Mitropoulos’ Great Tchaikovsky Pathétique Returns At Last!

Review by: Victor Carr Jr


Artistic Quality: 10

Sound Quality: 7

This storied recording, long elusive (in the U.S., at least) has at last reappeared in a handsome remastering with the original cover art to boot. Originally released on Columbia Masterworks in 1958 (recorded a year earlier), it first came to my attention as a Columbia budget Odyssey reissue. In Europe it appeared on the Philips label in the west and on Urania in the east. The first CD release was part of the CBS Masterworks Portrait series, but disappointingly, only in mono. (Why? Could they not find the stereo master?)

Like Bruno Walter’s contemporaneous New York Philharmonic Mahler Second, Columbia’s early stereo recording offers a “living presence” effect with natural balances and vivid detail (though the Tchaikovsky has less dynamic range than the Mahler). This is important because there are precious few recordings of Mitropoulos in good stereo sound.

As for the performance, there is simply no other Pathétique quite like this one. Mitropoulos’ taut, febrile interpretation makes this warhorse sound fresh, and lends the music an unexpected air of modernity, reminding us that Shostakovich’s symphonies were germinated here. Following a brooding Adagio introduction, the Allegro proper dashes off like a cheetah (no “non troppo” here!). The effect is bracing, and once you get accustomed, most “normal” readings sound a bit sluggish. The big tune flows smoothly yet ardently, while the development shocks like a lightning strike. Mitropoulos doesn’t belabor the great climax, keeping it strictly in tempo yet rendering it no less powerfully.

After a colorful and touching con grazia second movement, Mitropoulos’ breathless march-scherzo reminds of Mravinsky, though without that performance’s manic relentlessness. At 8:26, Mitropoulos’ Adagio lamentoso Finale (half the length of Bernstein’s 1987 recording) is one of the quickest on disc. And while this may at first seem to underplay the music’s dark emotion, Mitropoulos’ flowing intensity proves this movement doesn’t have to be lugubrious to be deeply affecting, even as some listeners may be put off by the conductor’s rewriting the trumpet part in the climax (after its dramatic ascent it now joins the strings’ downward run). It’s a relic of that era, as Szell and Ormandy also made their own “improvements” to composer’s scores.

Nonetheless, Mitropoulos’ lively tempos and instinctive, natural phrasing make you feel as if you’re listening to the actual Tchaikovsky Pathétique, rather than a “performance” of it.

The New York Philharmonic makes this music sound as if it were written for them (despite the occasional lapses in intonation during the more rapid passages), a tradition they maintained over 30 years through two subsequent recordings under Leonard Bernstein.

Frustratingly, the CD version is still not easy to get. You have to buy Sony’s recently released big-box Mitropoulos Original Jacket collection, while the single-disc SACD was apparently issued only in Japan. However, it’s readily available as a digital download from iTunes and Amazon, as well as in hi-res format from This great performance is essential, so however you choose to get it, just get it! And soon, because you never know when it might again disappear.

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Recording Details:

Reference Recording: Mravinsky (Erato); Markevitch (Philips); Fricsay (DG)

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