Reviews

GHCD 2396 – Mitropoulos – Tchaikovsky 1954 & 1957

Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York, Dimitri Mitropoulos (conductor)

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American Record Guide – May/June 2014

These recordings were first issued on Columbia LPs in 1954 and 1957, the Capriccio in stereo. In the Fifth Symphony Mitropoulos emulates Toscanini in a hard-edged, furious performance. While he, or at any rate the orchestra, is unable to achieve Toscanini’s lyricism-under-pressure, the kinetic force generated by Mitropoulos is so overwhelming as to leave little more to desire. While not exactly Tchaikovsky, this rendition of the symphony is certainly sublime.
The Capriccio Italien, while also fast-paced, is given more room to breathe and is altogether effective. Apparently not much could be done with the boxy and constricted sound in the symphony, which is a pity, for it is a memorable performance.
RADCLIFFE

Classical.net – April 2014

These performances were originally released on Columbia, and to my knowledge, Sony Classical has done nothing with them except than to pass them to Guild for this disc. I don’t really blame them, there are some exceptional Tchaikovsky performances in house. In fact, all three major Columbia artists – Szell, Ormandy, and Bernstein – recorded these three works exceptionally well during that label’s golden age. So this mono account has done what most do, and has languished for decades, much like the Mitropoulos’ own reputation. Guild has my thanks, though, since this disc is mostly excellent.
Mitropoulos really moves the Fifth Symphony along, pushing forward with an uncommon sense of urgency. The result is by turns exciting and a bit sloppy. The conductor, like many in his generation, wasn’t especially known for discipline. But when it’s good, it’s really good. The New Yorkers are in really fine form, with the winds balanced forwardly and playing with commitment. The Andante isn’t rushed, but it too moves purposefully forward. The French horn solo is not the best ever, but the orchestral backing is lovely. While the strings aren’t the most polished, I find their momentum and unusual strength appealing. The climax at the heart of the movement however, is severely limited by the otherwise acceptable engineering, and it feels a little underplayed.
A measured, but still aptly flowing waltz follows. Again, there is a real thrust that propels everything even at a slightly slower tempo. The rapid runs in the strings here could be a touch more incisive, but otherwise, the music moves smartly along. The finale is launched with an initial hesitancy that I really like, one that allows the theme to rebuild in power. Elsewhere though, I’m a little less convinced. Mitropoulos and his orchestra engage in some tempo shifts and pauses that not everyone seems to agree on. And the forward balance of the winds – and everything else – seems to disappear. As the movement progresses, the sense of cogency diminishes. It’s an odd finish to an otherwise engaging reading.
The Capriccio Italien is in early stereo. As with the symphony, this isn’t the tidiest reading around, it’s a little too boisterous for its own good here and there. I really love the swagger and panache; I’m less than thrilled about some brass playing here and there that borders on ugly. Mitropoulos does manage to keep things interesting with all kinds of wonderful detail in the strings and winds. He also saves the last bit of speed for the final bars, building the work more carefully than most. It’s so different than the speed-demon renditions we hear today, and it’s all the more convincing because of the seriousness that conductor and orchestra bring to the table. In short, a valuable release, warts and all.
Brian Wigman

MusicWeb International – November 2013

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

Klassik.com – Oktober 2013

Fern der Wahlheimat
George Széll gastierte in den Nachkriegsjahrzehnten nur selten in Deutschland. Mitschnitte von Konzerten mit dem Sinfonieorchester des WDR legt nun das Label Guild auf.
1939 traf der in Budapest geborene Dirigent George Széll in seiner zukünftigen Wahlheimat USA ein – für mehr als zwei Jahrzehnte sollte er dort als musikalischer Leiter des Cleveland Orchestra das amerikanische Musikleben entscheidend mitprägen. Nach Deutschland, wo er u. a. in Berlin gewirkt hatte (schon mit siebzehn hatte er bei den Philharmonikern debütiert), kehrte er aber nur äußerst selten zurück. Leider erfahren wir im diesmal leider nur eingeschränkt informativen CD-Booklet nichts über den hier vorliegenden raren Auftritt in Köln am 8. September 1958 (nicht einmal das exakte Datum wird im Booklet genannt – eine Kooperation mit dem WDR hätte hier helfen können); weitere Mitschnitte aus Köln sind Mozarts Klavierkonzert Nr. 24 von 1960 (mit Robert Casadesus, bei Medici Arts erschienen), Dvoráks Cellokonzert mit Pierre Fournier von 1962 (ebenfalls bei Medici Arts), Debussys ‘La Mer’ von 1962 sowie Tschaikowskys Fünfte Sinfonie von 1966 (beide in der EMI-Reihe ‚Great Conductors‘). Nun haben sich mehrere Kritiker beklagt, die anderen Aufnahmen aus Köln könnten es nicht mit den Studioproduktionen aus Cleveland aufnehmen, doch ist dies naturgemäß aus dem beschränkteren Aufnahmeklang und dem Liveerlebnis selbst leicht nachvollziehbar.
Auf der vorliegenden CD haben wir immerhin zwei Aufnahmen, die bislang unveröffentlicht waren, zwei Werke, die in Szells Diskographie bislang fehlten: Boris Blachers ‘Music for Cleveland’ op. 53 von 1957, erst am 21. November 1957 in Cleveland uraufgeführt, und Igor Strawinskys ‘Feu d’artifice’ (oder ‘Fireworks’), bei dem Konzert am 8. September 1958 als Zugabe gegeben. Die ‘Music for Cleveland’ kommt mit einer ungeheuren Intensität und Unmittelbarkeit daher, die die erste Studioaufnahme von 1998 (aus Berlin) nicht aufbieten kann. Auch bei ‘Feu d’artifice’ ist die Brillanz des Kölner Orchesters unbestreitbar, gleichzeitig die Fähigkeit zu poetischen Stimmungen. Alle Orchestermitglieder sind gleichermaßen hochkarätig, und es ist höchst bedauerlich, dass der Klang (bedingt durch die Sekundärklangquelle, trotz vorbildlicher Restaurierung) etwas ‚boxig‘ klingt, nicht ganz so brillant wie es bei Heranziehung der WDR-Bänder möglich gewesen wäre.
Dies erweist sich unmittelbar bei Mozarts letztem Klavierkonzert KV 595 in B-Dur mit dem Solisten Robert Casadesus, der auch sonst häufig mit Szell zusammengearbeitet hat (es gibt allein von diesem Werk außerdem eine Studioproduktion aus Cleveland von 1962, ansonsten noch zahlreiche andere Mozart-Klavierkonzerte). Bei Medici Arts erschien 2011 dasselbe Konzert in Kooperation mit dem WDR, und die klangliche Brillanz besonders der Holzbläser ist deutlich hörbar, und auch der Gesamtklang ist in sich runder, wenn auch immer noch ein wenig ‚boxig‘.
Interessant ist, Szélls molto legato-Spiel des Kölner Orchesters im ersten Satz zu hören, mit gelegentlich leichten Portamenti in den Streichern, die hierdurch nicht ganz ins Gesamtkonzept zu passen scheinen. Insgesamt aber ist Szells und Casadesus‘ Mozart in den Außensätzen lebhaft (im Finale ausgesprochen geistreich), im ‘Larghetto’ poetisch (wunderbar die Klangmischungen in diesem Satz), insgesamt ausgesprochen präzise und bezüglich der Instrumentenproportionen ausgesprochen ausgewogen. Kaum eine der neuesten Einspielungen kann sich rühmen, interpretatorisch pointierter zu sein. Besonders ansprechend im Orchester die Holzbläser, die der Interpretation mehr als heute einen durchaus eigenen Klangcharakter hinzufügen.
Johannes Brahms‘ Zweite Sinfonie op. 73 in D-Dur hatte Szell schon 1928 mit der Staatskapelle Berlin eingespielt (bis heute scheint diese Einspielung nicht auf CD vorgelegt worden zu sein), außerdem existieren neben dem vorliegenden Mitschnitt (der auch schon auf Archipel veröffentlicht worden war) eine Live-Aufnahme aus Cleveland vom 5. Januar 1967 sowie die einen Tag später für Columbia entstandene Studioaufnahme. In diesem Fall muss leider gesagt werden, dass die Kölner Interpretation bei aller Dichte, Intensität und in sich schlüssigen Logik mittlerweile von anderen Einspielungen, nicht zuletzt Szélls eigener Einspielung, überboten worden ist. Hier können die Holzbläser auch nicht ganz so gut ihre eigenen Klangfarben zur Geltung bringen – alles ist dem Gesamtklang untergeordnet (nur die Trompeten vermitteln gelegentlich eine nicht vollständige Integration in diesen Gesamtklang). Dennoch kann man Szells Kölner Brahms anderen großen Mitschnitten der Zeit gerechtfertigt zur Seite stellen, und viele Stereo-Studioproduktionen anderer Dirigenten fallen rein interpretatorisch (nicht klanglich) Szell gegenüber teilweise extrem ab.
Insgesamt eine interpretatorisch fast durchgängig ideale CD, die mit kleinen Einschränkungen sehr zu empfehlen ist.
Jürgen Schaarwächter

Audiophile Audition – August 2013

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.
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