Aureole etc.

Golden Age singers

Nimbus on-line

Faure songs
Charlotte de Rothschild (soprano);

  Founder: Len Mullenger
Classical Editor: Rob Barnett

Willem Mengelberg. Archives inédites III
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)

Violin Concerto in D Op. 61 (1806)
Symphony No. 2 in D Op. 36 (1801-02)
Symphony No. 6 in F Op. 68 Pastoral (1808)
Symphony No. 7 in A Op. 92 (1812)
Louis Zimmermann (violin)
Concertgebouw Orchestra/Willem Mengelberg
Live recordings: May 1936 (Symphony No 2), May 1938 (Symphony No 6), May 1936 (Symphony No 7) and April 1940 (Violin Concerto)
TAHRA 420-21 [2CDs: 151.10]


All first releases, this is also Tahra’s final Mengelberg set in what has proved to be a characteristically personalised set of performances. The third volume proves to be every bit as combustible and provocative. The Violin Concerto derives from a live performance given by Louis Zimmermann in 1940. He is now an entirely forgotten figure and Tahra’s notes are silent on him but he was for thirty-five years, barring a small interruption, leader of the Concertgebouw orchestra. He was also a chamber player of repute whose only major chamber recording was of the Ghost Trio with partners cellist Loevensohn and pianist Spaandermann. He did make two major concerto recordings – the Bach Double for Decca in 1935 with his fellow leader Hellmann under Mengelberg and of the work under discussion, Beethoven’s Violin Concerto on which occasion he was accompanied by an unnamed orchestra and conductor Woodhouse – a set I’ve never seen or heard of but was on Dutch Columbia. Zimmermann was sixty-seven in 1940 when he was recorded with Mengelberg. Many years before, his colleague Carl Flesch, then living and teaching in Amsterdam, gave a musical snapshot of him as having a "rounded somewhat weichlich tone" (weichlich was glossed as "effeminate"). He also accused him of overdoing his portamentos but noted that as an orchestral player "he was experienced and quick-witted."

One is immediately electrified by Mengelberg’s highly idiosyncratic orchestral introduction; intensity, balance (winds vis-a-vis the strings), the strong, uniform string portamenti, the colossal accelerandi, the brass punctured score. It’s not perhaps the ideal introduction to Zimmermann’s broken octaves entry but he is in any case not ideally secure. Indeed this performance, by a conducting lion of the romanticised and personalised school and by a venerable leader of the orchestra is an unbalanced one from the start. Whilst I am immensely sympathetic to him, Zimmermann’s technique is pretty much in shreds and his tone, never remotely large in the first place, has long since withered. There are numerous moments of executant crisis and one awaits the next one with a certain amount of trepidation. He has a very wavery E, slack lower strings, hoarse and lacking vibrance. There are some sticky bowing moments in this first movement and some "noises off" from the violin in addition to which he bears out Flesch’s admonition by playing a fairly grotesque downward portamento of considerable length and maximal gaucheness. Mengelberg rushes the tuttis onwards – little doubt that he wanted to go even faster than his soloist and this is by no means a dawdle – but though Zimmermann displays some intuitive understanding too many things go wrong; painfully thin and desiccated tone, a decent trill but some problems in shifts which one should put down to increasing age. Tumultuous applause however breaks out at the end of the first movement. Admirers of the Mengelbergian rap on the conductor’s stand will find new examples of imperiousness here and this is how he starts the Larghetto. Zimmermann’s rubati are considered and effective, his musical imagination not unfeeling but limited by tonal variation and depth. In truth he lacks the lyric line and introspective, philosophic utterance and seems all too matter of fact. The finale isn’t really airborne enough – the soloist becoming decidedly smeary when anything too virtuosic presents itself; Mengelberg appears rather too emphatic as well. As a performance then, ultimately, disappointing. As an example of the capacities of an ageing ex-leader of the orchestra, certainly not without interest and violin fanciers may well like to hear how Mengelberg’s long-active leader handled the central repertoire.

The 1936 Seventh was recorded on acetates which were somewhat damaged. Restoration has meant that these damaged portions were substituted by the same passages from Mengelberg’s performance of April 1940. There are scuffs it’s true and some evidence of aural damage but Tahra’s engineers have done a grand job. And this is, fortunately, a memorably intense performance. Of course the caveat should be noted; Mengelberg’s characteristic wilfulness will offend some ears much as it exults others. This is vital, driving and inspirational conducting with a first movement as fast as Toscanini’s almost contemporaneous 1935 Queen’s Hall performance with the BBC Symphony Orchestra. It exudes striving and galvanising energy. In the Allegretto he leans very heavily, creating an almost wilfully ponderous accenting in echt Romantic style. His stresses and sudden diminuendi are constant features of his performing style and gloriously – or recklessly, self-aggrandisingly to doubters – on display here in profuse life. And yet when it comes to the Fugato section everything is well articulated. The third movement is perhaps less well negotiated. It emerges as rather stop-start; or, to put it another way, the elasticity of his rubati rob the movement of structural integrity. There is some heavily emphatic playing which is enormously italicised. And yet, once again, when it comes to the concluding Allegro con brio, what combustible, dramatic and gloriously life-enhancing melodrama erupts! His accelerandi – so admired, so reviled – are a wonder, whatever one’s view may be of their ultimate value. They are part of Mengelberg’s emotive weaponry of choice and employed here to devastating effect.

The first CD of this slimline double includes the Second and Sixth Symphonies. The Second dates from May 1936 and apart from a rather muffled acoustic and some scuffs has survived in excellent state. Again compared with more central interpretations Mengelberg can tend toward extremes. He encourages great weight of string tone in the first movement and some thunderous contributions from the timpani. In the Larghetto he is slow, much slower than, say, Erich Kleiber in his rather earlier 1929 commercial recording; but Mengelberg manages to stress Beethoven’s Haydnesque antecedents here with striking directness. Listen as well at 2.30 where the string entries are coloured and laced with intoxicating romanticism and as ever the wind choirs are to the front of the aural perspective. The strongly accented Scherzo is followed by a finale notable for intoxicating crescendos, piping winds, elegant strings and pure adrenalin.

The Pastoral receives a reading of pure colour and verdant drama. The first movement is drenched in vivacious and percussive drive, sudden dramatic sforzandi lacing the score. The rhythmic tension, the rubati and expressive portamenti all conjoin in an intensely personalised exploration. His Andante molto mosso is actually not as slow as one might have predicted – but it arches with gloriously extensive colour and dynamism, the clarinet solo delicious in its limpid tracery. The Allegro-presto is full of the most thunderous bass sonorities and intoxicating drive and when it comes to the Storm we hear an outburst of elemental, engulfing terror, one of almost Sophoclean tragedy and visceral depth. These are extraordinary by any standard. The transitions are all accomplished with highly personalised but intensely convincing theatricality. The finale is both beautiful and artfully galvanised and by the conclusion Mengelberg has seemingly summoned up the very earth itself.

I found these performances exhilarating and the presentation, whilst brief, is apposite. The sound is really excellent and you need have no fear on that account. Some thunderous individuality may concern those not versed in Mengelberg’s autocratic personality but to those who have heard the call he is as wonderfully idiosyncratic and unpredictable, as sonorous and coruscating, as ever.

Jonathan Woolf


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