MAHLER: Symphony no. 3

One of the
earliest recordings of this work, it is known in the discography of
Mahler’s music through its previous release on the Fonit Cetra label
and sometimes disparaged when compared to Mitropoulos’s live
performance of the same work with the WDR Symphony Orchestra (Cologne).

While Mahler purists may prefer the conductor’s later recording,
this one from 1956 is not without interest. This performance involved cuts,
with the opening movement and Finale relatively shorter than customarily
taken. Yet this recording documents one of those rare occasions when
Mahler’s Third Symphony was performed in the years before the so-called
Mahler revival assigned to the early 1960s. If tempos are somewhat out of
character when compared to the understanding of the work five decades later,
it is evidence of a lack of familiarity with the score and the taste of the
particular conductor in shaping a work. In truth, the performing tradition
for this Symphony was not as rich as that of other music by Mahler, which
were heard more often in those days. From this perspective the revival of
interest in Mahler’s work was not a wholesale discovery of his music,
but in its full scope, so that performances of a monumental score like that
of the Third Symphony become more common and audiences could be more
discriminating when dealing with a conductor’s interpretation.

The matter of cuts, though, bears understanding in the spirit of the time
that Mitropoulos performed the work. The performing tradition for Mahler’s
music was not yet strong enough then for precedents to invoke. This was also
the time when Mahler’s name brought along associations with Bruckner, as
found in Redlich’s dual biography of the two composers, and Dika Newlin’s
groundbreaking study entitled Bruckner, Mahler, Schoenberg. If
Mahler was known alongside Bruckner, it is no wonder that a conductor like
Mitropoulos would take cuts, since Bruckner’s music was known in editions
that involved cuts and other manipulations of his scores. With the critical
edition to begin only at the end of the 1950s and continue through the 1980s
in presenting scores sanctioned by the Internationale Gustav Mahler
Gesellschaft, in 1956 Mahler’s scores did not yet have the iconic status that
would come with the establishment of a Gesamtausgabe. Without such a
structure for establishing the shape of Mahler’s works in print, it does not
seem unusual for conductors to consider cuts, especially when his style is
tied to that of Bruckner, for whom cuts were part of the performing tradition
for his music.

Beyond the substantial issues connected to cuts. Mitroupolos’s
interpretation, it has merits in the intensity the conductor brought to this
performance of Mahler’s Third Symphony. Quick tempos aside, Mitropoulos has
captured the spirit of the work, albeit without the details entirely in place
– sometimes without the continuity of the score as the composer
intended it. While the Orchestral performs well enough, some passages also
reflect a lack of familiarity with the score, as occurs with the trombone
solo in the first movement. Valiant an effort, it is not the kind of approach
someone like Jay Friedman would take decades later in the various
performances by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra or even those in the following
decade, when Leonard Bernstein recorded his first cycle of Mahler’s

With the virtuosic tempos of the first movement bringing it to an
enthusiastic conclusion, the second movement has a similar urgency to it that
gives it a less elegiac character than modern audiences may expect. The full
orchestral sound is also a departure from the more subdued tone that Riccardo
Chailly would give it. In Mitropoulos’s hands, the second theme has a
more gypsy-like sound that offers stark contrast when the principal theme
returns. The string textures are, perhaps, less rich than possible with
slower tempos, and orchestral effects like portamento are not evident in this
interpretation, which is also a product of its time, when twentieth-century
modernism eroded some nineteenth-century conventions, like the overtly
romantic slides that would have seemed archaic at the time of this

The third movement is also brisk, but not without interest. The brass are
particularly fine in this recording, and the trumpet – not Fl¸gelhorn
– for the Posthorn solo in this movement offers a clean reading of the
passage. This kind of substitution changes the character of Mahler’s
sound enough to call attention to the performance, but another performance
choice that would not be tolerated today is the use of a translation of
Mahler’s texts for the vocal movements. The also Beatrice Krebs offers
a clearly enunciated reading that gives the text in English, rather than the
preferred German. Yet is it entirely wrong to do this? Didn’t Mahler
confide to Otto Klemperer that he did not might if conductors of future
generations adapted his scores? After all, a performance like this one by
Mitropoulos brought the then-unfamiliar score to a broader audience, and the
understanding is aided by a translation that does not alter drastically the
rhythms of the vocal line in the fourth movement (“O Mensch, gib
acht”) and the following choral movement, “Es sungen drei
Engel.” The choral forces are, perhaps, less clear than the solo work
by Krebs, but the audience in Carnegie did not need to bury its head in the
program to read the text when they could hear music with heads raised up.
This is by no means a suggestion that Mahler performances return to rendering
the works in translation, but this recording documents its time, when such a
choice was permissible for the few concerts that would include a work like

With the Finale, albeit cut, Mitropoulos still evokes the majesty that is
part of the movement, particularly the concluding gestures that bring the
work to its climax. Again, the tempos may be somewhat quicker than
today’s audience expect, but he achieves a clearly effective result in
the final bars, with the relentless timpani and brass reinforcing the solid
harmonic movement that Mahler used to create a fitting conclusion to the
work. Even though the applause seemed to have been truncated, the audience
responded enthusiastically that is still part of this remastered CD issue of
an historic performance by one of the outstanding conductors of the twentieth
century. This recording may not be the only one someone may want for their
collections, but it remains significant for what it reveals about the
performing tradition of this work and the legacy found in the discography
that includes this release.

James L. Zychowicz

image_description=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 3
product_title=Gustav Mahler: Symphony no. 3
product_by=New York Philharmonic Orchestra, Dimitri Mitropoulos (cond.)
product_id=Archipel ARPCD 0344 [CD]