Mastery Of Mitropoulos On Generous Display Across 69 Historic CDs

Dmitri Mitropoulos emerging from a 1950s jetliner, followed by a bevy of Scottish bagpipers.

Dimitri Mitropoulos: Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection. Mitropoulos, conductor. Minneapolis Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Metropolitan Opera, and various artists. Sony Classical 19439888252. 69 CDs.

DIGITAL REVIEW — More than any of the great mid-20th century conductors, Dimitri Mitropoulos left a distinctively brilliant, original, volatile discography that, coincidentally, forms a time capsule of mainstream American symphonic life in the 1940s and ’50s. The 69-disc Dimitri Mitropoulos: The Complete RCA and Columbia Album Collection (list-price: $299) shows the conductor’s missionary spirit, going where he was needed, defying his surroundings as much as he adapted to them, and moving in the upper echelons without being fully part of them.

This was an era of generalists. Lucky were Arturo Toscanini and Bruno Walter, who could mostly call the shots with regard to what music they recorded and with whom — as opposed to more typical music directors who were called upon to be a musical shaman on one day and Arthur Fiedler the next. So it was with Mitropoulos, who was the equal of all the greats but wasn’t treated like one.

The triumphs and defeats of this Athens-born conductor (1896-1960) unfolded over his three home bases of Minneapolis (1937-49), New York (1949–1958), and Salzburg (1954-1960), starting with his 1936 U.S. debut with the Boston Symphony.

He seemed to be a fully formed artist at that point, possibly in line to succeed Serge Koussevitzky. Instead, Mitropoulos made his mark at the Minneapolis Symphony (now the Minnesota Orchestra), where he built on the quality established by his predecessor, Eugene Ormandy, through his immense talent and selfless work ethic. Something of a religious ascetic, he lived in a Spartan college dormitory and had next to no love life — hence the title of William H. Trotter‘s 2003 Mitropoulos biography Priest of Music (Amadeus Press).

Recordings, in his early years, were for Columbia’s budget label with occasional titles for RCA, as when Arthur Rubinstein needed to record the Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1. Mitropoulos met the commercial needs of the recording industry more than halfway, though early on, his interest in specialized repertoire such as the Liszt-Busoni Rhapsodie espagnole with Egon Petri began a fearless pattern of recording standard repertoire — alongside modernist Roger Sessions’ Symphony No. 2 and Gunther Schuller’s Symphony for Brass and Percussion.

Perhaps the greatest triumph of his New York Philharmonic tenure was his live, complete (and, in some circles, legendary) recording of Berg’s Wozzeck in 1951. It was here that Mitropoulos made the New York Philharmonic the center of the city’s 1950s intellectual community. Some 40 years later, playwright Arthur Miller recalled the performance, in an interview with this writer, as a life-changing experience. One can actually see the busy Mitropoulos mind at work in the New York Philharmonic’s current exhibit of some 120 of his heavily marked scores, made public through the NY Phil Shelby White & Leon Levy Digital Archives.

Mitropoulos in action.

Often, early recordings of modern works are provisional because a solid performance practice had yet to be established. But Mitropoulos cognitively grasped such works immediately with insights that remain clear and penetrating to modern ears. Yes, there are intonation problems in Schoenberg’s Transfigured Night, but the closing pages of the New York recording are beyond magical. Mitropoulos didn’t make “reference recordings” that you dip into for middle-of-the-road readings of a major piece. He made Mitropoulos recordings.

Mitropoulos’ congenial humility may have played well in Minneapolis but could be perceived as weakness during his New York Philharmonic directorship. Was that orchestra ever really his? He shared his tenure at the beginning with Leopold Stokowski and at the end with Leonard Bernstein. Always hovering (and not in the background) was Bruno Walter — the frequent guest conductor, recording Beethoven and Brahms for Columbia and leaving Mitropoulos with everything else, from plum assignments such as La Mer to more populist fare by Morton Gould.

A frequent guest at the Metropolitan Opera, Mitropoulos conducted Marian Anderson’s 1955 debut in Un ballo in maschera, leading a heavily adapted, English-language Boris Godunov, and accompanying Maria Callas when she sang “Vissi d’arte” on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1956. His concert programs look a bit crazy at times, such as giving the U.S. premiere of Mahler’s Symphony No. 6 on the first half and putting Gershwin’s Concerto in F on the second with Oscar Levant as soloist. But such an arrangement no doubt minimized the walk-out potential of the Mahler.

Mitropoulos had his blind spots. He had full orchestra playing the tutti sections of Mozart concertos with explosive effect that dwarfed the solo passages. Lax discipline was among the several deficits cited by critic Howard Taubman — amid a zeitgeist that grieved for the more precise fire of the retired Toscanini and the deceased Guido Cantelli. Mitropoulos’ homosexuality can’t have helped. It is even rumored that Bernstein “outed“ Mitropoulos to industry insiders to eliminate competition for one, possibly two music directorships. But that doesn’t make sense: Opening that door would leave Bernstein vulnerable to being outed himself. Though scarred by his Philharmonic torments, Mitropoulos had to be relieved at the graceful exit provided by Bernstein at the end of his New York Philharmonic tenure, and even gave him a Greek cross that Bernstein wore to the end of his days.

A score of Schoenberg’s ‘Erwartung’ marked up by Mitropoulos.

After all, Mitropoulos was liberated from the subscription-concert treadmill with chances to do more opera, and more important, more Mahler. In Europe, Mitropoulos had led definitive performances of Puccini’s Girl of the Golden West in Florence and inherited a Don Giovanni dream cast in Salzburg in 1956 after Wilhelm Furtwangler died. Mitropoulos’ live Salzburg performances are generously represented on 13 discs on the Orfeo label that have him conducting the Berlin Philharmonic, Vienna Philharmonic, and Bavarian Radio Symphony Orchestra in the grandest repertoire, including the Mahler Symphony No. 8 and the Berlioz Requiem. Take that, New York.

As for the box set, many of these Columbia recordings have been out and around, whether the Un ballo in maschera excerpts that were also in the Marian Anderson box or its live Met incarnation that was issued previously on semi-bootleg labels in inferior sound. The live Beethoven Piano Concerto No. 3 featuring Jean Casadesus has a long-standing cult following and is no doubt an extra treat here for those who haven’t previously encountered it.

Other recordings represent a lost continent. Some originally appeared on 7-inch 45-rpm singles or 10-inch LPs. Mitropoulos seemed to function well under “budget label” circumstances, in which he usually had one day to knock out a major symphonic work for Columbia’s Entré subsidiary, as opposed to the two days he was given for his ecstatic Rachmaninoff Symphony No. 2 for RCA. Others, such as guest pianist Edward Kilenyi, seems to be scrambling for composure in Chopin’s Piano Concerto No. 1.

Most of Mitropoulos’ recordings were made in mono, which worked against their being reissued. And why would a mono disc of ultra-lush Scriabin orchestral works stay in circulation after the public’s ears had been broadened by stereo? And having died from a heart attack in 1960, Mitropoulos wasn’t around to re-record his repertoire as so many others did. The mark he left was, in some ways, second hand: His physicality and almost exhibitionistic passion may have liberated other conductors to be the same, from Bernstein to Solti.

Overall, Mitropoulos’ hallmarks included structural coherence. Never has the motivic unity of the Schumann Symphony No. 2 been so apparent to me as in his Minneapolis recording, even when heard in early LP sonics. Time and again, Mitropoulos offers a clear progression of the composer’s thinking — whether in seldom-heard harmonic details or contrapuntal strands that crystalize everything. He had a unique talent for conjuring an apocalypse that never sounds contrived and always feels like a natural phenomenon. Best example: His La Mer (New York).

The new set captures a spectrum of performances conducted by Dimitri Mitropoulos.

Vaughan Williams’ intense wartime Symphony No. 4 seems to have been written for Mitropoulos. Oddly, the conductor also seemed to have a deep if unlikely connection with Vaughan Williams (even his twee Symphony No. 2, which Mitropoulos conducted with the NBC Symphony, not included here). Almost all of his recordings seem to be tingling from within. That’s especially the case with Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (both Minneapolis and New York) and other works that exude a longing for something not quite achieved. The Tchaikovsky symphonies are unforgettable, whether the meticulous Symphony No. 4 (Minneapolis), the threatened sense of nervous breakdown in the Fifth, or, of course, the profound tragedy of the Sixth (both New York, the Sixth being in stereo).

Mitropoulos seemed to be seized by speed, which make good sense in Shostakovich, whose Violin Concerto No. 1 (with David Oistrakh) and Symphonies Nos. 5 and 10 are fully and thrillingly realized in New York Philharmonic recordings. But accelerando moments are still so shocking in Stravinsky’s Petrouchka (New York), Beethoven’s Symphony No. 6 (Minneapolis), and the Schumann Second’s second movement (Minneapolis) that you wonder if they’re re-mastered on the wrong speed.

Almost always, I can stand back, revisit the performance, and enter the logic of Mitropoulos’ wilder decisions. Exceptions are the Chausson Symphony in B-flat (Minneapolis), whichrequires more charm than the volatile rigor he gives it, and Falla’s Nights in the Gardens of Spain, which sounds as if it’s transposed to the more tragic terrains of Guernica. The famous Minneapolis recording of the Mahler Symphony No. 1 hasn’t aged well. Though Mitropoulos fully apprehends the music’s content (including the Jewish folk moments), the sonics are of their time (1941), and the performance pales next to what Mitropoulos could accomplish live. Also in the “aging badly” category is his world premiere recording of Barber’s opera Vanessa. Mitropoulos’ excitability over-sells this fragile domestic story of transactional romance, which has since been better served by Leonard Slatkin (Chandos CHSA5032).

Many of Mitropoulos’ scores are in the archives of the New York Philharmonic, which he served as music director from 1949-1958.

The box has some odd absences. Where are the Die Walküre excerpts recorded for the Metropolitan Opera Club with Margaret Harshaw and Ramón Vinay? Or the complete 1956 Salzburg Don Giovanni that was published years ago by Sony? One laments that Mitropoulos didn’t record more Prokofiev. The stereo Romeo and Juliet ballet excerpts shows evidence of the conductor’s unraveling relationship with the New York Philharmonic, with ensemble blemishes that just don’t seem necessary. But Mitropoulos finds the storytelling and musical logic in places where Charles Munch, in his Boston Symphony Orchestra recording, delivers a merely impressive orchestral effect. His famous Prokofiev Piano Concerto No. 3, in which he doubled as soloist and conductor, isn’t competitive pianistically, but the total package says much about the piece.

One major hallmark of these mega-sets is the presentation, and this one is typically first-class, with original album covers and a 187-page hardcover book that honors Mitropoulos well, though the notes by Gabryel Smith (director of Archives and Exhibitions at the New York Philharmonic) whitewash the conductor’s story a bit. Memorabilia and photos are particularly fascinating. My favorites include Mitropoulos sitting alone in an Ann Arbor train station, happily absorbed in his thoughts, probably playing through a piece in his head with the benefit of his photographic memory. Another has Mitropoulos emerging from a 1950s jetliner, smiling broadly and confidently — no hint of tragedy in the air — followed by a bevy of Scottish bagpipers. Like most priests, this one wasn’t above pomp and ceremony in his honor. The man also knew a level of joy that, I suspect, has been experienced by few human beings. I would love to have met Bruno Walter, but I wish I’d had dinner with Mitropoulos.