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Mitropoulos Conducts Mahler Box set
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a couple of days ago.
As is frequently the case with Mitropoulos, you have not really
HEARD this piece until you've heard it the way Mitropoulos conducts it! As mentioned in the other review, Mitropoulos was
conducting these scores from scratch, without reference to anyone
else's approach and what he finds in the score to Mahler's Tragic
Symphony and extracts from the orchestra is quite unlike what
any other conductor has done. That does not necessarily make this
performance superior to all others, anymore than it makes it more
eccentric than all others, but having heard it just once, I can
tell you that no serious Mahler collection is complete without it!
As always, Mitropoulos presents a wealth of detail that other conductors either neglect or perceive to be part of something else. The opening march is taken rather slower than we're used to hearing it, but that only makes it more ominous. Of particular interest it the way Mitropoulos accentuates the piping
of the flutes and the squacking of the other woodwinds. Rather than the prophecy of Nazi jackboots we so frequently hear in this movement, Mitropoulos gives us the kicking, screaming resistance of old Europe being dragged inevitably forward into a more mechanized, less compassionate world. Likewise, in the adagio, Mitropoulos' approach to Mahler's offstage horns evokes
an image NOT of pastoral herdsmen, but the spirits of a way of
life that is already lost forever.
Mitropoulos' uncanny achievement here is to convey both the foreboding of a Europe at the crossroads and the anti-nostaglia
of an older man returning home, only to find no one he recognizes
and nothing to take solace in. That he can convey both these
emotional truths with equal commitment SIMULTANEOUSLY is remarkable indeed. Like Mahler, Mitropoulos was a deeply SPIRITUAL man, without being strictly religious, and like Mahler,
he viewed material and technological progress without corresponding spiritual progress as being false and dangerous.
That is the emotional truth Mitropoulos finds at the core of
Mahler's Tragic Symphony and conveys so eloquently.
No.1 is maybe not the best place to start. The repeat of the 1st movement's exposition is ignored ; so too the first statement of the 2nd movement's landler - both of which tend to unbalance their respective movements. I've already mentioned the slightly odd agogic pauses in the trio of the latter. The funeral march follows without a pause (perhaps to try and silence the coughers) and has a deeply touching central `blau augen' trio. The finale is especially impressive, using Mahler's markings to the full in the 2nd Subject and bringing off the return to the 1st movement's slow, bucolic introduction superbly before reaching a glowingly triumphant end.
No.3 is marred by some debilitating cuts - most noticeably in the development of the first movement (one big one - cues 36-37 - and two small), another in the scherzo and two more (one particularly painful 16 bar excision) in the Adagio Finale. Once you learn to live with those, though, this is a terrific performance. The Introduction is as wild and primeval as any I've heard, the First Trombone is gorgeously rich and the oboes are wonderfully raucous in the `Spring Marches In' allegro. The minuet is quite fast and lighter, more sprightly, more Carinthian than usual with full space give to all those rits and rubatos. The trio is virtuoso swift - in fact, too much of a stretch for the New York strings at times. The Nietzsche movement is given in slightly arch English (`Woe says, go hence', etc.) but oracularly sung by Beatrice Krebs. Of course, there is none of the current note-bending in the oboe's naturlaut calls that the likes of Rattle and Nott indulge in. The final adagio is quite magnificently done, despite the cuts, with beautifully balanced string polyphony often reminding me of Parsifal.
No.5. The 2nd movement is particularly wild and scarifying and Mitropoulos really makes it clearly another development of the 1st movement, especially when the opening triplets and then the funeral march reappear. The Chorale is grandly triumphant. In the scherzo, the obbligato horn is not particularly highlighted, but remains a primus inter pares with the rest of the horn section. Did I detect some added timps at the beginning of the coda? As I've said, the Adagietto is very slow indeed, but Mitropoulos sustains the line well and brings great clarity to the part-writing at the climax. The fugue in the finale is great but the grazioso sections lack a little grace.
No.6 is not the familiar New York performance from April 1955 (curious, as most of the other performances here are Carnegie Hall gigs), but a 1959 one with the West Deutsche radio orchestra from Cologne. The two performances are very similar, blisteringly harrowing in both cases. Again there is no exposition repeat here (which is a shame), but there is a steady inexorability to the main march material right through to the major/minor Fate motif and an unparalleled wildness to the so-called Alma theme that compensates. There is a very abrupt but magical shift to the Alpine meadows with their cowbells in the development which involves some odd ritardandos before re-establishing the march again. The Scherzo follow next, an order that always seems to me the better solution as it provides a kind of grotesque commentary on the first movement which in Mitropoulos' interpretation seems to look forward the weird central scherzo in the next symphony. And the Andante is a proper andante; Mitropoulos keeps it flowing quite beautifully. The finale is one of the best - the very expressionist introduction seems almost Schoenbergian (whose music Mahler was already championing at this time) and the piling up of brass through the successive development sections doesn't seem quite as incessant as it often is. All in all, this is a great performance of this symphony, which never seems to me to have fared that well on disc.
No.8 too is something very special indeed. Never have I heard Part 1's coda sound so ecstatic. The First Soprano (presumably Mimi Coertse, a new name to me) has the most wonderfully exultant, ringing top Cs. And the separated brass ring out wonderfully clearly in this Salzburg performance with the Vienna Phil. The Introduction to the Faustian Part 2 is clear and very atmospheric; Hermann Prey's Pater Ecstaticus sounds particularly youthful and Edelmann's Pater Profundus is far less strenuous than usual. The scherzo sections use greater extremes of tempo than we expect nowadays and the reprises of the Veni theme from the first movement are made vividly clear by Mitropoulos and his forces. Zampieri's Dr. Marianus rings out with a clear and sumptuous heldentenor sound; the women's trio sound almost like Rheinmadchen and the Mater Gloriosa is pure and crystalline with the harmonium chords supporting her unusually clear. The final chorus and peroration are again as ecstatic and exultant as any I've heard.
No.9 is another great performance. The limping heartbeat rhythm from the opening bars seems to permeate the whole of the first movement. The falling seconds of the main theme are always kept flowing while the 2nd subject material is, as so often in these performances, especially wild and abandoned, particularly in the central plotzlich langsamer section. There is still passion beating away even in the broken-back of the coda. The landler is taken swiftly with the 1st Trio at very much the same tempo and the 2nd Trio a little slower. The Rondo-Burleske starts quite steadily and all Mahler's bitter irony is right at the forefront. A highly dramatic fugue leads into the visionary trio which is brutally interrupted by the abruptest of tempo subitos returning us to the rondo with its headlong flight to the prestissimo end. The final adagio is nothing less than masterly. Its opening pours healing balm on the reckless end of the Rondo. Throughout tempi are perfectly judged. Those passages of zen-like spareness of counterpoint with just two or three lonely wandering lines are pointedly contrasted with the rich harmonies of the main subject until it all evaporates into the nirvanaesque ether at the end.
And No.10 seems to follow from where the Ninth leaves off (though it's actually on the first disc with Symphony No.1). There's only the opening Adagio of course - Deryck Cooke was still working on the first draft of his performing version to be heard later the same year. Mitropoulos makes the opening viola line a true andante to contrast with the adagio of the main theme. And that main theme, whether in its initial guise or inverted, fragmented, augmented , diminished, in close canon and so on, is shown as the root of practically everything in the entire movement, including the horrifying expressionist dissonance at the climax. Its all-pervasiveness is very clear in Mitropoulos's deeply perceptive account.
These are thought-provoking and intensely moving performances, all. And the digital remastering by Maggi Payne brings them up amazingly fresh, clear and true, despite their age. Of course, there are the occasional slips and cracks of a live performance and it is true that the audiences of those days were inconsiderately bronchial and noisy. But don't let that discourage you from exploring these very special performances from early in the days of the Mahler renaissance.
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