The Art of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Vol. 2 = Works of MAHLER, PROKOFIEV, VAUGAHN WILLIAMS, LALO, BACH, SCHOENBERG – Music & Arts (4 CDs)

by | Sep 23, 2008 | Classical Reissue Reviews | 0 comments

The Art of Dimitri Mitropoulos, Vol. 2 = MAHLER: Symphony No. 6 in A Minor, “Tragic”; PROKOFIEV: Piano Concerto No. 2 in G Minor, OP. 16; Piano Concerto No. 3 in C Major, Op. 26; BACH: Brandenburg Concerto No. 5 in D, BWV 1050; LALO: Symphonie Espagnole, Op. 21; VAUGHAN WILLIAMS: Symphony No. 4 in F Minor; SCHOENBERG: String Quartet No. 2 in F-sharp Minor, Op. 10; Erwartung, Op. 17 – Dorothy Dow, soprano/Astrid Varnay, soprano (Schoenberg, Op. 10)/Zino Francescatti, violin/Pietro Scarpini, piano (Prokofiev, Op. 16)/ Carmine Coppola, flute/Mischa Mischakoff, violin (Bach)/NBC Symphony Orchestra (Bach, Schoenberg Op. 10, Prokofiev Op. 26)/New York Philharmonic/Dimitri Mitropoulos, piano and conductor

Music & Arts CD 1214, (4 CDs) 74:07; 76:46; 64:35; 57:34 [Distrib. by Albany] *****:

The second in two 4-CD sets devoted to the Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960) emphasizes his vigorous advocacy of modern scores, along with examples of his instrumental prowess at the keyboard and tenacious support for selected guest soloists. Mitropoulos’ legendary keyboard abilities, refined by studies with Paul Gilson and Ferruccio Busoni, had their golden opportunity to assert themselves when Mitropoulos had to replace Egon Petri in the Prokofiev Third Concerto in 1930 Berlin, which Mitropoulos then led from the piano, a feat he immortalized on CBS records with the Philadelphia summer orchestra in 1946. We hear his live performance from NBC in this colorful, virtuoso warhorse, and again in the Bach Brandenburg Fifth Concerto from the same concert, 16 December 1945.

Mitropoulos opens with a staggering, superheated Mahler Sixth (10 April 1955), a work he first introduced to the United States in 1947, to a mixed critical reception. The 1955 realization has the typical earmarks of the Mitropoulos approach: committed, explosive, excruciatingly poignant, and unsentimental. Mitropoulos opts to place the Andante moderato second, a choice obviously not etched in stone, since his later WDR appearance put the slow movement after the Scherzo, which wins nods from self-styled Mahler scholars. The energized, focused quality of the Philharmonic string, wind, and brass choirs warrants praise, especially as French horn James Chambers occasionally spited Mitropoulos in performance. Compare Mitropoulos’ Andante to virtually any other conductor’s for vitality, searing intimacy, and cosmic exaltation–where even the cowbells assume a haunted grandeur–and you appreciate his feral absorption of the Viennese Mahler style while confronting Mahler’s Gothic and grotesque elements without false modesty. The Scherzo indeed unleashes a series of controlled, militant paroxysms, hair-raising in their ardent ferocity. The ingenuous laendler that follows, while still reeling from a bass or tympanic tremor, manages life-affirming gestures with an ironic smile. Out of a sea of strings and harps, the apocalyptic Finale: Allegro moderato emerges; and whether it is wreathed Triton or Gabriel at the trumpet depends on your creed. We might be witnesses to both the creation and destruction of the world: something of William Blake’s cosmology invests the music and its driven interpreter. The relaxed moments suggest a Korngold movie score, the frenzied episodes the more suggestively titled When Worlds Collide. After the 29-minute finale reaches its “three hammer-strokes of fate,” we feel spent, as though Mahler’s furies had pounded us into submission.

Mitropoulos’ execution of the keyboard part of the Brandenburg Fifth with the NBC quite jolts our expectations of gentility in this score, as he, Coppola, and Mischakoff play the piece for its synthesis of exuberance and bravura. Whether the approach savors of Gallic or Teutonic impulses–Alfred Cortot or Edwin Fischer–seems moot in the face of the expressive symmetry the concertino achieves, especially in the intensely wrought Affettuoso slow movement. The jaunty Allegro finale suffers some muddy sonics occasionaly, but the spirited reading enjoys an electric charge in its perky, martial affect that quite compels our admiration. The Prokofiev C Major Concerto with the NBC Symphony and Mitropoulos at the keyboard seethes with muscular energy at every bar, the whirlwind runs and scampering block chords no obstacle to the progress of the Mitropoulos musical line.  As he can render percussive effects, so too can Mitropoulos lull his piano into feline purrs and elastic, if sinewy, arias.  A colossal mix of technique and sonorities takes us to the recap of the first movement, Mitropoulos’ digital prowess as awesome as the singular pulse that guides the witches’ brew to a demonized conclusion. Brittle, detached sonority for the Tema con variazioni, the impetus explosive, but still compelling and lyrical at once. Anyone hearing the toccata-like variation over the thumping tympani and battery would swear the composer or Byron Janis were at work, so fleet is the keyboard filigree as coordinated with the responsive NBC players. The last movement combines gristle, wit, and cantabile elegance into one whirlwind package, a tour de force of uninhibited virtuosity.

A confirmed devotee of violinist Zino Francescatti (1902-1991), I applaud the availability of his Lalo Symphonie Espagnole in D Minor (3 April 1955) with Mitropoulos, which they would inscribe commercially for CBS in 1957. I must regret that Francescatti’s lovely Hart Stradivarius could not find its way to the work’s Intermezzo movement, which Francescatti eschewed. But his vibrant tone, his swivel-hipped application of bow pressure and lean, fast vibrato does wonders to sell this erotically charged performance. He and Mitropoulos always make a spectacular, excited team, and their collaboration on the Tchaikovsky Concerto still ranks among my personal desert-island selections. The pyrotechnics of the final Rondo provide any number of inspired colors and pasa dobles, a veritable Iberian banquet of sound.

Italian piano virtuoso Pietro Scarpini (1911-1997) possessed a large repertory, but it was his devotion to modernist scores that enshrines him among major keyboard musicians. He and Mitropoulos originally met in Florence, and Mitropoulos invited Scarpini to New York for the Prokofiev G Minor Concerto (7 November 1954), recorded with thrilling presence that belies its fifty-plus years of age. Much of the keyboard writing punches and jabs at the instrument, non-legato, but there are a few melodies strewn among the rhythmic shards that slice the air with angular precision.  The first movement cadenza blazes with sarcastic and self-confident illumination, the orchestra’s sweeping in upon a series if ignited runs and clamorous hallucinations on the opening materials. A lithely tempestuous Scherzo leads to the declamatory, savage, even ponderous Intermezzo, elephants alternately plodding and ice-skating, though some of the melodic figures adumbrate the lugubrious march of the Finale. This mighty toccata tumbles out head first, pianist and conductor throwing patches of jagged color at each other in Herculean eddies. Often cyclonic, the music nevertheless insists, like Yeats, that “a terrible beauty is born.” On its own terms, this collaboration never deviates from its immense authority on the part of all principals.

Though I often disagreed with the taste of radio host Jim Svedja of “The Record Shelf,”  I had to agree that the 1956 Mitropoulos CBS version of Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony (ML 5158) to be a perfect fit of emotionally wrought music and a thoroughly sympathetic interpreter. Here (5 April 1953) Mitropoulos adopts a slower tempo to the opening Allegro first movement than in his commercial inscription, but the monumentality of grinding forces gains in girth and dire authority. The few expressive moments this titanic struggle permits itself shine with tragic presence under Mitropoulos, the music proceeding like the terrible arch of a fatal arrow. The impetus for this purposeful reading never wavers, the somewhat melodic Andante achieving a firm resolve, only to be battered by the emotional storms of the final two movements.  The frenzy accelerates to a point of fearful asymmetry, Mitropoulos once more playing with musical critical mass. After the Prokofiev Concerto, the Vaughan Williams comes as an after-nightmare, ferocious, ineluctable, catastrophic. We reach for our brows in desperation only to find our heads missing.

Finally, we savor the last disc, that celebrates Mitropoulos’ long dedication to the music of pioneer Arnold Schoenberg.  Urania had prior brought out the orchestral transcription performance of the 1908 Second Quartet (13 December 1945) with the NBC Symphony. Often reminiscent of both Tristan and his own Verklaerte Nacht, Schoenberg’s grimly dark and chromatic music proceeds like a typical Viennese nightmare which Mitropoulos confronts without restraint. As ready to embrace the experimental and Gothic as was Scherchen, Mitropoulos releases all sorts of evil vapors (and a drinking song) from the Scherzo (Sehr rasch), which does try for some gallows humor, some aerial, waltzing effects that Hindemith might find mirthful.  Two poems by Stefan George occupy the latter two movements, “Litany” and “Rapture.” Wagnerian soprano Astrid Varnay (1918-2006) tries to impose some semblance of humanity into these dire and eerie lyrics, which some speculate parallel Schoenberg’s domestic frustrations with his errant wife. The music’s underlying, heavy-breathing hysteria likely conveys what the words fail to realize, even in their ecstatic agony.  The atonal “monodrama” Erwartung, Op. 17 (18 November 1951), with words by Marie Pappenheim, recounts a woman’s anguished-filled “expectation” of meeting her lover, only to discover his dead body in the forest. Dorothy Dow does her best to bring conviction to Schoenberg’s awkward dramatic vehicle; but what endures of this 28-minute ode to self-indulgence is Mitropoulos’ unrelenting attention to orchestral color, his deep conviction that as a conductor, he had to be “a kind of prostitute. . .giving oneself to all sorts of music.”

— Gary Lemco


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