Classical Reissue Reviews

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5; Capriccio Italien – New York Philharmonic/ Dimitri Mitropoulos – Guild

The “fateful” combination of Mitropoulos and the music of Tchaikovsky has a potent restoration in these performances from the 1950s by the New York Philharmonic.

Published on August 3, 2013

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5; Capriccio Italien – New York Philharmonic/ Dimitri Mitropoulos – Guild

TCHAIKOVSKY: Symphony No. 5 in E Minor, Op. 64; Capriccio Italien, Op. 45 – New York Philharmonic/ Dimitri Mitropoulos – Guild GHCD 2396, 59:29 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

As a result of his touring with the New Philharmonic in March 1954, Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960) gave seven performances of the Tchaikovsky 1888 Fifth Symphony, so the recording of 27 March 1954 found both conductor and players in seasoned form. Typical of the passionate Greek conductor’s wont with Romantic repertory, the urgency and forward drive of the music remains pre-eminent, with visceral participation from the New York Philharmonic string, brass, and tympani sections. The woodwinds, too, particularly John Wummer’s flute work, commands our attention. The resonant sweep of the first movement, with its waltz patterns infiltrated by a “fate” motif, projects an epic, bitter-sweet character. Occasionally, the Mitropoulos impetus, too brisk, renders some of the pathos rather glib. But the level of orchestral discipline remains astonishing – leading to a mighty peroration in the coda of the Allegro con anima section –  certainly on a par with the virtuoso ensembles in Boston, Chicago, and Amsterdam.

James Chambers supplies the elegant horn solo that sets the elegiac tone of the Andante cantabile. While Chambers and Mitropoulos would have their differences in the later part of Mitropoulos’ tenure with the Philharmonic, his French horn here combines security of phrase with natural sympathy for the music. The bass fiddle and middle string work conjures up a vast panorama of the Russian soil and soul, again dominated by Tchaikovsky’s ubiquitous sense of tragic, melancholy destiny. The musical phrases emerge in plastically, ardently, and dramatically, rife with that con alcuna licenza Tchaikovsky permits his interpreter, so intrinsic to Mitropoulos’ often idiosyncratic rhythmic sense. Besides the magical, even studied, lyrical ethos Mitropoulos projects in this iconic movement, the clarity of those contrapuntal lines from woodwinds over pizzicati from the strings indicate both the complexity of emotion at hand, and Tchaikovsky’s perpetual wrestling with (German) formal elements of symphonic form.

Did a Florentine folk song – La Pimpinella – really supply the Valse theme of movement three? But even amidst the balletic charms of this relatively bucolic moment, tragic thoughts and elements of dire Fate insinuate themselves, the motto’s intruding by way of the clarinets and bassoons near the coda. Mitropoulos’ pregnant pauses add to the sense of uncertainty and angst at this otherwise festive occasion. The Finale opens with a declamation of the Fate motto in a major mode, developing according to sonata-form principles to what Tchaikovsky means to be triumphant, martial chords in B Major. Tchaikovsky will settle upon E Major in four stunning chords at the coda, but they, too, connote a dark presence.  Happily, Mitropoulos avoids the cuts that plague otherwise potent readings from Sargent and Mengelberg. But the Mitropoulos insistence on lugubriously impending tragedy inhibits his performance from having reached the manic heights attained by Koussevitzky or Mravinsky. Still, the remastered sound from Peter Reynolds often grips us in the manner born of the best Mitropoulos readings, which always command our musical notice.

Tchaikovsky wrote his happy Capriccio Italien in A Major in 1880, his having sojourned to Rome, where he witnessed a carnival in full throttle.  Cavalry barracks songs, street songs, and Italian folk tunes intermingle in the manner of symphonic fantasia. Mitropoulos recorded this firmly stentorian version 22 April 1957. Mitropoulos emphasizes the score’s rather brooding five-minute opening, letting in some Mediterranean sun gradually until cantabile and frisky, playful melodies evolve into general dancing. Before too long, Mitropoulos and his musical gang from ‘murderers’ row” remind us just how much of a virtuoso ensemble they can be when the fires burn. The New York Philharmonic trumpet, woodwind, and battery sections glean full marks for a truly bold series of orchestral colors.

—Gary Lemco

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