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CLASSICAL  June 2008

CLASSICAL June 2008

Subject:

Mitropoulos on the Steppes

From:

Steve Schwartz <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

Moderated Classical Music List <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Mon, 16 Jun 2008 16:53:20 -0700

Content-Type:

text/plain

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Dimitri Mitropoulos
Russian Music

*  Sergei Prokofiev:
         - Romeo and Juliet (excerpts)
         - Lieutenant Kije Suite (mono)
*  Modeste Mussorgsky: Night on Bald Mountain

New York Philharmonic/Dimitri Mitropoulos
Sony 82876-78761-2 Total time: 75:45

Summary for the Busy Executive: Searing.

Like most conductors whose recording careers took place largely before
the stereo era, Mitropoulos has faded a bit. A pioneer Mahler advocate
and a strong champion of Modernism, including Schoenberg and his followers
as well as young composers of all stripes, Mitropoulos committed to every
project he undertook.  His style, and much of his repertoire, passed
down to the young Leonard Bernstein (before he became Profound), who
succeeded him as director of the New York Philharmonic.  I doubt Bernstein
would have discovered Mahler quite so quickly without him.  Mitropoulos
lived ascetically in cheap hotels and gave away much of his money to
young artists in need.  His dedication earned him the title of "The High
Priest of Music."

Mitropoulos tried to wring the last drop of emotional juice from each
and every work.  He was especially effective in opera, particularly Verdi
and Puccini, and he brought a dramatic sensibility to the concert stage.
Sounds a lot like Bernstein already.  Bernstein, however, always puffed
himself as a protege of Koussevitzky, but he had much more in common
musically with Mitropoulos, who tended to paint with a much broader
brush.

This CD is yet another entry in Sony's Great Performances series.  I had
the original LP of the Romeo and Juliet music, my introduction to the
work, and from the opening measures - those thick, thick chords and the
swaggering main theme representing the oppressive quarrel between the
Capulets and the Montagues - it blew me away.  I've since heard other
performances that in their own way pleased me equally well, including
those by my beloved Cleveland Orchestra, but this has always held a
special place in my memory.  The best parts of it are the quick dances;
the weakest, the meditative ones, like the balcony scene.  One high
point, the death of Tybalt, strikes me, especially under Mitropoulos's
direction, as one of the scariest pieces of music I know. Manic strings
scurry about as Romeo and Tybalt take swords to each other.  Much of the
number exhilarates, as if the act of fighting is in itself wonderful.
The death stroke falls over the music like heavy black gunk - grotesquerie
carried to Expressionist levels.

The Mussorgsky Night on Bald Mountain, done in the Rimsky-Korsakov
version, suffers a bit from the Philharmonic itself.  At this point
in its history, the Philharmonic may have ranked as the laziest major
orchestra in the country, relying on its name.  Attacks are spongy, not
what you want in a piece that should whip up excitement.  It's as if the
left half of the stage is in a tenth-of-a-second time warp from the right
half.  It's not a bad performance, but you could do better, like Reiner
and the Chicago.  The same holds for the Kije suite.  I'd recommend for
the latter Szell and the Cleveland, naturally.

The sound, from the late mono and early stereo eras (1956 and 1957)
still holds up, but of course it doesn't impress you like the latest
DG Wunderbar.  "Great Performances?" The Romeo and Juliet, definitely. 
The rest are merely quite good.

Steve Schwartz

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