About this Recording
9.70193 - MITROPOULOS, D.: Piano Works (Kara)

Dimitri Mitropoulos (1896–1960)
Piano Music


The Mitropoulos legend accompanied all my teenage years while studying at the Athens Conservatory. I grew up listening to Mitropoulos’s recordings and reading whatever could possibly concern him. When, upon my graduation, I was awarded the Conservatory’s Golden Medal, the importance of the distinction was not the Medal itself but the fact that more than thirty years before, it was Mitropoulos himself who had received it. Later in my student years at Juilliard, my knowledge of and interest in Mitropoulos’s personality was even more increased by my beloved teacher David Diamond, the eminent twentieth-century American composer.

Mitropoulos’s personality in my mind represented all the high values that a true nineteenth-century idealist stood for: the pursuit of the unattainable, the struggle to seize sharp conflicts, and to see music as a substitute for religion. But above all he represented a rôle model as a guardian of artistic and spiritual integrity, both in music and in life, which were experienced by him as an inseparable unit.

The sound world of his early piano works (1912–1920) encompasses a wide gamut of emotionalism (most typical of romantic style), ranging from unleashed demonic powers, Mahlerian despair, purgatorial prayer (St Francis was his beloved saint), to Cavafian meditations. Blazing passions mostly veiled or muted run against each other all the time. The delicate lyrical expression alternates with the feverish eroticism that one finds in Béatrice or in the Scherzo in F minor. Implicit lyrical lines are often inhibited by soaring climaxes whose expansions are called to a halt by sudden implosions.

These early piano compositions from Rêverie au bord de la mer at the age of sixteen to the Fête crétoise, when he was 23, along with certain formal weaknesses, demonstrate the strong influence and identification with post-Wagnerian language, as well as spontaneous orchestral thinking to the extent that one can mistake them for piano transcriptions of orchestral originals. Skalkottas’s orchestration of the Fête crétoise is indicative of the piece’s nature. The virtuosic writing of these works, which were all performed by him, serves as an early indicator of his future achievements as a soloist-conductor.

The works written between 1924–26 Four Cytheran Dances, Klavierstück and Passacaglia, Intermezzo e Fuga are marked by a shift of his style in exploring, pioneer as he was, unknown musical territories such as those of atonality and serialism, combined with traditional techniques. He had chosen a path to find with painstaking efforts the thread of evolution rather than breaking with the past in the name of modernism. Could this be an indirect influence of Busoni (while he was studying with him in the 1920s) into awakening his interest for classical form ideals? Probably yes. The composer of Faust was a highly influential teacher after all.

Had he not ceased composing, I think Mitropoulos today would rank among the important pioneers of the 1920s to 1930s, because these works show a personal style as do those of Bartók and Berg. One could say the same thing of him as a piano virtuoso: had he not stopped performing, he would have shared equal stature with Rachmaninov or Prokofiev. We should remember that Mitropoulos used to appear in his dual function as a conductor and soloist in Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No 3, as well as in Brahms’s Piano Concerto No 2 . Indeed it was and still remains an unprecedented feat for any musical genius, even today.

The Passacaglia, while conserving the traditional formula, the continuous repetition of a four or eight bar theme in the bass, in a triple and, less often, duple metre, in a moderately slow and stately tempo, unfolds in an atonal language. The piece has the compound metre of 7/4 (3/4 + 2/2) and (2/2 + 3/4). This combination shapes the eight-bar theme into four phrases of two bars each.

The eight-bar theme, starting with an upbeat, has thirteen entries without a single alteration appearing in the bass and moving as high as the middle register, returning back where it started. Dynamic planes are as well organically linked to the unfolding of each of the transformations which accompany each of the thirteen entries of the ostinato theme. The free contrapuntal parts surrounding the theme create a multiplicity of links in a multi-layered structure consisting of strict and free counterpoint, chromatic, diatonic and whole-tone scales, unconventional progressions of “skyscraper” complex chords of the 7th, 9th, 11th and 13th of tertial harmony, progressions of chords of quartal harmony, or cluster chords based on seconds. The heightened tension created by the accumulation of dissonances requires careful handling of the dynamic planes in order to keep aural intelligibility and keep clarity of lines despite the unprecedented complexity. The resulting sound image, devoid of all human imagery, rises austere with an unfailing affinity to Russian constructivism, and, oddly enough, emanating a superficial suggestion of neo-gothic atmosphere.

Intermezzo, with its Puck-like swiftness, is built on quartal harmony including overtone effects and clusters. The atonal three-voice Fuga is equally complex as well as of great beauty. At first it may appear as an impenetrable huge mass of sound. One can imagine Michelangelo’s David at the stage of a huge marble block before the first stroke. Unlike the Passacaglia, where human imagery seems to be absent, in the Fuga the most subtle expressionism permeates the piece very much as in Alban Berg’s Piano Sonata.

The theme, based on the mirror of the Intermezzo’s opening motive, has enormous stretches over different registers, huge leaps, voice crossings, weaving on a complex canvas of quartal harmony. The incredible masses of dissonances, just as in the Passacaglia, once rendered intelligibly, reveal a noble beauty of a rare kind. The Fuga, in 2/4 metre, has only 49 bars of music, probably the busiest 49 bars ever written. Moreover, the tremendous density compressed in the theme grows through to the end by increasing the compression. Through the fugal episodes the three voices engulf one another as if operating on a strong magnetic field. At the final coda the last statement of the theme is a doubled mirror in fourths in the outer parts and free counterpoint in the inner parts and reaches the end without any tension released. On the contrary the perpetual compression reaching the final chord, on the weakest part of the weak beat, the last sixteenth note (semiquaver), thickens the density as if being replaced by the emergence of a “black hole”, such as those that Stephen Hawking spotted in the Universe.

The Four Cytheran Dances, Passacaglia and Klavierstück, despite being written fifteen years earlier than Skalkottas’s robust Greek Folk Dance, and the two Brahmsian Rêveries, share the same choices over the free use of twelve-tone technique, the multidimensional sound planes of contrapuntal part-writing and exploiting the invigorating force of the folk-music tradition.

It so happened, that Skalkottas and Mitropoulos never met in Berlin (as students), or in Athens. Their geniuses enjoyed a mutual recognition as it is manifested in Mitropoulos’s strong support of Skalkottas’s music (he recorded with the New York Philharmonic five of the Greek Dances) and Skalkottas’s keen interest in studying and orchestrating Mitropoulos’s compositions, as in the case of Fête crétoise. Skalkottas’s tragic and short life is counterbalanced by a very impressive musical output of over 170 original compositions, some characteristics of which may include density of content, masterful control over forms, unique technique of multiple counterpoint and reticent expression. Schoenberg, in an essay on professionalism and amateurism which is included in Style and Idea, selected writings, 1948, says: “…secret science is not what an alchemist would have refused to teach you; it is the science which cannot be taught at all. It is inborn or it is not there.” and “…of the hundreds of my pupils, only few have become composers A Webern, A Berg, H Eisler, K Rankl, W Zillig, R Gerhard and Nikos Skalkottas…”.

The significance of both Greek composers’ contribution, as modernists par excellence, may lie in the fact that, by succeeding in incorporating the archetypal principles of Hellenic classical restraint into the European tradition of art music, they enriched twentieth-century music with works of austere beauty.

Danae Kara

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