20 Nov 2006

MAHLER: Symphony no. 3

Originally recorded in Carnegie Hall on 15 April 1956, Dimitri Mitropoulos’s performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony dates from a time when this particular score was rarely heard in concert.

One of the earliest recordings of this work, it is known in the discography of Mahler’s music through its previous release on the Fonit Cetra label and sometimes disparaged when compared to Mitropoulos’s live performance of the same work with the WDR Symphony Orchestra (Cologne).

While Mahler purists may prefer the conductor’s later recording, this one from 1956 is not without interest. This performance involved cuts, with the opening movement and Finale relatively shorter than customarily taken. Yet this recording documents one of those rare occasions when Mahler’s Third Symphony was performed in the years before the so-called Mahler revival assigned to the early 1960s. If tempos are somewhat out of character when compared to the understanding of the work five decades later, it is evidence of a lack of familiarity with the score and the taste of the particular conductor in shaping a work. In truth, the performing tradition for this Symphony was not as rich as that of other music by Mahler, which were heard more often in those days. From this perspective the revival of interest in Mahler’s work was not a wholesale discovery of his music, but in its full scope, so that performances of a monumental score like that of the Third Symphony become more common and audiences could be more discriminating when dealing with a conductor’s interpretation.

The matter of cuts, though, bears understanding in the spirit of the time that Mitropoulos performed the work. The performing tradition for Mahler’s music was not yet strong enough then for precedents to invoke. This was also the time when Mahler’s name brought along associations with Bruckner, as found in Redlich’s dual biography of the two composers, and Dika Newlin’s groundbreaking study entitled Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg. If Mahler was known alongside Bruckner, it is no wonder that a conductor like Mitropoulos would take cuts, since Bruckner’s music was known in editions that involved cuts and other manipulations of his scores. With the critical edition to begin only at the end of the 1950s and continue through the 1980s in presenting scores sanctioned by the Internationale Gustav Mahler Gesellschaft, in 1956 Mahler’s scores did not yet have the iconic status that would come with the establishment of a Gesamtausgabe. Without such a structure for establishing the shape of Mahler’s works in print, it does not seem unusual for conductors to consider cuts, especially when his style is tied to that of Bruckner, for whom cuts were part of the performing tradition for his music.

Beyond the substantial issues connected to cuts. Mitroupolos’s interpretation, it has merits in the intensity the conductor brought to this performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Quick tempos aside, Mitropoulos has captured the spirit of the work, albeit without the details entirely in place – sometimes without the continuity of the score as the composer intended it. While the Orchestral performs well enough, some passages also reflect a lack of familiarity with the score, as occurs with the trombone solo in the first movement. Valiant an effort, it is not the kind of approach someone like Jay Friedman would take decades later in the various performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or even those in the following decade, when Leonard Bernstein recorded his first cycle of Mahler’s symphonies.

With the virtuosic tempos of the first movement bringing it to an enthusiastic conclusion, the second movement has a similar urgency to it that gives it a less elegiac character than modern audiences may expect. The full orchestral sound is also a departure from the more subdued tone that Riccardo Chailly would give it. In Mitropoulos’s hands, the second theme has a more gypsy-like sound that offers stark contrast when the principal theme returns. The string textures are, perhaps, less rich than possible with slower tempos, and orchestral effects like portamento are not evident in this interpretation, which is also a product of its time, when twentieth-century modernism eroded some nineteenth-century conventions, like the overtly romantic slides that would have seemed archaic at the time of this performance.

The third movement is also brisk, but not without interest. The brass are particularly fine in this recording, and the trumpet – not Fl├╝gelhorn – for the Posthorn solo in this movement offers a clean reading of the passage. This kind of substitution changes the character of Mahler’s sound enough to call attention to the performance, but another performance choice that would not be tolerated today is the use of a translation of Mahler’s texts for the vocal movements. The also Beatrice Krebs offers a clearly enunciated reading that gives the text in English, rather than the preferred German. Yet is it entirely wrong to do this? Didn’t Mahler confide to Otto Klemperer that he did not might if conductors of future generations adapted his scores? After all, a performance like this one by Mitropoulos brought the then-unfamiliar score to a broader audience, and the understanding is aided by a translation that does not alter drastically the rhythms of the vocal line in the fourth movement (“O Mensch, gib acht”) and the following choral movement, “Es sungen drei Engel.” The choral forces are, perhaps, less clear than the solo work by Krebs, but the audience in Carnegie did not need to bury its head in the program to read the text when they could hear music with heads raised up. This is by no means a suggestion that Mahler performances return to rendering the works in translation, but this recording documents its time, when such a choice was permissible for the few concerts that would include a work like this.

With the Finale, albeit cut, Mitropoulos still evokes the majesty that is part of the movement, particularly the concluding gestures that bring the work to its climax. Again, the tempos may be somewhat quicker than today’s audience expect, but he achieves a clearly effective result in the final bars, with the relentless timpani and brass reinforcing the solid harmonic movement that Mahler used to create a fitting conclusion to the work. Even though the applause seemed to have been truncated, the audience responded enthusiastically that is still part of this remastered CD issue of an historic performance by one of the outstanding conductors of the twentieth century. This recording may not be the only one someone may want for their collections, but it remains significant for what it reveals about the performing tradition of this work and the legacy found in the discography that includes this release.

James L. Zychowicz