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Gustav Mahler: Symphony No. 3
Claude Debussy: La Mer

Lucretia West (mezzo-soprano), Women of the Kölner Rundfunkchor, Kölner Domchor, Kölner Rundfunk-Sinfonie-Orchester, Dimitri Mitropoulos (conductor)
Recorded at: Saal 1, Funkhaus, Köln (Oct 24 [Debussy] & 31 [Mahler], 1960) – 118'17
ICA Classics ICAC 5021 – Booklet in English, French, German

If ever a recording encapsulated emotions of bittersweet sincerity, it is this one. Dimitri Mitropoulos never conducted an ordinary performance, and the majority that we have on record are extraordinary. Mahler's Third Symphony and Debussy's La Mer, their composers' most overt expressions of love of nature, are here presented in engrossing performances by a legendary conductor in his final concert. Adding to the overwhelming interpretations are the circumstances surrounding the recordings. Mitropoulos suffered a heart attack in the middle of the first movement of the Mahler, but continued on with the performance. The readings are haunted with anxiety and urgency. All is topped off by a warming, genuine, one-minute remark from Mitropoulos to the orchestra praising the city of Köln and the consistently wonderful performances of its orchestra.

The recording of Mahler's Third has been unofficially available for a while (on Tahra, for one). The document is important as a competitor among the mainstream of recordings of this mammoth work, easily eclipsing the oddly speedy but fascinating New York Philharmonic recording Mitropoulos left, with its numerous cuts and vocal parts sung in English. Here we have a complete rendition that is easily the match of recordings of its time. While the sound quality has a bit too much reverb, given its provenance, it is wholly satisfactory.

The first movement is not extravagantly wild, but more of a mainstream approach. The arresting first statement from the horns sets the bar for extremely high orchestral execution throughout. There is added magic in the extremely quick, tight trills that accompany the second subject.

If Mitropoulos' heart was weakened after the opening movement, his soul wasn't. The remainder of the symphony contains many convincing, distinctive touches. In the second movement, the strings are excitingly precise in the quick episodes, creating a wintery swirl that foreshadows similar passages in the Fourth Symphony. In both this and the third movement, one can bask in the distinctive sounds of the German woodwind section–opaque flute, piquant oboe, bright clarinet–all delicious. If the third movement isn't quite "Ohne Hast", it convinces as a more aggressive, naturalistic portrayal of Mahler's "What the Animals of the Forest Tell Me" subtext. The offstage Flugelhorn passages are nicely caught, and the tempo changes in these trio sections are handled expertly by conductor and orchestra, producing cinematic shifts. The movement's first climax is richly played, and the final arrival is manic and furious.

Lucretia West produces a gorgeous, round tone in the Nietzsche setting, adding to an intensity that continues to increase from here to the end of the symphony. This is simply gorgeous playing and singing, with West complemented by fantastic contributions from the principal horn. Flesh rises and tears well at "Weh spricht: Vergeh!" and, if the final phrase is not finessed as tenderly as in some other performances, it leads fluidly into the fifth movement. "Es sungen drei Engel" is given more heft than usual. The meno mosso marking at the mezzo's entry is truly taken to heart, and Mitropoulos plays up the menace in the fallen's begging for mercy. The choral singing is excellent, with particularly well-articulated contributions from the boys of the Kölner Domchor.

The finale was Mitropoulos' farewell, not only to this orchestra that he had come to love so dearly, but essentially to the world and to music. The orchestra's strings coalesce into a warm, glowing body, and there is extra weight in the modal shifts that consistently follow every hopeful cadence. If the horns have lost a bit of their power by the end of the movement, the intensity still overwhelms, and one feels privy to a monumental event at the final cadence. This is indeed a reading for the ages.

La Mer is an excellent choice for a coupling, playing up Mitropoulos' virtuosity both as an interpreter and as a coaxer of timbres from an orchestra. Strings in the Mahler were dark and rich. Here they are lithe and transparent. The brass section is imposing only when needed but otherwise darts in and out of textures with utmost agility. From the podium comes an organic flow of tempos. It seems as if we are, appropriately, always at sea, with Mitropoulos constantly pushing and pulling at the pulse. The work opens with a speedy introduction, but the tempo of the main part of the first movement is more conventional. The second movement, moving forward quite a bit, features ebbs and flows of momentum that are carried to their full extents. Some tempo changes seem to catch the orchestra off guard, but they quickly adjust. In the finale, tempo differences are pulled to their most extreme. Especially notable is the haunting, eerily calm episode before the final rush, which eclipses all other climaxes in the piece, and thankfully has the brass fanfares in tact.

In all, this is an important document not only in the Mitropoulos discography, but in the that of both works memorialized within. Whether you're a fan of this conductor, this orchestra, this decade of symphonic performances or this repertoire, you'll find something interesting here.

Marcus Karl Maroney




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