Karl Henning | 11 APR 2023
Ranked among the 20th century’s most brilliant conductors, Dimitri Mitropoulos was born in Athens in 1896. He won a place at the Athens Conservatory at age 14. He then studied in Berlin and Belgium. He returned to Athens in 1924 and directed the Conservatory Symphony for 15 years. He became an overnight sensation in 1930, leading the Berlin Philharmonic in the German première of Prokofiev’s Third Piano Concerto, conducting from the piano as a last-minute replacement for the indisposed Egon Petri. In 1937 he took over the Minneapolis Symphony from Eugene Ormandy, who was moving to Philadelphia.
Mitropoulos served in Minnesota 12 seasons. Mitropoulos committed all scores to memory, never conducting from the printed page throughout his career. After a couple of seasons as co-conductor (with Leopold Stokowski) of the New York Philharmonic, Mitropoulos became sole music director in 1951. Mitropoulos’ championship of modern music created strains with the audience, the critics and the Philharmonic management, who needed ample convincing to permit Schoenberg’s Violin Concerto and Shostakovich’s Tenth Symphony to be performed before a subscription audience, or included in the Sunday afternoon broadcasts on CBS, or recorded under the orchestra’s contract with Columbia Records. Mitropoulos found himself sharing the lead conducting duties with Leonard Bernstein in the 1957-58 season. Lenny became sole music director in the 1958-59 season and Mitropoulos fell into the Guest Conductor pool. In 1960 Mitropoulos died of a heart attack during a rehearsal at Milan’s La Scala, at only the age of 64.
Early last year, Sony Classical released a significant 69-CD box set containing the complete recorded legacy of Dimitri Mitropoulos from the RCA and Columbia labels, a total of 54 hours and 41 minutes of music. Many of these legendary performances have been transferred from their analog masters and released on digital media for the first time. Here are brief reviews of 11 discs from that collection.
It was obvious to me that I would like the Liszt Rhapsodie espagnole. And I found myself warming to the Borodin Symphony No. 2. (Wish fulfillment?) The sound is pretty good, not abrasively historical. I went ahead and listened again to the “Andante” from the Borodin directly.
In comparison to the Ferrari Baroque ensembles of our day, Milhaud’s arrangement of Couperin arguably handles a bit like a Buick. But consider the versatility of Bach’s music in adaptations ranging from Stokowski and Schoenberg to Duke Ellington. Consider, too, that this was 1945 when the exposure of American orchestra-goers to Couperin probably did not range much beyond Ravel’s Le tombeau (also on this disc). I found that the Milhaud orchestration possesses some charm and is an interesting musical snapshot of that musical era. The real surprise of this disc for me, though, was La Procession nocturne by Henri Rabaud, as evincing a Frenchman’s sympathy for and mastery of Wagner’s musical idiom in a refreshingly subdued emotional tone. Not to suggest that the histrionics of Wagner are necessarily negative at all (it is opera, after all), but that (say) my appreciation of Wagner benefits from the novel musical perspective. Previously my sole experience of Rabaud was a contest piece for clarinet and piano, music which did not inspire me to listen to anything more by the composer, so this Procession was an especial delight.
In terms of my own listening, my latest references are a much newer recording of the Rachmaninoff by Gianandrea Noseda and (for the Vaughan Williams) two recordings by Sir John Barbirolli, and a live performance by a local orchestra (which I mention both for accuracy and as a frank disclosure) Mitropoulos’s accounts here stand up very nicely: no want of definition and (where needed) crispness in The Isle of the Dead. In the Tallis Fantasia, the strings of the Minneapolis Symphony have a full warmth, and the acoustic of the Northrop Auditorium gives them space without too much reverberance. The solo strings are present and intimate.
When I fetch in a box like this, there are always those items in which I take a particular interest. There are perhaps always a number of pieces from the standard rep of which most classical music lovers already have ample representation in their library, which I may well skip in my initial survey of the box. And probably in each such box I’ve brought in, there are discs like this, whose contents are not in my direct musical sights but which provide an enormously gratifying surprise. Perhaps this is related to the incidental, semi-random pleasures of what we used to call browsing when there were brick-and-mortar shops where such an activity was not merely possible but (if you can believe it) encouraged and which one often enjoyed more than the mere transaction of purchasing. Neither of these two concerti was on my “A List,” and they made for just the kind of ear-opening experience that any music listener, of any level of experience, should seek out and embrace, as in some ways revivifying the Art for us.
I’ve never been a particular fan of Khachaturian, a fact which may or may not change, but Oscar Levant and Dimitri Mitropoulos give this excellent concerto so committed a performance, all bets on that head are off. A superb piece, and if I could wave a magic wand, the result would be that anyone planning to program the Grieg Piano Concerto (which I’ll never believe is as truly loved among listeners as its frequency of programming would suggest) would be given a good rest, and the Khachaturian (composed in 1936) played instead. To offer but one item in support of my radical suggestion, witness the exquisite writing for the bass clarinet in the “Andante con anima“ second movement, first as part of the intro, and later in the recap. The real surprise for me was the concerto composed by legendary pianist Anton Rubinstein. Many of the great composers whose work remains in the regular repertory were pianist-composers, so I arguably ought not to have been as surprised as I was. But there it is. If I had heard either the first movement (“Moderato assai“) or the second (“Andante”) “blind” (as in the days when your car radio didn’t scroll the tag info), although I would have known it was not one of Rachmaninoff’s concerti, I may well have wondered if the manuscript of a “forgotten” Rachmaninoff concerto had somehow come to light. I would then have been puzzled by the “Allegro” third movement, which is perhaps more Mendelssohnian, but my ears would have taken the piece seriously. I don’t believe I would have dismissed it as a grade C composer being played by the station because it is musically safe. And again, one great pleasure of this disc is to hear Oscar Levant, who deserves better than to be a mere footnote in a Gershwin bio, demonstrating his formidable command of the piano.
I note with somewhat wry pleasure that there is no Grieg Concerto in this Mitropoulos box. After all, should I want it, it’s in the Bernstein Concertos & Orchestral Works box.
A thoroughly enjoyable disc. The standout for me is the Sessions. Obviously, his Second Symphony will compare somewhat milder than the later symphonies which I had heard before. The Second is a strong piece, and will appeal directly (I think) to the listener whose more adventurous musical inclinations may overlap most easily with movie scores of the second half of the 20th century. The Gould is quirky and playful. Rather than the lush waltz tradition of, say, Dvořák and Tchaikovsky (or even Prokofiev and Shostakovich at their more lyrical), the Philharmonic Waltzes has an Ivesian irreverence and the exuberance of the circus. The Ozark Set is the first music of Elie Siegmeister’s that I actually have heard. In a blind listening, my guess as to the composer would have been Copland, not that Siegmeister’s musical voice is not his own, but given the general musical tone and goals of the piece.
CDs 27 & 28
During Mitropoulos’ tenure with the NY Phil, he conducted nearly fifty world premières, and his devotion to new music was the engine for a breadth of premières and recordings new to the Philharmonic. Wozzeck, of course, was not a première, but it was the first presentation in the U.S. in twenty years, and this recording of a concert performance enjoys the prestige of being the very first. Eileen Farrell, who sang the role of Marie, recalled being unprepared for how well Mitropoulos knew the score. This recording of the opera is vivid, electrifying, and an utter delight to listen to (as I’ve done repeatedly—after quite neglecting the opera for a decade.) Act III, on the second disc, feels like it unfolds in a single breath.
This disc is Dream Programming for me: Schoenberg’s high-octane monodrama Erwartung, Krenek’s exquisitely expressive Symphonic Elegy in memoriam Anton Webern, and the string orchestra version of Verklärte Nacht.
Only the Křenek was new to me, and what a rich, powerful piece and an intense performance. (Trivial factoid of the day: the original LP—released 23 May 1952—uses diacritics for both Schönberg and Křenek.) Dorothy Dow’s musical command and dramatic presentation of Erwartung are stunning, jaw-dropping. In fact, exhilaratingly fearless music-making on everyone’s part. The accompaniment is a model of clarity and verve. As a rule, I have a slight preference for the original sextet version of Verklärte Nacht, and while I’ve certainly enjoyed other “big band” readings of the piece, the profile of this recording has a winning intimacy to it. The arc of this assembled reissue is completely satisfying: first the searingly unrelenting Erwartung, then the mournfully dramatic Krenek, and (a little curiously, perhaps) “cooling down” with the more conservatively Romantic Verklärte Nacht.
These are marvelous performances by the violinist who played the première of both concerti. Krasner is intense, always maintains an energetic core, and yet exults in the colors. This is a superbly vivid account of both the Schoenberg and the Berg.
Native to Albany, Georgia, Wallingford Riegger (Wallingford was his mother’s maiden name) seems not half so well known as Walter Piston, William Schuman, Roy Harris, or Peter Mennin. I was tempted to suggest that Riegger is ‘practically unknown,’ only I do know better than to take my own degree of ignorance as to someone as normative. I first heard of Riegger when a professor who had attended my performance of my own piece for clarinet and organ complimented me, saying the piece reminded him of the music of Wallingford Riegger. I was insufficiently enterprising to seek out Riegger’s music at the time, so not only does the present recording satisfy at last a long-dormant curiosity, but I now understand what a compliment I received 40 years ago. The Third Symphony, which received the New York Music Critics’ Circle Award and a Naumburg Foundation Recording Award, robustly demonstrates the composer’s deserving his place among the more celebrated native-born symphonists mentioned above.
Mennin is altogether better known, and I’m a big fan, but I confine myself to reporting that he completed his Third Symphony on 17 May 1946 for his doctoral dissertation at the Eastman School of Music. Under the direction of Walter Hendl the New York Philharmonic played the symphony’s première in February 1947. Make sure you’re seated, and try to imagine, in our day, a graduate’s doctoral dissertation going to a public performance by a major US orchestra in nine months.
In the essay heading the book included in this set, NY Phil archivist Gabryel Smith observes that Mitropoulos was responsible for many firsts and innovations with the orchestra, for which the public mind has after been apt to credit his successors. My own exploration of Mitropoulos’ work is perforce chronologically retrospective, as I grew up admiring Leonard Bernstein’s work with the NY Phil. One item in Sony’s 80-CD Leonard Bernstein Edition Concertos & Orchestral Works box that stood out for me was guest artist Louis Armstrong performing W. C. Handy’s “St Louis Blues.” I don’t say that I assumed that Bernstein was the pioneer here, but my eyes grew large when I saw the name Miles Davis in this Mitropoulos box. Running at the original LP’s duration of 43 minutes, this disc is short but mighty sweet. It opens with Gunther Schuller’s Symphony for Brass and Percussion. In 1957, lecturing at Brandeis, Schuller coined the term “Third Stream” to describe music that combines classical and jazz techniques. and the Symphony exemplifies this cross-pollination very stylishly.
Poem for Brass by J. J. Johnson, a trombonist who played with and composed some music for Miles Davis, is an engaging piece in four sections with smooth lines and sweet, warm harmonies, with its “brassiest” lines in the latter half, but overall quite cool, and with a nice concluding fughetta. John Lewis (founder of the Modern Jazz Quartet) composed 3 Little Feelings: an easy swing, some mildly melancholic nonchalance, and a concluding movement opening with a nocturnal fanfare, moving into a bit of a shuffle, and ending with a brightened reprise of the fanfare. The album concludes with Pharaoh by Jimmy Giuffre, who came to be known as an arranger for Woody Herman. Opening with timpani, Pharaoh is characterized by brass writing redolent of the swing band sound.
Something for whose accuracy I cannot attest, as I found it only on the Internet (d/b/a The Disinformation Superhighway) is the enticing suggestion that Gunther Schuller appears as a horn player in the first movement of his Symphony. It’s obviously plausible, so let’s leave that there.
In my initial survey of the 69-CD box, I focused primarily on items which caught my eye (and ear) while not completely neglecting a number of staples of which there is a wealth of recordings available (the Chausson Symphony in Bb, Op. 20 coupled with Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture, recorded in March of 1946, a Tchaikovsky Fifth Symphony from March of 1954, e.g.) It is all eminently fine listening, although space here (or perhaps, rather, the reader’s patience) is limited.
Let me add as a footnote that as a legacy (I suppose) of pairings on the original LPs, the set includes George Szell conducting the Columbia Symphony Orchestra in the Bach E Major Concerto with Zino Francescatti, as soloist) and here and there we find a recording of the Philadelphia Orchestra conducted (of course) by Eugene Ormandy. One has no musical objection, certainly, but in a review of a box devoted to Dimitri Mitropoulos, these are anomalies worth mentioning. ■