It seems thereís hardly a field of human endeavour
that doesnít somehow end up spawning sub-cultures hand over fist.
Take "historical recordings", for instance - seeing
as thatís the matter in hand. What started out as a simple application
of technology, to bring the great performers of the past back
into our latter-day living-rooms, now has more departments than
At one extreme thereís a subset of collectors
who seek out the most analytical restorations, so that they can
study and dissect the message. At the other thereís a faction
whose greatest pleasure is in comparing different restorations
of the same original recording - the equivalent of those audio-oriented
"anoraks" who rejoice only in the performance of the
medium, and to hell with the message.
In between are those who enjoy the special thrill
of hearing the net curtains drawn from over the window of history,
but even they come in various shades. One lot demands,
"Give it to me straight - hiss, crackle and all!" Another
expects the full panoply of digital wizardry, noise elimination
combined with "enhancements" - added reverberation,
spectral adjustments and what-have-you. To cap it all, there are
restoration engineers to suit all tastes.
Whatís the "golden mean"? Is there
such a thing? If there is, then itís a ball-park to the middle
of which I would reckon that Mark Obert-Thornís self-styled "moderate
interventionism" comes pretty close. Ideally, and simplistically,
we want to be rid of all the "noise" but to keep all
the "signal". Realistically, we have to settle for getting
rid of some of the "noise" and keeping most of
the "signal". The art, as ever, lies in getting the
This brings us to the aspect of this business
that I didnít get round to discussing in my previous review (see
As I see it, the real problem is knowing what, exactly, is
this "balance". After all, as time goes by itís increasingly
likely that none of us - listeners or restoration engineers -
has actually heard the original sound, the very stuff by
which the engineers of present-day recordings judge the quality
of their work. So, what is our reference? Is it the most pristine
copy imaginable of the original recording? Yes, but only if youíre
of the "Give It to Me Straight" school, and then of
course the restoration engineerís job would be reduced to that
of simple transcription. If that were the case, weíd all be brilliant
at it! Iíve racked my brains until they creaked, but I can think
of no other viable references: ergo Iím forced to conclude
that it all comes down to a matter of inference and artistic judgement.
Ho-hum - we go all round the houses and it turns out to be completely
subjective: the "best" restoration is nothing more than
the one you personally believe to be the best.
For this reason, it is impossible to say which
of a choice of restorations is the most "truthful".
For someone in my position, that tends to mean, "Never mind
the comparisons, judge each on its own merits". Iím not saying
that this is the only way to go about it, because patently
it isnít, but given what Iíve just argued itís the only way that
Iím prepared to go about it. To those who above all else
want to know if Xís restoration is "better" than Yís
I can only apologise: other than spotting technical disasters
that stick out like sore thumbs, my feeling is that such comparisons
are potentially spurious. Let me put it this way: if the top of
building A is higher than the top of building B, which building
is the taller? The answer is probably, but not necessarily,
A, because it depends on where the bottoms of the buildings are.
The difficulty is that we arenít given that crucial information!
In passing, perhaps some enterprising company might consider a
disc illustrating the art of the restoration engineer, including
samples of the unprocessed original along with how it comes out
with various sorts of processing? It would at the very least be
informative and educational.
Right: on to Mengelberg, the Concertgebouw, 1927-1942,
and all that. Firstly the Naxos booklet, as is usual with this
series, says little about the music. Instead Ian Julierís graphic
essay quite properly focuses on the performances and their historical
context. His last paragraph considers the post-War fate of Mengelberg.
As such, it is irrelevant to the immediate subject. However, this
sorry postlude does round off the story, and is expressed by the
writer with such poignancy and dignity as to earn my gratitude
- and, I hope, yours - for its inclusion.
I wish Naxos would explain the logic behind the
ordering of the items! They are neither in chronological order
of recording - for that, you need to programme the track sequence
8-6-4-5-7-11-1-2-3-9-10! - nor chronological order of composition,
nor in any sensible concert sequence. To be fair, given the works
on the CD, this last is anybodyís guess anyway, and my guess is
that this is exactly what it is (does that make sense?). No matter,
CD players are easy enough to programme.
Obviously, the variability evident in the background
noises - hiss, granularity, crackle, and so forth - will depend
on both the original source media and the degree to which Obert-Thorn
doctored, or rather was prepared to doctor, them. For example,
tracks 8 (1927, the earliest), 5 (1931), and 10 (1942) sound the
worst, whilst the best in this respect are tracks 6 (1930) and
9 (1942). Nostalgia buffs in particular will be relieved to hear
that there is never the slightest doubt that weíre listening to
"78s". The really good news for the rest of us is that
Obert-Thornís "moderate interventionism" has ensured
that nowhere does the residual "grot" in the medium
obscure the all-important message.
Perhaps the one bit of logic in the programme
is the placement first on the CD of the Prometheus overture,
inasmuch as we get the worst of the sound over with first - and
to be fair it is pretty awful, the loud bits being fairly painful.
The problem is distortion, something that Iím afraid not even
the Obert-Thorn magic wand can do much about. Still, it does affect
only the loudest parts and, as luck would have it, the other two
Prometheus excerpts that make up this mini-suite are, on
the whole, rather quieter!
Be that as it may, more important is what these
remastered recordings - including that relatively painful one
- reveal. On the technical front, the microphony was simple but
effective, offering a very deep perspective. The strings are very
"up-front", presented with a clarity that immediately
makes you sit up and take notice. Taking a sample of the sound
of the strings alone gives a strong impression of a somewhat dry
and airless acoustic. This is misleading, because once the winds
and timpani - and the percussion in the Turkish March for
that matter - join the fray, they are set much further
back, nestling in the ambient bloom of the Concertgebouw. This
is not entirely good news, because it creates a nagging feeling
that weíre hearing a string orchestra on-stage with a wind and
percussion band off-stage. This is nothing like what weíre used
to in present-day recordings where half the players - and all
of the woodwinds - seem to be wearing tie-clip mics., and to be
honest neither is it what I usually experience in a concert hall.
What we have is an exaggerated perspective, which
I suspect is the consequence of using a single microphone "sitting"
in the front-row stalls, too close to the strings in relation
to the winds and too low down to "see" over the strings
to the winds at the rear of the platform. This is not entirely
bad news! Firstly, for reasons Iíll come to shortly, it brings
the several sections of the strings into sharp relief. Secondly,
they say that "distance lends enchantment", and so it
is here: even when playing quietly and with the strings busily
accompanying away in front of them, the Concertgebouwís wonderful
winds are "perfectly" audible. Moreover, we eat our
cake and have it because, when theyíve a mind to, the winds can
and do cut through the texture like well-stropped razors.
That relatively dry focus of the strings is of
course invaluable when it comes to serious study, or even simple
savouring of they way that Mengelberg sets about his Beethoven.
The aural discomfort of the opening distortion is quickly overlooked
once the strings start chittering. They have about them a purposeful
precision: Mengelberg clearly regarded even streams of semiquavers
as crowds of individuals: he and his orchestra must have worked
very hard at preserving those individual identities. No matter
how tiny the gaps, there is always some perceptible space between
consecutive notes. Mengelberg never lets his demisemiquavers degenerate
into tremolando, and what a disproportionate difference that little
It also puts those swooning portamenti into a
proper perspective. Judging by these recordings, and running contrary
to popular impressions, these "old-fashioned" portamenti
were not applied with wholesale and reckless abandon. Oh yes,
give them a ripe romantic tune and sure enough, out will come
the portamento like a (rubbery) sword from its scabbard. Ah, but
then give them some Beethoven, and suddenly the syrup is applied
with immense circumspection.
Yet, for all he seemed to regard Beethoven as
having one foot firmly in the Classical age, Mengelberg was equally
aware of the disposition of the composerís other foot. The disciplined
metrical precision that characterises the former foot is enlivened
by judicious flexibility of tempo and an astonishing degree of
attention to hairpin dynamics, weighting, and crescendo. In short,
Mengelberg could teach todayís young lions a thing or two about
"cooking with gas".
Itís hardly necessary to go into great detail
about the individual pieces, so Iíll confine myself to a sample
or two of Mengelbergís exquisite "cuisine". In the Prometheus
allegretto movement, the variations on the famous "Eroica"
theme are direct and unfussy, trotting - occasionally "floating"!
- at just the right rate of knots. Ritenuti are not exaggerated,
all is in proportion, and very witty. Portamenti are applied with
a grace and subtlety that noticeably enhances the musical expression.
The Coriolan Overture, in spite of its
brevity, is for me one of Beethovenís crowning achievements. It
"proves" that LvB was practising psycho-analysis donkeyís
years before it had even been invented. Mengelberg gets the orchestra
to deliver the opening phrases with terrific dramatic weight,
and sets a basic pace that is propulsive, rather than rushed (like
Munchís). He imparts great drive and aggression, easing back for
the "feminine" bits - which he then engulfs in a rising
torrent of ferocious energy. Again, portamenti are used to beautiful
and telling effect: listen to this, and youíll wonder what all
the fuss is about!
Turn to the Turkish March, and flexibility
takes a vacation - Mengelberg makes it a march to which you could
actually march! Whatís more, considering that they are emerging
from the misty remoteness of the rear of the platform, the percussion
come through with a fair old wallop - what must it have sounded
like heard from a more sensible vantage-point? A right royal racket,
I shouldnít wonder. Never mind that the bass drum sounds muffled
and causes some minor distress to the microphonic transponder,
the lowly triangle is a joy to behold!
Zip back to the single movement from the Eighth
Symphony, and this time Mengelberg does not leave the
"clockwork" to speak for itself, but animates it with
considerable cunning. He teases the clockwork with elasticity,
graduated stresses and strategically placed portamenti, these
last apparently aimed at pointing up through contrast the perkiness
of the "clockwork" articulation. In his Producerís Note,
Obert-Thorn says that this movement was set down as a filler side
for Cherubiniís Anacreon Overture. It seems that thereís
nothing new in the "B-side" turning out to be the hit
Iím aware that I havenít mentioned Schubert.
Well, I ought to leave you folks something to discover for yourselves,
didnít I? For this same reason neither will I mention the incandescence
that erupts from certain other of the Beethoven items, to scorch
the hair off your eyebrows. Make no mistake, Obert-Thorn has again
done a sterling job in preparing these masterpieces of the conductorís
art. Once youíre listening, that residual gunge quickly recedes
into the background, revealing some truly wonderful music-making
and a remarkably complete sound-picture that seems to encompass
the entire orchestral spectrum. In conclusion, something has just
this minute struck me: almost half of these tracks must contain
at least one side-break, and I never noticed, not even a single
one. Enough said?
see also review
by John Phillips