It was only a couple of months ago that I gave a warm
welcome to a previous Naxos issue which coupled recordings by Mengelberg
and the Concertgebouw Orchestra of Brahms’ Second and Fourth Symphonies.
I concluded my review by expressing the hope that more such releases
would soon follow and I am now delighted to find that this has happened.
The recordings on the previous CD both originated from
Telefunken masters and dated from 1940 and 1938 respectively. All but
one of the performances (the Tragic Overture) presented here
are earlier and are recordings made by Columbia. The recordings have
been remastered by Ward Marston who, in an accompanying note, draws
attention to the greater surface hiss associated with Telefunken recordings
due to their use of shellac for 78s. Thus, ironically, it is the latest
recording which evidences the most surface noise on this CD. However,
it must be stressed that the quality of the performances throughout
soon transcends any sonic limitations.
As was the case with the previous release, Mengelberg’s
performances of these works are gripping and dynamic. In his excellent
notes Ian Julier describes the account of the Academic Festival Overture
as ‘exhilarating’. I’m not sure that’s the word I would choose. Julier
very rightly comments that "from the very opening furtive tread,
it bristles with expectancy..". As far as I’m concerned this strikes
me as being a very serious, rather dark-hued account of the work. I
found it bracing and, like Julier, enjoyed it greatly. (It never ceases
to fascinate me how the same performance of a piece of music can evoke
different responses, both equally valid, in different listeners.)
I completely share Ian Julier’s enthusiastic response
to Mengelberg’s account of the Third Symphony. I’m sure a purist could
find umpteen occasions where the conductor departs from the letter of
the score, especially in matters of tempo modifications. What matters,
however, is that this is a totally involving performance from first
to last. Again and again one marvels at the rapport between Mengelberg
and his players, a rapport which had been built up, by that time, over
a period of 36 years. The string playing is aristocratic and committed
and the wind choir is no less distinguished.
The first movement is propelled along with a teeming
sense of urgency but is never over-driven and Mengelberg displays a
wonderful ability to draw out from his players just the right degree
of flexibility within a phrase. I referred to urgency but listeners
will find that all the moments of repose are diligently observed. The
andante flows easefully and naturally, the supremely eloquent wind principals
caressing the opening phrases. I’m sure the performance was the product
of long and detailed preparation but it never sounds calculated; instead
there is a fine sense of spontaneity.
Of the poco allegretto Ian Julier comments that
it "moves fluently but voiced full of yearning." Just so.
Further comment by me would be superfluous. With the performance capped
by a commanding account of the finale this seems to me to be a recording
which all Brahms devotees will wish to hear.
Sadly, Mengelberg made no commercial recording of the
First Symphony though a number of ‘live’ performances have found their
way onto CD. The recording of the third movement which is included here
was made as the fourth side of the 78 release of the Academic Festival
Overture. It is a fleet account of the movement, rhythmically alert
and featuring yet more evidence of the superb quality of the Concertgebouw’s
To complete the CD we are offered a dark, trenchant
account of the Tragic Overture. This is a blazing, highly charged
reading. To quote Julier again "the dark recesses of the work have
rarely been so vehemently and unsettlingly explored." This sort
of performance banishes any thoughts of Brahms as a comfortable, bourgeois
This is a fascinating and highly stimulating CD. How
fortunate we are that sixty years or more after these recordings were
made they are once again widely available in fine transfers (and at
such a ridiculously cheap price) for us to enjoy and learn from. Urgently
recommended. More, please, Naxos.