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Willem Mengelberg Telefunken v2 PASC664

Willem Mengelberg (conductor)
The Telefunken Recordings - Volume 2
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Concerto No 8 in A minor from L’estro armónico, Op 3, RV 522 (two performances)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Air from Orchestral Suite No 3, BWV 1068 (two performances)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No 1 in C major, Op 21
Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Rosamunde - Overture
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 98
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op 20
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune 
Concertgebouw Orchestra
rec. 1937/38, Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam

Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) was among the great conductors of the 20th century and involved in the earliest stages of acoustic and electrical recording in New York and Amsterdam. His legacy on record is with the Concertgebouw Orchestra, the New York Philharmonic and a small number of recordings with the Berlin Philharmonic and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. He was one of the few conductors born in the 19th century with a recorded legacy going through to the Second World War. His first recording was of the Coriolanus overture, a movement from Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, and Liszt’s Les Preludes in 1922 by Victor. He was also a virtuoso pianist and composer, yet he never recorded any of his compositions, but once recorded his cousin Rudolf Mengelberg’s Salve Regina.

Unfortunately, owing to his collaboration during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands, his legacy dropped out of sight, but recently more and more of his remastered recordings have been released. His repertoire spanned the baroque through to modern music; both Mahler and Strauss dedicated works to him and his recordings (albeit limited) are trailblazers for understanding both Mahler and Strauss performance one hundred years ago. Mengelberg followed Strauss’s conducting rule: ‘Do whatever you like, but never be dull.’

There have been releases of Mengelberg's recordings by Decca, Naxos and, more recently, Scribendum in a 31 CD box. I found the restorations in the Decca release of 16 CDs with the Concertgebouw disappointing. ‘The Art of Willem Mengelberg’ box on Scribendum comprises almost all his work with the Concertgebouw Orchestra between 1926 and 1943, and contains most of the pieces issued by this new Pristine Audio volume in their Telefunken series. Unfortunately, there is no documentation in the Scribendum box of the sources used for their remastering.

Bach’s Air from his Orchestral Suite was the filler on Mengelberg’s 1937 recording of Vivaldi’s Concerto No. 8, and, as Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer Mark Obert-Thorn explains in the CD notes, there was distortion on the Bach piece, and it was recorded a year later. On an earlier recording made in New York, Mengelberg used Mahler’s string arrangement of the Bach Air, which was unacceptable for the German-owned Telefunken label, hence, it was recorded using a harpsichord continuo arrangement.

Mengelberg’s recording of the First Symphony in New York included repeats in the first and fourth movements, as in his later 1940 radio broadcast performance. However, important here is Mengelberg’s first recording of the Eighth Symphony (before which he only recorded the Allegretto scherzando for Columbia). Relating to the remastering of the two Beethoven symphonies, I found that the sound on the Scribendum discs were not as clear and detailed as this Pristine Audio release.

On Beethoven’s First Symphony, the sound on Pristine’s remastering is marginally better, but it is fuzzy in the first movement, as there is evident on the Scribendum CD, while on Beethoven’s Eighth Symphony, Pristine’s sound quality is much brighter and with more orchestral detail, albeit that there is still some distortion in passages though this is not off-putting; one is drawn to the tremendously involving performance with frequent use of rubato, and idiosyncratic shifts in tempo and momentum by Mengelberg.

As with his contemporaries, Toscanini, Furtwangler and Mravinsky, each of Mengelberg’s performances was different and introduced the conductor’s fresh approach to the score – something we don’t find in most of today’s conductors. Mengelberg studied the score intensively and would rehearse for weeks to ensure an event for his listeners. Nonetheless, he never failed to impose his personality and offer the kind of excitement one feels from sharing in an event.

Mengelberg’s previous recording of the Schubert Rosamunde overture was made acoustically in New York in 1924. That version is enormously enjoyable as the conductor brings out all the melodic richness of Schubert’s score, and is revelatory in comparison with other interpretations of this piece. Here is Mengelberg’s only recording of Brahms Fourth Symphony and just his second recording of a Brahms symphony (the Third was recorded in New York for Columbia). Mengelberg claimed that Brahms heard him playing the piano when he was a child, and his interpretation is outstanding with a use of portamento and rubato which at times I found to be intensely poignant and without the linear methodology of contemporary interpretations, as Mengelberg emphasises the score’s Romanticism and imposes his dominating personality onto the symphony.

Mengelberg was a friend of Richard Strauss but surprisingly recorded little of his music. There are two recordings of Ein Heldenleben and one of Death and Transfiguration, and here is the first of his two recordings Don Juan (the notes erroneously state that this is the only version). The 1940 recording lasts more than thirty seconds longer. Perhaps, owing to the number of recordings by the composer, Mengelberg decided not to put himself in unfavourable competition with his colleague. If so, he couldn’t have been more mistaken, as his readings are more exhilarating than the composer’s recordings of his own music. The Don Juan is a tremendously exciting performance, blessed by astonishingly vivid playing. Comparison with Scribendum’s remastering reveals that Pristine’s remastering conveys all the richness of Strauss’ orchestral colours.

The remastering for Brahms Symphony No 4, on Scribendum is very good, yet on Pristine Audio's CD, one can sense in the brass playing the acoustic of the hall and the clearly vibrant details in the woodwind and string playing. This is even more evident in the Air from the Orchestral Suite No 3 by J S Bach. There is an issue of inconsistencies between the timings; Beethoven’s First and Eighth symphonies are five seconds longer on Pristine Audio than on the Scribendum CD, while the Brahms Fourth Symphony is eleven seconds longer on the Pristine Audio CD. The greatest discrepancy is on the recording of Don Juan, where the Scribendum CD is fifteen seconds quicker than the Pristine Audio CD. This can be explained by the different sources used by Scribendum, perhaps using LPs, rather than the originals used by Pristine Audio.

Completing this outstanding release is Mengelberg’s only recording of Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The only other Debussy recording by Mengelberg that exists is from a broadcast of the Fantaisie together with Gieseking in 1940 (which is included in Scribendum’s box). Here, Mengelberg captures all the beauty of this piece, without any attempt to impose his own personality, and he allows all its splendor to be unveiled. It is difficult to think of a finer portrayal of Debussy’s impressionist masterpiece even in contemporary recordings. Mark Obert-Thorn must be congratulated on his magnificent state-of-the-art remastering of these recordings.

Gregor Tassie 

Previous review: Paul Steinson

Published: October 10, 2022

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