Music & Arts CD-1213, (4 CDs) 57:35; 70:53; 77:32; 72:54 [Distrib. by Albany] *****:
The first of two extensive sets devoted to the Greek conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896-1960) contains materials both new and recycled, but musically ever fascinating. I had been a graduate student at SUNY Binghamton (no “p” as in the liner notes) when the 23 February 1957 performance of the Beethoven Third Concerto resurfaced, originally issued–(i.e., produced, not performed) as an LP by SUNY (with Sony’s permission) as a tribute to the pianist Jean Casadesus (1927-1972), who was artist-in-residence until his fatal car crash while on tour in Toronto. As a child living in New York City, I often heard the New York Philharmonic broadcasts hosted by Jim Fassett, and featuring some of the most dynamic conducting in my memory, like the Saint-Saens’ A Minor Symphony, the Berlioz Harold in Italy (with William Lincer, still unrecovered), and Milhaud’s Christopher Columbus oratorio. Hardly a French “specialist,” Mitropoulos had an awesome repertory that embraced every type of musical style; but he had a distinct predilection for contemporary, intricate music, like the scores of Berg, Webern, Dallapiccola, Schoenberg, Carter, Busoni, and Mahler. Like Stokowski, Mitropoulos adored and promoted American composers–and here I wish M&A had resurrected his inscriptions of music by Sessions, Mennin, and Riegger. Always impassioned, often frenzied, the Mitropoulos experience tested the cultural and musical patience of many musicians and auditors, especially given that balanced programming was not Mitropoulos’ strong suit.
Volume 1 of the Mitropoulos retrospective seems haphazardly arranged, the performances spanning 1941-1957, including two substantial concerts: the 28 December 1941 concert “In Honor of Ferruccio Busoni” (previously issued) and that from 29 August 1943, featuring music by Vaughan Williams, Chausson, and Stravinsky. In terms of repertory, certainly having the Firebird Suite from this concert adds to the woefully under-represented Mitropoulos legacy of this composer: Petroushka, L’Histoire du Soldat (from Juilliard), and this energetic account of The Firebird, whose Infernal Dance of King Katschei rings with particular elan and gaudy fire. Although the performance of the Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia does not reach the agonized, tragic intensity Mitropoulos captured in his commercial inscription with the New York Philharmonic in the 1950s, the broad 1943 reading falls sonically between his Minneapolis recording and that later epiphany, already educing from the Philharmonic strings that mystical tension–with lovely, molded phrasing in the continuo as led by the principal viola, then the violin–that makes the Mitropoulos expressiveness perennially potent. No less palpable is the grand, leisurely breathing of the phrases: vocal, exalted, illuminated in the manner of religious manuscripts.
The opening work, the Berg Violin Concerto (11 December 1945), with Joseph Szigeti (1892-1973) and the NBC Symphony, has led a distinguished life on record, ever since the Bruno Walter Society brought out the LP in the 1970s. The performance still exudes great intellectual grace and sobriety, both tenderness and lyrical eroticism, the violin part under Szigeti’s nasal tone often lean, even Spartan, whilst the orchestra makes variegated colors harmonically rich, pungent, and contrapuntal. The second movement achieves a noble serenity, and Szigeti allows his tone a broader, rich vibrancy over the chorale subject. Given the date of the performance and Berg’s conception of the piece as an instrumental requiem (after Bach), the collaboration becomes a fitting memorial for the end of WW II, an attempt to find consolation for the mass slaughter that wiped out millions in the center of the 20th Century.
It was Dimitri Mitropoulos who suggested the Casadesus family play and record together such works as the Bach Triple Concerto. Jean Casadesus, in his Piano Literature class at SUNY, often recalled memories of driving with Mitropoulos, who would suddenly ask Jean to pull over so Mitropoulos could scale some worthy peak. We now have the last three Beethoven piano concertos with Mitropoulos: this Third; Fourths with Scarpini and Rubinstein; the Emperor with Robert Casadesus. The performance of the Beethoven C Minor reveals Jean’s strengths and weaknesses as a virtuoso: a strong, fluid technique capable of a range of colors; an articulate legato and good balance in the tonal weight of the hands; a temperate, judicious use of pedal; a fine subito to graduate his dynamic weights. The abruptness of the first movement cadenza–especially given the nervous, explosive expansiveness of Mitropoulos’ orchestral tissue–likely derives from Jean’s pathological stage fright; so he settles for roulades taken from the opening tympani motif. The E Major Largo moves like silk, the dialogues between piano, oboe, and flute taken at a walking pace that achieves a chamber music ambiance. A hearty, rollicking Rondo concludes the meeting of two like minds, the articulations both deft and heroically virile. On the original LP issue, a suitable complement for the Concerto came in the form of Mozart’s Duport Variations, recorded at the college.
Selected works of Schumann graced the Mitropoulos repertory throughout his career, his having recorded the C Major and the Rhenish Symphony in Minneapolis. Mitropoulos programmed the Piano Concerto several times, once with Michelangeli, with Myra Hess, and another with Soriano. This Spring Symphony (15 November 1953) from Carnegie Hall is one of two that exist; unfortunately, no D Minor Symphony is bequeathed us. Mitropoulos tugs and pulls at the metrics of the B-flat Major, but he does not violate its optimistic, gracious spirit. The Larghetto proves particularly lush, while the Scherzo rather froths and bubbles luxuriantly. Nice trumpet work complements the brisk strings in the Allegro animato finale, though the tempos tend towards a more staid approach than Mitropoulos unleashed in 1956. The Strauss Alpine Symphony (23 November 1947) must rate as a Mitropoulos curio, one that he programmed again in 1955. Himself a mountaineer, Mitropoulos may have found the Strauss evocations of monolithic grandeur true to his own experience; that the music provides a vivid display piece for the Philharmonic winds and brass (with added effects, like thunder machine, cowbells, and organ) remains the bottom line. If anyone can be said to let this contrived, often awkward music sing, it is Dimitri Mitropoulos. Despite distant sonics, a decided sheen and imposing girth saturates the performance; at several points the music is reminiscent of the northern, wind-swept sentiments of the Sibelius tone poem, En Saga. Rhapsodic, impressionistic, heavily scored, the bucolic thickness of score moves glibly before it collapses of its own weight. The most harmonically compelling moments occur, naturally enough, at the Summit, where, after some “Dangerous moments,” we experience a bi-tonal, organ-pedaled “Vision” musically connected with that enjoyed by the composer’s Don Quixote. The gloomy mysteries of night, final sounds, and the descent phase leave us befogged but not discouraged in the Mitropoulos faith that new and difficult music will have its day.
Give that the all-Busoni tribute of 1941–in startling, good sound for the period–has had prior incarnation on M&A, I frankly would have had this final disc devoted to other repertory. In point of fact, besides the Idomeneo Overture (arr. Busoni) here proffered, there exists a 1951 extended suite from the same opera in Busoni’s arrangement, announced as I recall by Martin Bookspan. If we must hear musicians speak, why not resurrect Mitropoulos’ commentary on Liszt’s Faust-Symphonie from the videotape he made for NET? Joe Desh, formerly of CBS, once promised me to investigate a Kodaly Galanta Dances recording supposedly in the vaults, unissued. The three-movement “concerto,” the Indian Fantasy, features Mitropoulos’ fellow student from Busoni’s master-class, the inimitable giant Egon Petri (1881-1962), whose once stupendous reputation has fallen into obscurity. Joseph Szigeti always found sweet virtuosity in Busoni’s Violin Concerto, and he later recorded it with Thomas Scherman and the Little Orchestra Society. Reminiscent of Mendelssohn and Bruch, it doesn’t really hit its stride until the last movement, when Szigeti and Mitropoulos make it sizzle. The overly intellectual filigree from Doktor Faustus will find few adherents, even given Mitropoulos’ devotions. But as a testimonial of a faithful pupil to an inspired teacher, the disc remain a special document to the high culture Mitropoulos brought to the New York music scene.