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CD Review

Russian Music

New York Philharmonic Orchestra/Dimitri Mitropoulos
Sony 82876-78761-2 75:45
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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 protégé 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 Roméo 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 Roméo 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 Roméo and Juliet, definitely. The rest are merely quite good.

Copyright © 2008, Steve Schwartz