La mer – three symphonic sketches
Lucretia West (mezzo-soprano)
Women of Kölner Rundfunkchor
Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester [Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra]
Recorded in 1960 – 31 October (Mahler) and 24 October in Saal 1, Funkhaus, Cologne
Reviewed by: Colin Anderson
Reviewed: June 2011
CD No: ICA CLASSICS
ICAC 5021 (2 CDs)
Duration: 1 hour 58 minutes
Captured in decent mono sound, well-re-mastered, Dimitri Mitropoulos’s account of Mahler 3, a studio performance broadcast live, is gripping, atmospheric, suspenseful and genuinely symphonic; the latter quality no mean feat in this long and diverse six-movement work (at one stage Mahler planned a seventh). It was also the last music that Athens-born Mitropoulos conducted. From Cologne he travelled to Milan to begin rehearsals on the same Mahler symphony with the La Scala Orchestra but suffered a fatal heart-attack during the first session (on 2 November). He was 64. According to Michael Schwalb’s booklet note for this ICA release – the first legitimate issue of this Mahler 3 – Mitropoulos had also suffered heart problems during the first movement of this Cologne performance. As it happens there was a scheduled interval – after the long first movement (Part One of the Symphony) – during which a doctor advised the conductor not to continue with the performance. He refused. Although Mitropoulos’s consideration to complete the concert is understandable, it does seem strange that he then journeyed to Milan seemingly without further medical attention. Perhaps he was unaware of his potentially critical condition, although he had previously suffered heart-attacks and endured stays in hospital.
However, the mention of an interval and the division of Mahler’s Third Symphony into two distinct parts cues disappointment as to ICA’s layout of it. The first five movements are presented on disc one, which means a break to the second disc before the sixth – at just the point where the sublime finale should steal in, without interruption. It may be that Mitropoulos, unlike most other conductors, did not prompt an attacca at this point, but even so. Had the first disc begun with La mer and been followed by Mahler’s gargantuan first movement, then Part Two (the remaining five movements) could have been complete on the second disc – and therefore been faithful to Mahler’s design and also Mitropoulos’s with-interval account of the symphony, which is though this release’s main work of course. Presenting it first is understandable, but a break after the the third movement would have been preferable and mathematically possible between the discs.
Current Mahler trends have taken performances of his music to excess rather than making them special occasions – and which has rather denuded the appeal of some of his symphonies – it is good to return to an era when something like Symphony 3 would have been a relative novelty. Mitropoulos sees the work whole, the first movement beginning with a real call to attention from some commanding unison horns. From there the pastoral and up-roaring contrasts are melded into a cohesive whole, primeval vigour being built in long paragraphs with many thrilling releases that never lack for poise (although there is a wilder side to this music that Mitropoulos keeps slightly buttoned up). The brass sections are notable – not only heroic horns but also a fine trombone solo. There is here a rough-hewn sophistication, a glorious march-past, and if Mitropoulos seems allergic (as was Toscanini) to trombone glissandos he always has a very clear sight of where the music is going.
The remaining movements are all compelling in their realisation, given with edge and vividness. The third movement’s posthorn solo is less-worthy though. It seems to be essayed on a trumpet (quite common), but is too loud, not distant enough, and also rather roughly played as if from the barracks (perhaps deliberately – it fits Mitropoulos’s unvarnished approach), strenuous rather than calming. The close of this outdoors movement, which breathes Alpine air, is one of very few performances in which the strings are audible; the recording may be limited (if perfectly good), but Mitropoulos ensured clarity at this point and the microphones captured it. Lucretia West’s contribution to the Nietzsche-inspired fourth movement is inspired, intense and exquisite, the violin solo also very fine, and the ‘bim-bam’ of the fifth finds ladies and boys as a lusty crew, bells to the fore. The finale, not dragged to heavenly length, is radiant and (appropriately) loving, if not without pain, and the glorious final bars, despite being rather strident (the brass not ‘golden’-sounding enough) is a magisterial processional to the altar and very inspiring.
La mer is performed ruthlessly, a brightly-lit and insensitive version, scrappily played at times. The turbulence could equate to very choppy waters, and it might be thought bracing, if often misconceived. ‘From Dawn to Midday’ has the hands on the clock-face flying round (it doesn’t have to be in real time, but this is no time at all); ‘Play of the Waves’ lacks wit in this volatile hurry-by (and which climaxes crudely); only ‘Dialogue of the Wind and the Sea’ can withstand Mitropoulos’s hyper approach but even then there’s not much to like. Not that La mer need always be hazy impressionism (and it wasn’t the composer’s primary concern), but Mitropoulos even sinks (no pun) Debussy’s symphonism through his unstable approach. It’s difficult to think what attracted Mitropoulos to this miraculous score, for he destroys its subtlety and poise. Schoenberg’s Variations for Orchestra (Opus 31) was played in the same concert. On paper, that eminent composition would seem preferable as Mahler 3’s companion: concise commentaries complementing a world-embracing symphony. Still, the Mahler is the thing; and as recorded performances of it go, Mitropoulos’s comes very high on the list.