Every now and then life throws up little surprises.
Theyíre usually unpleasant. However, not always. If youíre old
enough, cast your mind back to the days of LP. The old 78 r.p.m.
repertoire mostly seemed to be left languishing in the archives,
only rarely to be dusted off and given a whirl as part of some
history lecture, or cherished by a few "wind-up gramophone"
enthusiasts. Whoíd have thought that the new dawn, whose rays
were diffracted into a spectral blaze by the shiny surface of
a small silver disc, would lead to an explosion of interest in
those cobwebby old 78s?
Of course, a goodly part of the reason lies in
the technology. In the LP era, there wasnít much we could do to
a scratchy old 78 except make a scratchy old LP out of it. The
only real advantage was the longer playing time. But the CD wasnít
just a CD, it was the tip of an iceberg, an iceberg crystallised
from zillions of 0s and 1s. Music became part of the Computer
Revolution, and almost overnight there were shed-loads of things
we could do to change the sound of that scratchy old 78. Yes,
I said "change". Whether itís an improvement depends
solely on the artistry of the transfer engineer.
Attitudes precipitated into layers. Layers became
schools of thought. We are now swimming in a sea of alternatives.
At one extreme are the absolute "non-interventionists",
intent on reproducing the best available source materials as faithfully
as possible. Regretfully, considering the purity of their intentions,
I have to admit that these folk are really only turning scratchy
old 78s into scratchy old CDs. At the other extreme come the absolute
"interventionists", who use any and every technological
means to derive the purest possible sound from their source materials.
With less regret, I feel that these folk, having chucked out all
the bathwater - and blow-dried the bath - end up with a baby perfect
in every way, so long as you overlook the absence of any distinguishing
facial features and the odd arm or leg.
The real "transfer artist" is one who
firstly distinguishes between the baby (signal) and bathwater
(noise), secondly considers carefully what of the bathwater can
be chucked out without significant damage to the precious infant,
and thirdly is consummately self-critical. It seems to me that
by far the trickiest problem faced by the transfer artist is that
of getting rid of unwanted scratch and hiss without losing the
ambience, the reason being that the two dwell together in the
same domain. This brings us to another point: itís not only what
you take out, but also what you put in! If you have a particularly
noisy source, removing enough of the noise to render the recording
"listenable" may also obliterate the recordingís ambience,
leaving it as dry and airless as an Ancient Egyptian tomb. What
do you do? One answer is to add a synthesised ambience
- hopefully not any old ambience, but one created using a knowledge
of the original recording venue.
Obviously, the above merely skates over the surface
of the subject, but hopefully Iíve said enough to convince you
that the entire undertaking is (a) very tricky, (b) nowhere near
cut-and-dried, and (c) to some extent involves "meat"
and "poison". In fact, different transfer artists -
or even the same transfer artist - can produce different
results, all of which nevertheless can be considered equally "good".
Like everything else in this business, other than disasters, there
are no absolutes!
Naxos must be feeling highly satisfied to have
obtained the services of Mark Obert-Thorn, who has an enviable
reputation gained largely whilst working for such luminaries as
Biddulph and Pearl. Not to put too fine a point on it, he is considered
by many to be one of the best. As the booklet note explains, he
considers himself a "moderate interventionist". I would
use the term "minimalist", because his aim is to maximise
the message with the minimum of messing.
The "producerís note" by Obert-Thorn
provides a fascinating insight into the problems and techniques
of the transfers of this particular series of recordings, whilst
Ian Julierís exemplary booklet note elucidates the historical
context of the musical performances. However, if you want information
about the music itself, then youíll have to look elsewhere, which
I suppose is fair enough given the "historical recording"
context and the particular repertoire.
As the conductor of the Concertgebouw Orchestra
from 1895, Willem Mengelberg worked with and earned the friendship
and respect of both Strauss and Mahler. He carried a torch for
Mahlerís music in particular, celebrating his silver jubilee at
the Concertgebouw with a "complete" cycle of the symphonies.
Like Mahler, he was attracted by the vigour of the New World,
devoting a proportion of his time to the New York Philharmonic
from 1923 onwards. These recordings are a sort of "glass"
through which we can look "darkly", through Mengelberg
to Mahler and Strauss. More "clearly", we can experience
something of the considerable conducting powers of Mengelberg,
who is himself a legendary figure.
The recordings also provide a sequence of snapshots
of performing practice, as it developed between 1926 and 1940.
The two New York recordings of 1928 and 1930, embedded within
the European sequence, further permit us to appreciate the stylistic
differences between Europe and America, and arguably the influence
of the latter on the former. Seeing as the booklet tells us a
fair bit about these things, I am frankly puzzled why the CD isnít
set out in chronological order. For that you need to programme
the track sequence 7, 2, 4, 5, 1, 6, 3 - which is exactly what
Playing the last track first, I thus began at
the very beginning (a very good place to start!), and entered
a musical kitchen - a murky place filled with the sounds of sizzling
sausages, and strings sloshing around everywhere ladling lots
of soupy slurs and slides. My immediate reaction was to grab a
nice, crisp tangy apple and go out for a breath of fresh air.
Yet, as Mahlerís enchanting Adagietto unfolded, I surprised
myself. First of all, how quickly I shoved the sizzling sausages
into the back of my mind: it was as if the hissing were the mists
of time clearing before my gaze. Thereís a particular frisson,
the same sort of tingle I got when I stood atop the castle at
Tintagel and got to thinking that King Arthurís feet had probably
occupied the self-same spot, then that somewhat more recently
so had Arnold Baxís feet when he had observed "the wide distances
of the Atlantic ... on a sunny but not windless summer
day." The day I was there, we were shortchanged only in the
"wind" department. My, oh my, I bethought myself, it
can be quite catching, this "historical recordings"
Just to ram it home, I soon felt my attitude
to those slurs shifting: it was like caressing a cat, and the
cat was purring. I found myself reflecting on the unanimity of
the slurring - this wasnít just habitual but practised
playing, a deliberate choice presumably intended to express deeply
romantic sentiments. Yet further, this playing was so mobile:
Mengelberg presses the music forward with ardour and urgency.
The recent "discovery" (by Gilbert Kaplan, unless Iím
mistaken) of the "real" tempo of this movement turns
out to be no more than a "re-discovery", of a tempo
that has simply been lost, drowned in a (des)pond of ever more
languorous latter-day lassitude. Finally, I wondered, could this
have been how Mahler himself would have conducted it?
Murky the recording remained, but Obert-Thorn
in his note did warn us about this. Nevertheless the instrumental
parts are all at least discernible, including the harp, and even
the basses provided you donít expect miracles regarding reproduction
of the rumbly end of the spectrum.
On to track 2, and Wagnerís prelude to Lohengrin.
Recorded, a little over a year down the line, at a higher signal
level, the hiss is marginally less noticeable and the music correspondingly
less murky. Suddenly, in the rarefied atmosphere of Wagnerís intertwining
strings, I was less sure about those slurs slipping and sliding
within the layers of the texture: unlike the Mahler this music
isnít "romantic" with a small "r" but "Romantic"
with a whopping great capital "R"! I now found myself
pondering the fact that, although there are shedloads of slurs,
they arenít by any means being used to join up all the
dots. Hmm. The tempo, though, feels spot on, steady but purposeful,
with Mengelberg weighting the woodwind then the brass against
his strings to build the noble climax with respectful gravitas.
Itís a pity that the high strings in the closing bars are afflicted
by some "warbling" distortion, but never mind, I can
live with that for music-making like this.
Track 4, the Forest Murmurs, comes 18
months later and a couple of thousand miles further west. The
hiss is more evident at the start, largely because it is set against
the hushed oscillations of only the lower strings. Although there
is a slight "lumpiness" in the sound (is this perhaps
a microphone with a kinky response?), I was amazed at how clearly
everything came through: you can hear the glockenspiel a real
treat! You are also aware of every little vortex in the almost
pervasive eddying of the strings. The gradual accumulation of
electricity is marvellously moulded by Mengelberg and finely spun
by the NY players, so that by the time the trilling of the "birds"
is heard, they seem to be calling from beyond a curtain of thrilling
strings. It is immediately obvious that the Americans have far
less truck with swooning, although to be fair they have fewer
opportunities in this music. However, the string soli do
indulge themselves, so dare I suggest that the reason thereís
much less corporate sliding is that the NY strings are less proficient
than their COA counterparts?
From New York also comes Humperdinckís Hänsel
und Gretel Overture. Setting off at a forthright pace, Mengelberg
colours in the textures with some luminously balanced parts. Towards
the end of the introduction you can hear the deep bass line winding
beneath the high woodwind. When the trumpet-led dance tune kicks
in, it doesnít half kick: the accents are razor-sharp,
standing out like spikes from the rather plummy sounds beneath.
By the time that the strings glide in, Mengelberg has got the
music motoring along nicely, and from then on I was increasingly
swept up by the counterpoint between the playful skipping and
the sombre, chorale-like music which, although it increases in
power and menace, never overpowers the delightful dancing. Again,
string slurs are deployed sparingly, discreetly and (I have to
admit!) with skill and immaculate good taste!
Back over the Pond, in the warmer, "Olde
Worlde" acoustic of the Concertgebouw, Mengelberg produced
an almost flawless Tannhäuser Overture. Right from
the off, thereís a gratifying "roundness" to the sound,
from the crisp top right down to the black basement. In fact,
when the strings first come in, the strength of the bass is plain
to hear although, as you might expect, it also sounds a bit woolly.
Overall, the sound of the orchestra is projected with considerable
clout. Where so many conductors nowadays make the opening Pilgrimsí
Chorus music sound more like something to which un faun
might doze of a sultry après-midi, Mengelberg makes
a march out of it. His spine-tingling exhibition of elastic tempo
seemed possessed of such perfection that I was almost relieved
to find something to carp about: just descending from the first
climax, he suddenly speeds up, then gradually eases back again,
without any apparent rhyme or reason. Itís the one awkward gear-change
in the whole piece, and it sticks out like a sore thumb! Mind
you, itís only a brief incident, so donít let it put you
off hearing what is a riveting performance.
The once-pervasive string portamenti are reined
in, reserved for those places where they make the most point.
I wonder, had Mengelberg maybe learnt something while he
was over in New York? Once more I was struck by the convincing
"concert hall" balance. The strings were at the front
where they should be, and their often skittering lines were never
drowned out, not even by the pungent brass or the terrific horn
descant in the coda. All that thundering, pious majesty, and there
they were, still fizzing with the hang-over of the central erotic
Itís a six-year gap to the next item: Straussís
Don Juan. Technology didnít move as fast back then: if
anything the hiss levels seem higher, although I realise that
this depends on many factors, not least of which are the quality
of the pressings available and the particular judgements of the
transfer artist. As in Tannhäuser, the rear ranks
cut through from behind the curtain of strings. You can feel the
contributions of the harp, some really rasping brass, and the
glockenspiel in particular is a joy to behold! Having said that,
there are occasions where a soloist seems spotlit in the grand
old CBS manner of the 1960s - one brief clarinet solo nearly had
my eye out! The hornsí "big tune", punched with a deal
of zeal, suffers from some overload, a "sputtering"
of the sort I recall horns having a talent for on quite a few
recordings, even in the days of LP.
The reining in of portamento continued apace,
to the extent that here, in a line that youíve come to expect
might be festooned with these expressive garlands, itís only when
you think there isnít going to be one that up it pops! Mengelbergís
is no middle-aged lecher, but a youthful Lothario brimming with
"get it up and go", notably at the reprise of the horn
tune. Like most performances, this explodes onto the scene with
enormous breadth. However, unlike most it doesnít dwell on its
own sumptuousness but almost immediately begins to accelerate.
The music gains momentum, whirling ever wilder right through the
climax and up to the moment of disaster, where to all intents
and purposes it is felled by the trousers slipping down round
its own ankles. The very end is terrific (literally!) - behind
a gauze veil of hiss we can clearly make out the sound of the
Don being damned to Hell!
I wondered about the woman who had interrupted
the 1939 live Concertgebouw recording of Mahlerís Das Lied
von der Erde with her "Deutschland über alles, Herr
Schuricht". Iíd have thought that she might have turned up
for this 1940 Concertgebouw recording of Wagnerís Meistersinger
Overture to pronounce, albeit with a more approving emphasis,
"Deutschland über alles, Herr Mengelberg". Well,
I can carry on wondering, because she didnít - and did us all
a favour because we have been bequeathed a superb performance
and recording. This is music that all too often sounds overblown
and even just plain boring. Mengelberg proves that itís no fault
of Wagnerís, as he imbues the music with bags of forward propulsion,
producing a proper processional full of "pomp" rather
than merely being "pompous". At his crackingly well-judged
basic tempo, the martial theme crackles with energy and through
his infinite elasticity he finds shades of intrigue that are often
just smoothed over these days.
The upper strings come across as a bit scratchy,
but so what? It is otherwise a wonderfully rounded sound, with
some particularly pleasing perspectives - like the comical vision
of the apprentices trotting and prancing in the middle distance!
There are details apparent in this transfer that Iíve never noticed
in modern recordings, so itís more of a pity that some of the
"wool" couldnít have been scraped off the bassesí bottoms!
Still, itís authentic, I suppose, and thatís what matters
here. To clinch the deal, and fully justify your reprogramming
of the track sequence, right at the end you can marvel at how
Mengelberg brings the orchestra almost to a dead stop, before
surging onwards into the final peroration. Such bare-faced audacity,
but by golly it works!
Itís pretty obvious throughout, but most obvious
in the Strauss, that Mark Obert-Thorn is not exactly what youíd
call one of the "zero tolerance" school of Total Hiss
Eradication. There is much evidence of "thinking" ears
at work, especially in view of the remarkable clarity of the sound.
Of course, unless you already have experience of other engineersí
efforts at reviving the same originals or, ideally, possess pristine
copies of the original 78s themselves, it isnít exactly easy to
judge the true quality of Obert-Thornís work in putting these
remarkable documents back where they belong - in the publicís
ears. Although for curiosityís sake Iíd love to hear what they
sounded like before heíd applied his own brand of spit íní polish,
when it comes to the crunch it doesnít really matter, does it?
Unless, that is, youíre a latter-day equivalent of those "wind-up
gramophone" enthusiasts, in which case youíll be buying this
CD regardless of anything I say.
John Phillips previously reviewed this
This issue is superb. Mengelberg, long out of
fashion because of his alleged Nazi leanings during the Second
World War is at last coming out of the shade. There are numbers
of companies now making his recordings available on CD. Most of
the conductorís recordings (those recorded in Holland), were made
by the German Telefunken Company, and originally released on either
Columbia or Telefunken who at the time were at the forefront of
recording technology. In the past, there were some dire transfers
of these wartime recordings, but the present CD has been made
from immaculate copies of the original shellac discs. It has also
been subject to very mild processing, such that the sound quality,
given its age, is incredible.
The transfer engineer is Mark Obert-Thorn and
he has made new re-masterings from source material from U.S. and
U.K. pressings. One of the problems with releases which were not
originally laid down on tape is the level of background noise
from the shellac discs. This is dependant upon the condition of
the 78s and this series from Naxos is characterised by exceptionally
truthful transfers. This is due to good quality originals, and
this release is no exception. Although his producerís note makes
various disclaimers on the recording quality, one must remember
that he is the expert and what may sound unacceptable to him,
is perfectly OK for us.
Irrespective of the age of the recordings, done
over a 14 year period, the quality of the transfers is excellent
and Naxos is to be congratulated on the sound which Mr Obert-Thorn
has coaxed out of the originals.
The German recordings are generally superior
to the U.S. ones, but the intending purchaser need not be put
off by this, as both are excellent in tonal quality and clarity
of sound (always given their age). On this disc, we have all of
Mengelbergís Wagner recordings with the exception apparently of
a Ride of the Valkyries and The Flying Dutchman Overture, recorded
earlier than most of the current issues.
The Adagietto from Mahlerís 5th is
interesting in that it is the premiere recording of the movement,
made only 15 years after the first performance. At the time, Mengelberg
and his Dutch players were the premiere Mahler Ensemble in the
world. This performance shows how far we have moved over the years
Ė current playing times up to 11 minutes for this movement are
contrasted with 7.09 here.
Mengelbergís conducting style will be well known
to any collector intending to buy this release, and these recordings
are true to this style. There is excitement in the playing, some
of it perverse, with swooping portamenti always done to perfection
with a large body of strings. These are. always done in service
of the music - it is just that this style of playing does not
resemble current practice. The performance of Tannhauser is staggering
in this respect.
There is a corporate spirit to the playing, which
few other ensembles could match at the time. Indeed the orchestra
was at a peak of playing when these recordings were made. If you
enjoy different listening experiences, try this issue. You will
be captivated and it may tempt you to explore further releases
in this series. At the Naxos prices you canít go wrong, and the
transfer quality is better than it ever has been.
see also review
by Jonathan Woolf