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Mitropoulos in Philadelphia
Vitya Vronsky and Victor Babin (piano)
Philadelphia Orchestra, Robin Hood Dell Orchestra of Philadelphia/Dimitri Mitropoulos (piano)
rec. Academy of Music, Philadelphia, 1945-7
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC601 [3 CDs: 212:25]

Here's the rare Pristine Audio release where the music takes precedence over the attentive sonic refurbishing, by the redoubtable Mark Obert-Thorn, no less. Until RCA belatedly issued Arturo Toscanini's Philadelphia Orchestra recordings, many of us hadn't known he'd conducted there at all, since his late career was so strongly associated with New York, Similarly, until this set arrived, I'd not realized that Dimitri Mitropoulos had appeared so frequently in Philadelphia. These are all apparently broadcast airchecks; the "Robin Hood Dell Orchestra" was the ensemble's avatar for its Fairmount Park concerts, but the Academy of Music is listed as the venue for everything included here.

The best items in this collection are arguably the least likely candidates. This account of Max Reger's four B÷cklin tone-poems points up what's wrong with most others. Where German conductors and their fellow-travelers underline the score's knotty harmonies and intricate modulations; Mitropoulos plays the composer's music rather than his reputation; the results are by turns meditative, turbulent, and brooding. The textures are luminous, with the sheen of the Philadelphia strings coming through even the limited monaural sound; the closing Bacchanal's slashing interruptions are especially vivid.

Mitropoulos spent considerable time in the opera pit, both in Italy and at the Metropolitan, and knew his way around the operatic repertoire, of which the four intermezzi offer a taste. The Manon Lescaut perches uneasily between spare Expressionism and vibrant lyricism; the conductor perfectly captures that emotional ambivalence. The Cavalleria unfolds naturally as a simple, flowing cantabile, eschewing the usual grander gestures. The two Wolf-Ferrari extracts are crisp and perky: I particularly enjoyed the second Intermezzo's off-kilter waltz lilt.

I've always had a soft spot for the suite from Menotti's Sebastian: the gracious, elegant Barcarolle was used as daily theme music on my local classical radio station, decades ago. The rest of the suite is more agitated and dissonant, though Mitropoulos keeps the textures pleasingly clear and open. On the other hand, Chopiniana didn't impress me, at least in this arrangement. The Revolutionary ╦tude is barely recognizable as such - those left-hand runs just don't translate to a full string body - and the Heroic Polonaise doesn't scan clearly until the tune arrives. There's also some pitch waver in the Valse brillante.

I'd not put Ibert's Escales on this level, but Mitropoulos brings out neglected aspects of the score, making it sound better than it probably is. Rome has a gentle touch and a nice uplift; the closing Valencia sparkles. The Rosenkavalier selection is oddly chosen, or perhaps I'm simply used to the inauthentic "Waltz Sequences." Mitropoulos feels the weight of the harmonies and brings out secondary detail to unusually pointillistic effect; the farewell trio is particularly tender.

The Mozart concerto isn't ideal: the opening ritornello could use a stronger eighth-note pulse, and Vronsky and Babin tend to push forward in the runs. They do bring a nice delicacy to the recap, and their trills in the Andante are lovely. And there's no arguing with the finale's buoyant, airborne energy. But Mitropoulos seems not entirely at home in the Classical style. The fugue of the Magic Flute overture but the imprecision becomes cumulative as the Allegro continues, though the forward drive is good, with attentive, almost punchy accents. In the Beethoven Symphony, the conductor follows the old-fashioned practice of slowing down for second theme-groups and other lyric episodes; he shapes them with spacious expression, but they still sound out of keeping with the score's general rigor. Mitropoulos also occasionally lets the music rush forward impulsively - there's a particularly bad scramble into the finale's first tutti. The best moments come in the Adagio's magical, extended hush.
The Prokofiev concerto, with the conductor doubling as soloist, is a bit of a surprise: this concerto, unlike those of Mozart, Beethoven, and even Schumann, seems too texturally complex to "conduct itself." In fact, co÷rdination between piano and orchestra - which had to have been functioning on its own much of the time - is mostly fine: there's a single long piano run in the first movement where the basses start to fall behind and then correct. Mitropoulos the soloist, despite a shallow treble, is surprisingly effective: the clattery chordal sequences are uningratiating, but the runs are dazzlingly, almost shockingly clean.

As usual with Pristine, the remastered sonics vary according to the quality of the source material. The woodwind chords in the Wolf-Ferrari come through with surprising presence; there and in the Menotti, the deep, full-bodied brass chords are impressive. In the Ibert, the solo clarinet and oboe are nice and clear, the drums oddly hollow. There's occasional mild distortion elsewhere, though only in the first climax of the Prokofiev does it produce actual breakup. The Reger suffers a little background hiss; the Strauss carries what might be described as background white noise.

The packaging is unexpected - the first two discs in a slimline double jewel case, the last by itself in a standard case - but compact.

Stephen Francis Vasta

CD 1
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
The Magic Flute: Overture (1791) [6:40]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No. 4 in B flat, Op. 60 (1806-7) [33:00]
Max REGER (1873-1916)
Four Tone-Poems after B÷cklin, Op. 128 (1913) [29:35]
CD 2
Jacques IBERT (1890-1962)
Escales (Ports of Call) (1922) [15:30]
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Der Rosenkavalier: Suite (1909-10; 1945?) [23:24]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra in E-flat, K 365 (1775) [23:56]
Giacomo PUCCINI (1858-1924)
Manon Lescaut: Intermezzo (1893) [3:47]
Pietro MASCAGNI (1863-1945)
Cavalleria rusticana: Intermezzo (1890) [3:59]
Ermanno WOLF-FERRARI (1876-1948)
The Jewels of the Madonna: Two Intermezzi (1911) [7:18]
CD 3
Frederic CHOPIN (1810-1849)
Chopiniana (arr. Dmitry Rogal-Levitsky) [22:58]
Gian Carlo MENOTTI (1911-2007)
Sebastian: Ballet Suite (1944) [16:45]
Sergei PROKOFIEV (1891-1953)
Piano Concerto No. 3 in C, Op. 49 (1917-21) [25:47]



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