Mahler: Symphony No. 3; Debussy: La Mer / Mitropoulos, Cologne Rso
This release is an extremely important one for admirers of Dimitri Mitropoulos. It contains, released officially for the first time, his only recording of the complete Mahler Third Symphony. There is another recording, made in New York in 1956 and that has just reappeared in a fascinating boxed set of Mahler performances by this conductor - reviewed by me recently. Unfortunately, that New York reading is compromised by cuts in the first and last movements and by some eccentrically fast speeds. As I said in commenting on that box, the New York performance shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand; however this Cologne performance surely gives us the best representation of Mitropoulos’s view of the symphony.
The Cologne performance is notable in several ways, one of which is the overall distinction of the interpretation. In addition it is the conductor’s very last performance: just two days later, while rehearsing the same symphony in Milan, Mitropoulos collapsed, felled by a massive heart attack, and died. But, it seems, we are even more fortunate to have this recording because, incredible though it seems, according to Michael Schwalb’s booklet note, the conductor actually suffered a heart attack during the performance of the first movement. There was a scheduled interval after that movement and Mitropoulos insisted on returning to the podium and completing the concert. This was news to me: in his authoritative biography, Priest of Music. The life of Dimitri Mitropoulos (1995) William R Trotter merely states that the conductor’s “physical state was so alarming” at the interval that he was begged to curtail the performance. If Mr Schwalb’s account is accurate it is truly amazing that a conductor could direct such a full-on performance of so taxing and lengthy a work under such circumstances.
No allowances need be made for Mitropoulos’s health when you listen to this performance for it carries all the hallmarks of his conducting, not least the intensity and energy that invariably marked his music making. William Trotter asserts that this Cologne performance is “much superior” to the New York reading. I’m not sure I entirely agree. There are flaws in the playing on both recordings – after all, these are both live readings – but it seems to me that the Cologne orchestra, though they give of their considerable best for Mitropoulos, can’t quite match the overall standard of the New Yorkers. That said, no one buying this set is going to feel seriously short changed by the quality of the playing, I think one can forgive fluffs and the inevitable technical shortcomings of a radio recording made over fifty years ago, when confronted by an interpretation of such intensity and one in which the conductor so evidently believes in the score.
One notices the greater sense of space in the Cologne performance right at the start where I calculate the beat in the great horn call at about 102 beats per minute – by contrast, the New York performance is at about 122 beats per minute. This sets the tone for a really gripping reading of the great first movement. One might quibble with the odd interpretative detail here and there but overall the vision that Mitropoulos has of the music is powerfully conveyed. I’d describe quite a lot of the music as sturdy in Mitropoulos’s hands – there’s never quite the hedonistic rush that one gets at times in Bernstein’s 1961 New York recording, still one of my favourites. But I found myself thoroughly convinced.
Though the many dramatic passages in the first movement make the full effect that you’d expect with this conductor he’s good too in the more delicate passages. In the second movement, where delicacy is called for to a much greater extent, I felt there were too many instances where the tempo either surges a little or is slowed momentarily. The effect is fussy and it rather marred my enjoyment. Much of III has a good, earthy feel but I was rather disappointed by the treatment of the nostalgic post horn passages, where I didn’t feel Mitropoulos gave the music sufficient space; these episodes sound rather perfunctory, almost as if the conductor found them embarrassing.
Lucretia West is a rich-toned, expressive soloist in IV. However, the exposed quiet passages for the brass find the players a little bit over-exposed. I felt that V was rather serious in tone, though the music is lively enough. I missed a touch of lightness but this may not be a problem for other listeners. ICA get something of a black mark for the layout of the discs, I’m afraid. The last three movements should follow each other seamlessly but, instead, you have to change discs for the finale. It would have been perfectly possible to have had La Mer and the first movement of the symphony on disc one with the remaining five movements of the symphony comfortably accommodated on disc two. The way the symphony is split by ICA is nothing short of crass.
Actually, the reading of the finale is the big disappointment for me. In the first place it starts off far too loud – mf, I’d guess. The start of the finale in the New York reading is much more subdued. The last time I heard this music was in a live performance at the Three Choirs Festival just a few days before auditioning this disc. There Susanna Mälkki and the Philharmonia achieved just the hushed intensity that this present performance lacks. In addition the tempo is too swift. I calculate that Mitropoulos takes the opening at about 56 beats per minute. Actually, that’s not much swifter than the pace in New York in 1956 – ca 51 bpm – but it feels fast. As the movement unfolds one feels there’s not quite the same gravity and mystery that one experiences in the very best accounts. And, for my money, the Cologne players, though they play well, aren’t in the same league as the New York Philharmonic or several other orchestras that have featured in recordings of this symphony. The booklet notes reveal that around this time Mitropoulos had agreed in principle to become chief conductor of this orchestra and one wonders how much he might have improved them, given time to work with them on an extended basis, if that appointment had ever come about.
So this account of the finale of the Third isn’t as spacious as I’d like. One might call the reading urgent – or, perhaps apply Tony Duggan’s description, elsewhere, of this conductor’s ‘edgy’ style.
This, then, is a flawed reading of Mahler’s Third but it’s still one that commands – nay, demands – attention for throughout the ninety-five minute span of the piece one constantly has the sense of a great conductor at work and nothing about this reading is routine.
The reading of La Mer is somewhat unconventional in that you will look in vain here for washes of impressionist colouring or for Mediterranean warmth. This is a taut, urgent and dramatic reading. Sometimes, as in the short, quicker passage in ‘De l’aube à midi sur la mer’ (from 4:22), the very urgency of Mitropoulos’s interpretation seems to have the orchestra audibly scrambling to keep up. At times, the end of this same movement being one example, the sound is rather fierce. In ‘Dialogue du vent et de la mer’ one feels that the wind blows rather fiercely and it’s something of a chill wind. Often, during the piece as a whole, one senses that the sea which Mitropoulos is depicting is pretty foam flecked. None of the foregoing should be interpreted as an implicit verdict that the interpretation is an unsatisfactory one. I find it bracing but it may startle some listeners used to the approach of other conductors.
At the end of the second disc we hear a few short remarks made by Mitropoulos during a rehearsal with this orchestra sometime in the 1950s. He speaks in German so I can’t tell you what he says but it’s evident from the orchestra’s reaction both before and after he speaks that he was highly regarded by them.
The recorded sound can be a bit boxy at times and the balances aren’t always ideal – the percussion is too prominent on several occasions. However, these are fifty-year-old recordings so one must make allowances. They’ve been transferred pretty well and there’s nothing to mar ones appreciation of the performances.
This is an important set and I’m thrilled in particular that ICA have brought about the first official release of Mitropoulos’s mighty vision of Mahler’s Third. This is an essential appendix to the Music & Arts box of New York performances and all admirers of this great conductor should snap it up as a matter of urgency.
-- John Quinn, MusicWeb International
Catalog Number: ICAC 5021
Label: ICA Classics
Composer: Claude Debussy, Gustav Mahler, Spoken Word
Conductor: Dimitri Mitropoulos
Performer: Dimitri Mitropoulos