Prokofiev • Romeo and Juliet

New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Dimitri Mitropoulos conducting
Columbia/Speakers Corner MS 6023
180-gram LP
1957/2014

Music

Sound

by Roy Gregory | June 17, 2014

onsidering his stellar reputation as a performer and his high-profile job as principle conductor of the New York Philharmonic from 1950 to 1958, the relatively small number of recordings Mitropoulos made for Columbia comes as something of a surprise. That is, until you look at his chosen repertoire and personal life. Not only was he a champion of modern composers and music, something that placed him ahead of his audience in terms of taste and development, he was also quietly but quite definitely gay. At the height of McCarthyism, he fell victim to that era’s incipient homophobia, first being demoted to joint principle conductor in 1957 and then ultimately replaced the following year, ironically by Leonard Bernstein. Perhaps Mitropoulos should have taken his own advice: At the height of his affair with Bernstein he advised the younger man to marry if he wanted to further his career -- which Bernstein duly did.

This 1957 Columbia recording captures Mitropoulos at the top of his game, conducting his favored modern music. The ballet score for Romeo and Juliet is amongst Prokofiev's more accessible and tonally conventional works, while its dance rhythms and dynamic leaps allow Mitropoulos license to indulge his dramatic and physically demonstrative style of performance. The result is engaging, expressive and full of drama, with electrifying playing from the New York orchestra. Yet, as the plot demands, there are moments of great tenderness and subtly wrought beauty too. Seldom can a work have found such a happy coincidence of advocate and performers, with the orchestra responding enthusiastically to their conductor’s direction.

The recording is, quite simply, wonderful. The broad soundstage and natural sense of air, depth and perspective make for fascinating comparisons with contemporary Deccas. The Columbia offers a warmer and less obviously immediate and transparent presentation, but it matches the UK label’s sense of musical coherence, while the sheer substance and solid presence to the sound serve as a constant (and welcome) reminder that this is an American orchestra that you are listening to. There’s some spotlighting of solo instruments, but whether or not you notice that (or simply appreciate the clarity) will depend to a great extent on just how critical your system and speakers are. I was listening via that audio electron microscope known as the Marten Coltrane Supreme 2, and you don’t get much more incisively revealing than that, yet this record and the music it contains were an absolute joy. The "Balcony Scene" and "Death of Tybalt" illustrate both sides of this fabulous performance perfectly, the delicacy and gentle humor in the would-be lovers’ awkwardness a stark contrast with the driven tempi, angular dynamic shifts and strident clashing phrases of the fight scene. Dynamic range is unfettered and instrumental color beautifully captured, helped by the exemplary cut and silent surfaces.

This is one of the nicest reissues I’ve received in quite some time, with every aspect of its execution meeting expectations, from the disc to the labels the sleeve to the choice of material. With so many reissue houses relying on musical bankers, it’s refreshing to see Speakers Corner reissuing material from the roads and back catalogues less traveled. This LP gets my highest recommendation. More, please!

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