> STRAUSS Heldenleben/Tod Mengelberg 8110161 [TD]: Classical Reviews- April2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben Op.40
Tod und Verklärung Op.24*
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam/Willem Mengelberg
(Recorded in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 21 April 1941 and 14 April 1942*)
Restoration producer Mark Obert-Thorn
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110161 [65.54]


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The Naxos Historical series continues in great style with this reissue of two wartime studio recordings by one of the greatest conductor and orchestra partnerships in musical history - Willem Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. Mengelberg became Chief Conductor of the orchestra in 1895 when he was just 24 and he stayed with them until 1945 when only apparent associations with the Nazis drove him out. This was perhaps the greatest musical dynasty of them all in a lost age of great musical dynasties. By the time these recordings were made the relationship between them must have been almost like that between Queen Victoria and the British Empire. Surely no one in the orchestra, by then, could remember a time when Mengelberg was not Chief Conductor.

In his lifetime Mengelberg championed the music of Mahler and Strauss especially. Both men were personal friends and both held him in highest regard with Strauss even dedicating "Ein Heldenleben" to Mengelberg and the orchestra. Alas there is precious little Mahler left on record by Mengelberg and the orchestra. Just a studio recording from 1926 of the Fifth Symphonyís Adagietto and a "live" radio recording of the complete Fourth Symphony from 1939. A stomach bug robbed us of a "live" "Das Lied Von Der Erde" under Mengelberg from the same year. But there is much more Strauss of which these two recordings are perhaps the best, even taking into account the fact that wartime deprivations must mean we are not hearing the orchestra at what must have been their supreme best in the 1920s and 1930s. On the other hand, even their wartime best is formidable and recordings made in the 1930s would not have sounded as good as this. So itís a question of swings and roundabouts. To hear this orchestra playing in their great hall is a thrilling experience and Mark Obert-Thornís restoration of the sound taken from commercial shellac discs delivers all the body of both orchestra and hall that could be hoped for. There is some degree of surface hiss but you should soon forget this if you concentrate on the music making. The German Telefunken Company, who were recording the orchestra at that time, had a high reputation for recorded sound and were only let down a little by their use of shellac. No matter. The bottle is three quarters full not one quarter empty.

"Ein Heldenleben" is the principal work on the CD and bearing in mind the dedication this recording is of major historical importance. I think it is more important than Mengelbergís earlier recording of the work with the New York Philharmonic in 1928 on Pearl (GEMM 008). Apart from its historical importance it is also simply a great performance; not how the work tends to be performed today but deeply rewarding and enlightening. Notice the precise articulation of the strings in the opening presentation of the hero. Immediately this is an example of orchestral discipline and sheer experience by both players and conductor. There is thrust and swagger along with an unmistakable grandeur that conductors today might balk at. The critics who arrive immediately after also reflect a performance from another era. Today the impression is that conductors take the arrival of the carping woodwinds as a signal to really send up the scribblers. Perhaps using the passage as an opportunity to ridicule them themselves. Not Mengelberg. He shows more imagination and the result is a very musical passage that doesnít stick out too prominently. The spacious hall acoustic helps in this and the fine engineering also makes the two bass tubasí contribution truly memorable. The love scene has tremendous line and great ardour though there is chivalry here also with a very well controlled use of string portamenti, entirely appropriate as well as of its time. Only the violin solo of Ferdinand Helman disappoints just a little. His portrayal of the heroís partner, in fact Straussís wife, is suitably shrewish, but there is vibrato that takes some getting used to. I am one of those people who will put up with this for the fact that I know this is how it would have sounded had I been fortunate enough to have been in the audience for a performance.

The trumpets are superbly and precisely in unison to announce the arrival of the battle and, as with the critics, Mengelberg plays the battle differently from the way we might hear it today. He never loses sight of the fact that this is a musical battle and never drives the music too hard, never accentuates the sharper edges, never gives us virtuosity for the sake of it. The deeper structures are taken care of too. In fact throughout this is a top to bottom orchestral sound. In the battle you really can hear the bass end of the orchestra grinding away in the deep acoustic. After the battle is won, no one can recall the heroís "works of peace" better than Mengelberg does. In fact I have always found it is the older generation (Beecham, Barbirolli and Böhm) who in their respective recordings really have gone to the trouble of trying to identify which works of his own Strauss is quoting. This is a key moment in the whole piece and can be an acid test as to how fine an interpretation it is. Notice also the reedy woodwinds, so different from today, adding an air of distinction. The long sunset of the work follows and listen to the exquisite unanimity of the strings as they bring the story to an end. Playing like this only comes about after the kind of drilling that a conductor like this one has submitted this orchestra to for all those years and the dividends are clear in their confidence in their own playing and in their ability to allow their conductor to control every detail.

Mengelberg did control every last detail of his performances. Sometimes he used this control to make a few "changements" to what the composer wrote. But that went with the era he lived in. The 1928 New York recording cuts a more virtuoso dash than this from Amsterdam and the orchestra is technically more assured. The players have a different, more "out front" tradition and Mengelberg was younger. However, I feel that this 1941 recording reaches deeper into the body of the score and there is that acoustic to glory in. The ideal is to own both.

"Tod und Verklärung" receives an equally passionate performance that, in the final fight against the onset of death, achieves an extraordinary level of desperation at the end. But there is also regret and, at the close, aching nostalgia too. It remains, however, a triumphantly symphonic interpretation where the line is never lost or ignored. Always surprising when you remember that, like "Ein Heldenleben", this recording would have been achieved in bursts lasting around four minutes. The recorded sound is just a little less atmospheric than "Ein Heldenleben" but is still well up to the standard we would expect from this source. Notice the precise and clear timpani strokes at the opening. Listen to them carefully and you might be in the hall with the player.

Both these performances capture Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra at the height of their powers and can serve as examples of what has made this partnership such a legend. Great sweep and grandeur is contrasted to warmth and directness of utterance. More importantly everything is always sincerely felt. There may be example after example of stunning virtuosity and sheer efficiency in the playing, but never are these at the expense of the human side of music making.

A great partnership from a past era delivers two stunning performances in remarkable sound.

Tony Duggan

see also review by John Phillips

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