> STRAUSS Heldenleben Mengelberg 8.110161 [JP]: Classical Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)
Ein Heldenleben
Tod und Verklarung

Concertgebouw Orchestra
Willem Mengelberg conductor
Recorded Concertgebouw 1941 (Ein Heldenleben) and 1942 (Tod und Verklarung)
NAXOS HISTORICAL 8.110161 [65.54]


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Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw Orchestra were pre-eminent in their day for two main composers, both of whom had worked with these artists. These were Mahler and Strauss, and the Dutch orchestra and its Music Director were responsible for making both composers' works more familiar in northern Europe. This disc, which is very welcome, concentrates on Strauss, coupling together, as it does, two of the (now) well known symphonic poems.

Mengelberg’s conducting style has become more well known over the past ten years or so as a result of a number of companies releasing Mengelberg’s recordings from the forties and before. This disc has been remastered by Mark Obert-Thorn, who is one of a few experts in this field employed by Naxos to help them make the Naxos Historical Series of recordings. These are all at budget price, and the transfers generally are of a very high standard.

As with some of the other issues featuring Mengelberg, this disc was originally issued on 78s by Telefunken. One of the well known problems with recordings originally made by Telefunken was that the company used shellac, like many of its competitors, as the base material for the original records. This material was resistant to wear, but gave a relatively high level of background noise. The original metal masters have often been severely damaged by poor storage conditions, after the war and could not be used. Therefore shellac pressings have been used, and the minimum of sound processing has been used to reduce surface noise etc.

Gone are the earlier high levels of surface noise and distortion, and in their place is relatively clean sound, well balanced as was the original Telefunken source material. There is a noticeable but relatively low level of background hiss, now quite uniform, which is quite acceptable, and does not mar the listening experience.

Willem Mengelberg was Music Director of the Amsterdam Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1895 – 1945, and during this time ruled the orchestra with a will of iron. He developed a very free style of playing, using portamento and variations in tempo which to some listeners bordered on the perverse. In addition, since he had worked with the composer, he was not averse to making changes to the score to suit his interpretation, and using his personal relationship with the composer as justification for such changes.

Both of these performances are typical Mengelberg interpretations. Here you find concentration on the grand gestures, the enormous sweep of the phrasing together with a level of virtuosity from the orchestra in following their conductor’s every move which is quite astonishing, even in today’s climate of super efficient orchestral playing. In addition however, there is a warmth and humanity in the playing which is often breathtaking.

If you are a fan of Rudolf Kempe or Herbert von Karajan in Strauss, you will find this issue absolutely fascinating as it presents another side of Richard Strauss interpretation, which is equally valid but unique. Well done Naxos – more please.


John Phillips

See also review by Jonathan Woolf

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