MAHLER: Symphonies 1, 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, and Andante from Symphony No. 10.
New York Philharmonic, Cologne Radio Orchestra, Vienna Philharmonic Orchestras/Dimitri Mitropoulos, cond.
MUSIC & ARTS CD 102 (6 CDs) (M) 7 hours, 33'  


As music director of the New York Philharmonic-Symphony during the centenary of Mahler's birth, Leonard Bernstein took most of the credit for America's belated appreciation of a creative trove. Columbia Records (later CBS, now Sony) seconded his claim by recording the entire Mahler canon with him on stereo LPs, all reissued on CDs. That endeavor remains an Everest in Bernstein's good-bad-and-ugly recorded legacy on Columbia/CBS/ Sony, along with the "Paris" symphonies of Haydn, Nos. 3, 5 and 8 by William Schuman, and his own music up to and including Mass and Kaddish(a.k.a. Symphony No. 3). Yet Bernstein was neither keeper of the flame nor Mahler's foremost stateside champion. Even before Bruno Walter's selective performances in the '40s of works by his fin-de-siècle master, audiences heard Koussevitzky's selective performances in Boston as well as Stokowski's in Philadelphia. Bernstein's advocacy furthermore came after Dimitri Mitropoulos' in Minneapolis (where, before him, Eugene Ormandy made the first American recording of Symphony No. 2 for RCA Victor) and later in new York during his decade (1948-1958) as co-conductor and music director of the NYPSO.

Indeed, the centenary of Mahler's birth (July 7, 1860) began with Mitropoulos' performances in Carnegie Hall of Symphonies 1, 5 and 9, plus Ernst Krenek's realization of the Andante/Adagio from the unfinished 10th. The CBS radio network's Sunday broadcasts of all these are included in this set of six mono CDS (for the M&A price of four). Mitropoulos also gave the American premiere of Symphony No. 3 with the NYPSO in April 1956, included here, but with 7-8 minutes cut from the development section of the long first movement, doubtless to fit in the NYPSO's broadcast slot. His marvelously stoic Sixth was a WDR Orchestra broadcast from Cologne on August 31, 1959, and his Eighth (a.k.a. "Symphony of a Thousand") an ORF transmission from the Salzburg Festival on August 29, 1960, featuring the Vienna Philharmonic and various choruses from the whilom Habsburg capital. Two months later, on November 2, 1960, Mitropoulos—the greatest conductor of Greek heritage—died in Milan of a massive coronary, while rehearsing Mahler's Third with the Teatro alla Scala Orchestra.

Because all of these performances come from broadcast tapes, sonic trade-offs vary considerably. Least successful is the Eighth, a massive proto-cantata with liturgical text in the first movement ("Veni, Creator Spiritus"), and the conclusion of Goethe's Faust, Part II, in the longer concluding movement. The venue was the Festspielhaus, new that summer, with a vast stage to accommodate Herbert von Karajan's elaborate operatic productions but not yet fine-tuned as a concert hall. Soloists were uneven (but aren't they always in this behemoth, live or on discs?), with a soubrette as Soprano I, and a hooty Contralto 2. However the clarion tenor of Giuseppe Zampieri as Doktor Faustus is the finest of any heard in several live performances (and too many recordings) of music that seldom moves me, apart from the dank and murmurous "Purgatorio" passage that opens the second movement.

Surprisingly, Mitropoulos conducted that section matter-of-factly, saving his famously ecstatic pourings-on for the Big Moments (hell, quarter-hours) before and after. Along with Zampieri, although not vocally his co-equal, Hilde Zadek, Hermann Prey and Otto Edelmann lend character to Goethe's philosophical mumbo-jumbo. When, 11 years later, Georg Solti visited Vienna with the Chicago Symphony to record the Eighth, he found the same musically slovenly choruses that had beer-barreled through Mitropoulos' performance. Solti was stonewalled until choristers heard the Chicago Symphony play full-out, and then tardily spruced up their act.

Neither does the Third symphony convince overall, apart from the cuts in movement I. By Sunday afternoon lips were tired, and brass players biffed repeatedly in unfamiliar music. Mitropoulos' tempo for the second movement Minuet was both too fast and empty-headed--like Stravinsky's ballerina in Petrushka. The ensuing Comodo; Scherzando missed the Alpine charm in Mahler's melodies and scoring. However, with the solo contralto's Nietzschean geschrei in movement IV, conductor and composer connected expressively (despite Beatrice Krebs' untamable tremolo). The fifth movement, with women and children singing "Bimm! Bamm!", starts charmingly until the music turns menacing (only Michael Gielen in a bygone Berlin Radio Symphony broadcast was eerier here). The "slow, peaceful" finale is an eloquent capstone to the best in Mitropoulos' Third, without Bernstein's sexagenarian italics on his DG remake, or the yeasty sentimentality of so many others on discs. But my favorite movement has always been the first, and cuts (plus the NYPSO trombone's fat lip) disfigure it here. I remain in love with Vaclav Neumann's Czech Philharmonic version on Supraphon. Otherwise, be agreeably surprised--even astonished--by Adrian Leaper's budget-price revelation on BMG/Arte Nova, with the Class-A orchestra he has built in the Canary Islands' capital.

In 1946, Symphony No. 1 got its first recording anywhere by Mitropoulos and his Minneapolitans, on six Columbia 78s packaged in a hideous grey and mauve album. An Ann Arbor house-mate at the U of M in 1948 played it deafeningly whenever drunk but gave me a Mahler tutorial. I can still hear Mitropoulos/Minneapolis, warts and all, if I close my eyes and time-travel. Although the one on M&A from January 9, 1960, also has orchestral smudges , it is so refreshingly straightforward--so invigoratingly unmannered--that I'm tempted to dump all the rest eating up limited shelf space like Pac-man. No. 1 shares a disc with the lone, pre-Cooke movement from No. 10--powerfully expressive here.

So is No. 5, which launched the NYPSO's centennial homage nearly 40 years ago--indeed a transfigured achievement as shaped and paced, effacing all others beginning with Bruno Walter's oddly withdrawn Adagietto from Vienna in 1938. Both then and later, he gave an impression that Mahler's emotive outbursts in the symphonies embarrassed him. (Walter seems never to have conducted Three, Six, Seven or Eight--Anton Webern's interpretive specialties with a Viennese workingmen's orchestra in the '30s.) Mitropoulos in 1960 screwed up tension in I, sustained it in II, and topped it in III, after which the Adagietto was benedictive (even at 11:03 there is no lingering or malingering). The finale is wonderfully sane, with the orchestra on top of every challenge.

The Sixth is forthright without stinting on expression or nuance. It grips one by concentrating on the music as Mahler wrote it (and then edited, and edited still more). The Sixth is usually exhausting as well as depressing, but here I was fascinated, even enthralled by its best parts, and somehow agreeably purged by the end. The Cologne Radio Orchestra of 1959, no Vienna Philharmonic or Amsterdam Concertgebouw, was nonetheless a meritorious ensemble that played above themselves for Mitropoulos. Keeping abreast of scholarship, he conducted the Scherzo movement second, and only two "Hammer-blows" in the finale. The Greek conductor's NYPSO live recording is included in the announced New York Philharmonic Mahler set.

Saving the best for last, Mitropoulos' Ninth of January 23, 1960--his last Mahler bequest to new York audiences--came as close to ideal as one can imagine. Again, forthrightness carried the day without mewling, whining, or a hairshirt. Don't expect autopsy-table Mahler ´á la Boulez, or Karajan's high-gloss, Mercedes-Benz Mahler, or Giulini's passionately unidiomatic view (in a harrowing performance all the same with the Chicago Symphony). Not even Bruno Walter's Viennese melancholy of 1938, two months before Hitler's Anschluss forced him to flee, touches the heart as Mitropoulos did--does. Sound isn't DDD or stereo-surround, but after a few moments the ear adjusts, and the message triumphs over the medium.

Caveats (if you'll allow a mangled subjunctive)? A 21-page program essay mentions Mahler's name only twice while it special-pleads on the conductor's behalf--a summary in effect by William R. Trotter of his book, Priest of Music: The Life of Dimitri Mitropoulos," begun by the late Oliver Daniel and completed from his copious notes. This is a minefield of revisionist hyperbole (for example, "[Mitropoulos] transformed a decent provincial orchestra..." meaning the Minneapolis Orchestra that Ormandy handed over when The Philadelphia Orchestra engaged him in 1936). Bernstein is excoriated as an ogre of "monstrous ego," whose "base treachery...denied (Mitropoulos) the Boston job" (when Koussevitzky was obliged to step down in 1948). It remains no more than a persistent rumor that Bernstein denounced Mitropoulos as a homosexual to his homophobic Maecenas, who nonetheless championed such "pederasticals" (one of the choicest Koussie-isms) as Copland, Barber, Diamond, and indeed the late Lenny himself).

You'll read nothing about Mahler's music either generally or in particular--only the movement titles on these CDs, their timings, and the date and place of origin on a poorly cropped insert. Trotter indulges often as not in bathos, without facing up to Mitropoulos' Dionysian (read "erratic-ecstatic") temperament. As a New Yorker from 1951-3, I heard numerous seasaw concerts, even poorish ones; the NYPSOmaniacs chewed up everyone after Toscanini except Artur Rodzinski (who packed a loaded gun in his hip pocket). At best--which we hear time and again on these discs, and in certain Columbia/CBS performances making their way onto Lys CDs in France and Sony CDs here--Mitropoulos was a memorable artist, albeit inconsistent and manually disadvantaged (as political correctness puts it today). Mahler-wise, I can't think of another interpreter who topped his insight or integrity on the best occasions.

R.D. (Sept. 1999)