). There was, too, an unspoken personal subtext to the criticism: Norman Lebrecht, for one, believes that Mitropoulos was "crucified for his [gay] sexuality rather than his musicality" (Norman Lebrecht, The maestro myth: great conductors in pursuit of power,London, 1991, p.261.)
 
After his departure from New York, Mitropoulos simply had no time to rebuild his reputation before his sudden death just three years later. His successor at the Philharmonic, Leonard Bernstein, was, moreover, a consummate showman with a canny gift for reinvention, self-promotion and PR that soon erased his far less user-friendly predecessor's memory from the public consciousness. Whatever the cause, Mitropoulos's output is unlikely to feature to any great extent these days on most CD collectors' shelves. This Guild release is therefore a welcome opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with his artistry as applied to mainstream repertoire, rather than the more modern works that he personally preferred to programme.
 
From a musical point of view, these performances make a generally positive impression even in a crowded marketplace. The first two movements of the fifth symphony come off particularly well. Mitropoulos exercises an almost tangible degree of control over his players and, within just a few minutes, one gets a clear impression of listening to a group of musicians who are concentrating intensely in a collaborative exercise, especially in slower passages that are, in general, taken very deliberately. Once the opening movement's allegro con anima gets under way, though, Mitropoulos's overall approach clearly puts the stress on the "con anima", for he is purposeful, direct and driven. Those same characteristics are apparent in the slow movement, too, where he resists any temptation to swoop and swoon over Tchaikovsky's full-blooded romanticism. The occasional idiosyncratic slowing down or acceleration adds a distinctive note to hold the listener's attention, as does the conductor's careful control of dynamics. That can be sampled to excellent effect in, for instance, the first 40 seconds of the andante cantabile, a passage which often comes across as no more than a relatively unmemorable introduction to the great romantic horn theme. Here it makes, on the contrary, a striking - if brief - impression in its own right.
 
As Robert Matthew-Walker, author of the useful booklet notes, observes, both the third movement valse and the finale, while perfectly acceptable, fail to maintain the high standard established so far. They come across instead as quite routine and even anonymous, in need, perhaps, of an injection of Mravinsky-style colour and excitement to lift them out of the ordinary. Perhaps that Athens sculptor was listening to this recording as he produced his under-characterised memorial bust?
 
Matters perk up noticeably again, though, with the filler. Capriccio Italien benefits from appropriately sparkling stereo recording and succeeds here in demonstrating what an effective piece it can be. Mitropoulos conducts the score in a way that brings out both its "Italian" and "Russian" elements and the performance is thoroughly engaging. Individual passages - such as 2:41-3:32, where the conductor carefully builds up tension - and the overall achievement are undeniably impressive. Some fifty years ago, on the basis of an uncharacteristically superficial LP account from Constantin Silvestri and the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra (EMI Studio 2 Stereo, TWO 139), I dismissed Capriccio Italien as pot-boiling tosh. This Mitropoulos performance has, I concede, caused me, albeit at an embarrassingly late stage, to at last revise that crass teenage misjudgement.
 
The mid-1950s NYPO was clearly a very competent band. The woodwinds make particularly strong impressions on these recordings, as do the brass - although, just once or twice, I yearned for the knife-like qualities of Soviet style playing to cut dramatically through the orchestration in the way that we associate with the likes of Mravinsky or Svetlanov. The New York violins can, unfortunately, sound a little raw and undernourished at times, too. What of the engineering? The symphony's 1954 mono recording - skilfully remastered, like its coupling, from clearly well-preserved vinyl - initially makes a positive impression. The very opening, for instance, impressively combines rich, full warmth with clarity and plenty of detail. In passages for the full orchestra, however, the sound can become a little congested and opaque in places and important detail - though never entirely lost - is somewhat obscured.
 
To sum up, then, the performance of the symphony is unlikely to top anyone's list. It offers, nonetheless, an interesting opportunity to listen to the work of a gifted - but now sadly overlooked - conductor from what, in retrospect, we can now appreciate as a golden age of recording. 

Rob Maynard

Masterwork Index: Tchaikovsky symphony 5


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