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Willem Mengelberg
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)

Tannhäuser Overture (Dresden version) (1845)
Lohengrin – Prelude to Act I (1850)
Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg – Prelude to Act I (1868)
Siegfried – Forest Murmurs (Act III) (1876)
Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)

Hänsel and Gretel Overture (1893)
Richard STRAUSS (1864-1949)

Don Juan Op. 20 (1888)
Gustav MAHLER (1860-1911)

Adagietto from Symphony No 5. in C sharp minor (1901-02)
Concertgebouw Orchestra (all except Forest Murmurs and Humperdinck)
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York
Willem Mengelberg
Recorded 1926-40
NAXOS 8.110855 [69.27]


The latest in Naxos’s Great Conductors series devoted to Willem Mengelberg is a particularly resplendent one, drawing together three composers whose works he played with especial authority. Not only that but the recordings were made between 1926 and 1940 with the Concertgebouw and the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York, the two orchestras most closely associated with him. The first three Wagner Preludes and the Tannhäuser Overture span the years – 1927, 1932 and 1940.

The larger than life impression generated by Mengelberg finds its amplitude and weight in Wagner. The Tannhäuser Overture (Dresden version) has a massive string coagulation, with brass coursing through the thick textures, string figures almost telepathically anticipating the beat. The flutes and the solo violin (Helman, Zimmerman?) make their presence felt as do the cavernous basses, picked up with such astonishing fidelity in the hall in May 1932. Mengelberg slightly retards the rhythm, creating an expectant wave of emphatic drama and the way in which he cues in the horns at the peroration is simply staggering. But this is no hell-for-leather orchestral showpiece. Sectional discipline is maintained and a proper tempo is maintained. There are plenty of portamenti in the Lohengrin Overture – pervasive and uniform – but also a deeply considered and inevitably produced powerful force; there is tremendous intensity. His Meistersinger Prelude is cosmopolitan and powerfully busy. The flute and horn lines are both exposed and nicely tapered and Mengelberg doesn’t rush on to the climaxes, instead holding back. As a result whilst the ending is measured and sensitive it’s not as sheerly exciting as it could have been.

With Siegfried we are back in New York in 1928. The clarinets pipe deliciously, there is a verdant evocation during and after the lengthy string introduction – a sense too of crepuscular depth and an additional pleasure in the broad singing tone of the orchestra’s leader (Scipione?) The Humperdinck was recorded in the Liederkranz Hall and receives a delightful performance but with Don Juan we are back in Amsterdam. There is sometimes rather too much sectionality in Mengelberg’s traversal, a feeling of indulgence perhaps; at heightened expressivity Mengelberg encourages gorgeous if by then anachronistic portamenti. Finally we have the famous, oft cited Adagietto (all 7.09 of it) from Mahler’ Fifth Symphony – Mengelberg’s only commercially recorded Mahler – and full of expressive raptness and motion, portamento-laced and burnished.

Ian Julier brings his acumen to bear on some stylistic and other matters in his notes and Mark Obert-Thorn has worked hard to correct pitch and recessive problems in the originals. With the bulk of his Wagner overtures here and Strauss and Mahler too this makes for a lucid and lastingly valuable selection for the library shelves.

Jonathan Woolf


Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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