Artist Profile: Dimitri Mitropoulos

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“Only life suffered can transform a symphony from a collection of notes into a message of humanity” – Dimitri Mitropoulos

On 2 November 1960, 64-year-old Greek-American conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos took the podium at the Teatro alla Scala in Milan to rehearse Gustav Mahler’ s Third Symphony. During the rehearsal he suffered a massive heart attack and died. Only a few days earlier, during a performance of the same symphony in Cologne, he had suffered a milder version and dutifully finished the concert despite the doctor’s protests. Mitropoulos died in the middle of his career, when international offers were at their most intense; sadly, he was denied the opportunity to refine his interpretations in his old age.

Mitropoulos lived on in the memories of many musicians and singers who were fascinated by his memory – he always conducted without a score – his expressive eyes and his powerful gestures. Though he was gradually forgotten by audiences and record collectors, in 2022 Sony released a boxed set of Mitropoulos’ complete performances on Columbia and RCA, a massive 69-disc set of all his studio recordings from Minneapolis and New York, which provides a fascinating insight into the characteristics of the conductor. For a more complete picture of his artistry, however, listeners should also check out his many live recordings – especially opera – on labels such as Orfeo, Walhall and Myto.

Born in Athens and educated as a pianist and conductor in Greece and Germany, Mitropoulos made his breakthrough in 1930 with the Berlin Philharmonic, combining the roles of soloist and conductor in Prokofiev ‘s Third Piano Concerto. In 1936 he made his US debut at a concert in Boston, and later became chief conductor of the Minneapolis (now Minnesota) Orchestra between 1937 and 1949. The years in Minneapolis were in many ways his happiest, and it was during these years that he expanded their repertoire to include much 20th century music.

The most important period of his career was the nine years he spent as director of the New York Philharmonic (1949-1958). It was, however, a psychologically stressful time for him, with constant conflicts with the orchestra’s management. On the artistic side, however, he was uncompromising in introducing much unknown repertoire and newly written music, which was not always well received by critics and musicians. During his time in New York, many contemporary works by American and European composers were premiered, and he also introduced Schoenberg, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Berg and other major composers of the 20th century.

Mitropoulos was a singular individualist, a deeply religious loner who lived a spartan life in a hotel room near Carnegie Hall. He spent most of his free time studying scores and his only other leisure activity was watching an occasional western film. He was also homosexual, which caused him social problems in McCarthy’ s America of the 1950s.

Leaving the New York Philharmonic should have been bitter for him, given all the work he had put into the orchestra, but it nevertheless liberated him on a purely artistic level. He was a frequent guest conductor in Europe, including the Vienna Philharmonic in Salzburg and Vienna, and at various Italian opera houses.

Opera also gradually became a more important part of his conducting career – he was associated with the Metropolitan Opera  in New York. In opera, Mitropoulos is often at his best with the great singers of that generation such as Borkh, Goltz, Del Monaco, Milanov, Albanese, Tucker and Warren, with dramatic interpretations of mainly Italian repertoire – Verdi, Puccini and other Verismo composers – and Strauss.

His 1957 performance of Verdi’s Ernani in Florence with Del Monaco and Cerquetti is a classic. Rarely, if ever, has such a passionate performance been captured on record, despite the somewhat poor sound quality. Both vocally and orchestrally, it is the interpretation that contains the most adrenaline and beauty.

Elektra with Borkh from Salzburg 1957 has an anguish and power that is still completely shocking to hear more than 60 years later. Salome with Goltz from the MET in 1955 is also something you won’t soon forget, with the orchestra playing as if their lives depended on it and the singers performing at the highest level. The 1951 New York recording of Berg’s Wozzeck, with Mack Harrell in the title role, remains unsurpassed in its intensity. He also premiered and recorded Samuel Barber ‘s opera Vanessa. A late-romantic masterpiece that is rarely heard today.

In orchestral and choral music, he has given passionate interpretations of Strauss’s Symphonic Poems, Mahler’s Eighth Symphony, Berlioz’s Requiem, Schmidt’s The Book of Seven Seals, Chausson’s Symphony, Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet Suites, Stravinsky’s Petrouchka and many others. In addition, his interpretations of Shostakovich’s Fifth and Tenth Symphonies are among the finest ever made, bringing furious power and demoniac to this music.

More than 60 years have passed since Dimitri Mitropoulos’ death, but when I listen to his recordings it is easy to realise his importance. There is no restraint in the interpretations, everything is real – a matter of life and death.

Notable Recordings

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