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October 30, 2009

Blast from the Past: Dimitri Mitropoulos

For my weekly salute to the good old days, I thought I'd salute Dimitri Mitropoulos, a conductor who never fails to impress me -- at least from recordings, which are all I have to go by (he was long gone before I got interested in classical music). I've featured Mitropoulos before in this blog, and will no doubt continue to do so, since I find in his music-making a truly unique mix of drama and poetry, humanity and spirituality.

One of my favorite examples of Mitropoulos in action was captured live at a performance of Verdi's "La forza del Destino" in Florence in 1953, so I thought that's what I would share today. What he does with the Overture is, to me, simply astonishing and spine-tingling. And it's such a daringly individualistic interpretation.

No one I know of has ever slowed down just before the coda to punch out each of the chords, for example (around 5:50 on this audio clip). There are many other distinctive touches, too, including his shaping of the great, arcing melodic line that rises and falls in the strings early on in the overture (starting at 1:43); Mitropoulos has the strings accent the descending notes of the theme in such a way as to bring out an extra layer of inner torment.

This is not just a live recording, but a fully alive performance, and a demonstration of inspired conducting.

For comparison purposes, I've followed the Mitropoulos clip with a recording by the legendary Arturo Toscanini, which has its own considerable appeal -- you won't ever hear me knocking Toscanini -- and provides a faithful account of the printed score. Note the smoother descending string line at 1:32 and the normal steady push of the pre-coda chords at 5:35.

I don't expect everyone to agree with me that Mitropoulous is supreme in the "Forza" Overture, but I hope you'll grant that this is one mighty blast from the past:
1:32 on Toscanini)

Posted by Tim Smith at 10:48 AM | | Comments (3)


For anybody who loves Mitropoulos I can enthusiastically recommend two live recordings, both from the Salzburg Festival with the Vienna Philharmonic: Mahler's 8th Symphony and Franz Schmidt Das Buch mit sieben Siegeln. Yes, they are mono recordings in works that cry for stereo, and there are some lapses inherent to live performances. But what intensity!

And speaking of La Forza del Destino, I am considering either of Mitropoulos's live recordings, from the Vienna State Opera or from Maggio Musicale Fiorentino. Tim, are you familiar with them, and if so, can you briefly compare?


Whoops. I'm always in a hurry, so I'm always making mistakes. The "Forza" recording I used for the clip is the the one from the Maggio Musicale in Florence (I just had La Scala on the brain for some reason). I haven't heard the Vienna performance, but I imagine the conducting is just as terrific (but probably not the cast). TIM

1960 has to stand as one of the most tragic years in opera in the 20th Century, as we lost three giants, all at the height of their powers, in a single year: Leonard Warren, Jussi Bjoerling and Dmitri Mitropoulos. Mitropoulos was still in his mid-sixties - barely middle age for a conductor - and he contributed so much to the operatic (and non-operatic) world. Bernstein is widely given credit for the renaissance of the music of Gustav Mahler - but it was really Mitropoulos who started the ball rolling, with stunning performances of the 5th and 6th Symphonies (thankfully preserved in off-air recordings). A recent release (in Europe) of a live performance of Mitropoulos conducting Manon Lescaut with Jussi Bjoerling and Licia Albanese shows what he brought to a performance. Bjoerling and Albanese made a fine recording of Manon Lescaut three years earlier, but under his baton in live performance, they take fire and leave their recording in the dust. Any lover of Puccini should have his Florence performance of "Fanciulla del West" - magnificent with Del Monaco and Steber (and including the difficult portion of the final duet usually cut); Verdi lovers should have his Ernani with the unbeatable cast of Milanov, Del Monaco, Warren and Siepi - despite some tinkering with the score. And what he and Warren might have made of Nabucco in 1961! Or had the 1959 Macbeth gone as planned - Mitropoulos leading Warren and Callas! And on top of his talent, he was called a "near saint" for his lack of professional backbiting, and his honest and humble work. Rest in peace, Dmitri!

Amen. TIM

Regarding Forza - There are actually 3 Forzas with Mitropoulos that are widely circulated - 2 from Florence (1953 w. Tebaldi and Del Monaco and 1956 w. Tebaldi and Di Stefano). Vienna has Stella and Di Stefano - in 1960. By that time, Di Stefano was well on in his quest to destroy his voice; he's better, but by no means perfect, in 1956. I've never heard the 1953 performance as I can't stand the baritone (Aldo Protti), and Tebaldi and Del Monaco made a superlative studio recording with Bastianini, Siepi and Simionato.

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About Tim Smith
Born and raised in Washington, D.C., I couldn't help but develop a keen interest in politics, but music, theater and visual art also proved great attractions. Music became my main focus after high school. I thought about being a cocktail pianist, but I hated taking requests, so I studied music history instead, earning a B.A. in that field from Eisenhower College (Seneca Falls, N.Y.) and an M.A. from Occidental College (Los Angeles). I then landed in journalism. After freelancing for the Washington Post and others, I was classical music critic for the Sun-Sentinel in South Florida, where I also contributed to NPR. I've written for the New York Times, BBC Music Magazine and other publications, and I'm a longtime contributor to Opera News. My book, The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Classical Music (Perigee, 2002), can be found on the most discerning remainder racks.

I joined the Baltimore Sun as classical music critic in 2000 and, in 2009, also became theater critic, giving me the opportunity to annoy a whole new audience. In 2010, my original Clef Notes blog expanded to encompass a theatrical component -- how could I resist calling it Drama Queens? I hope you'll find both sides of this blog coin worth exploring and reacting to; your own comments are always welcome and valued (well, most of them, at least).

Think of this as your open-all-hours, cyber green room, where there's always a performer or performance to discuss, some news to digest, or maybe just a little good gossip to share.
Note: Tim Smith now writes about the fine arts at This blog will be kept in place as an archive for an indefinite period. Please visit the new location to get the latest Mid-Atlantic arts coverage.
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