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GREAT CONDUCTORS - Mengelberg
Richard WAGNER
(1813 Ė 1883)

Tannhauser Overture (1845) - (1)
Lohengrin Prelude to Act 1 (1850) - (1)
Die Meistersinger Overture (1868) - (1)
Siegfried Forest Murmurs (1876) - (2)
Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854 Ė 1921)

Hansel and Gretel Overture (1893) - (2)
Richard STRAUSS (1864 Ė 1949)

Don Juan Op. 20 (1888) - (1)
Gustav MAHLER (1860 Ė 1911)

Symphony No. 5 - Adagietto (1902) - (1)
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam(1)
Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra of New York (2)
Willem Mengelberg
(1) Recorded in the Concertgebouw, Amsterdam, 9/5/32 Tannhauser, 10/6/27 Lohengrin, 13/11/40 Meistersinger, 8/11/38 Don Juan, May 38 Mahler and in Carnegie Hall, New York 14/12/28 Siegfried, & Leiderkranz Hall, New York, 14/1/30 Humperdinck. ADD
NAXOS 8.110855 [69.27]


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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 I did.

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" malarkey!

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 fantasy!

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.

Paul Serotsky

 

John Phillips previously reviewed this recording:

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.

John Phillips

see also review by Jonathan Woolf



Gerard Hoffnung CDs

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