I imagine that most readers of MusicWeb International quickly
scan the day's main headings and then, if a work or artist interests
them, jump straight to reading the review. The details of recording
dates and venues are, more often than not, I’d guess,
passed over without a great deal of attention.
To do so in this case would be to miss something of great significance,
for these recordings were made in Berlin on 8 and 9 July 1940,
replicating live performances given just a few days earlier.
In other words, less than seven weeks after the Netherlands
had suffered a bloody, unprovoked invasion, lost a campaign,
surrendered to an invading German army and been occupied by
enemy forces. That country’s pre-eminent native conductor
could be found leading the flagship German orchestra in the
capital of Nazi Europe.
Just as it does in Furtwangler's case, the controversy over
the Germanophile Mengelberg's collaboration with the Nazis remains
unresolved. Claims that he was essentially apolitical, that
he protected Jewish members of his Concertgebouw Orchestra or
that he attempted to continue promoting the banned “Jewish”
music of Mahler are all asserted. They are even more convincingly
contested for it is an incontrovertible fact that, unlike many
other conductors in Nazi-occupied countries, Mengelberg adopted
a high-profile highly supportive attitude to the new status
quo. After the war’s end he was judicially condemned as
a collaborator and his career came to an ignominious end.
As those preliminary observations indicate, these recordings
certainly have some historical/political/cultural significance.
Any inherent musical importance is, however, rather less
The concerto can be considered - and dismissed - quite quickly.
Hansen was a competent enough pianist. He was a student of Edwin
Fischer, though it is worth pointing out that in the 1930s,
when one might have been expecting him to be pursuing a solo
career, he was just as often to be found acting as his mentor’s
teaching assistant. In all honesty, Hansen was probably out
of his depth when partnered with Mengelberg and this recording
has never been particularly highly rated, not simply because
of the soloist’s adequate though generally undistinguished
performance but also because of a horrendously cut first movement
cadenza - blamed by charitable critics on time constraints.
Perhaps a more appropriate soloist for this politically-charged
recording might have been Hitler’s favourite, the notoriously
pro-Nazi Elly Ney, who certainly had Tchaikovsky’s first
concerto in her repertoire. Indeed, she had played it at the
London Proms with Sir Henry Wood just a decade earlier, though
one imagines that, as a notorious racist and anti-semite, she
probably left the Albert Hall post-haste before the programme’s
subsequent items that included Mahler’s first symphony
and Marian Anderson singing a couple of spirituals.
What of the recording of the Tchaikovsky fifth symphony? Again,
this is not a performance for the ages. It is, though, characteristic
Mengelberg: wilful, idiosyncratic, one-of-a-kind. Not only does
the conductor impose his own tempi, dynamics and phrasings throughout
the score, but he also makes a couple of quite drastic cuts
in the finale. Interestingly enough, even though his audiences
expected - and, at that time, generally saw no great harm in
- that sort of practice, in the case of this particular symphony
Mengelberg felt compelled to justify his interventionist approach.
He claimed that Tchaikovsky’s brother Modest had told
him that the composer himself would have approved the modifications
- a suggestion that gave rise to the memorable observation,
on a later occasion when Mengelberg tinkered with Bach, that
he had presumably consulted “Modest Bach” on the
This, then, is a performance that tells us much more about interpretative
practice in the first half of the twentieth century than about
Tchaikovsky’s score. As such, it is certainly worth hearing,
but you may not want to listen to it on a regular basis and
it certainly won’t displace any of the many other fine
recorded accounts of this work.
Pristine Audio and Mark Obert-Thorn have done a sterling job
in bringing a greater degree of clarity to these 72 years old
performances than we have ever heard before. It would be a good
thing if this release were to tempt those listeners who know
him only by reputation to sample Mengelberg’s undoubted
artistry, tainted in reputation though it unfortunately remains
thanks to the conductor’s questionable wartime stance.
Masterwork Index: Piano
concerto 1 ~~ Symphony