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Mengelberg in New York
George Frideric HANDEL (1685-1759) arr. Göhler
Alcina (1735) - suite [12:27]
Johann Sebastian BACH (1685-1750) arr. Mahler
Air from suite no.3 in D major, BWV1068(1717-1723) [3:37]
Johann Christian BACH (1735-1782) arr. Stein
Sinfonia in B flat major, op.18 no.2 (?) [10:55]
Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Overture to The magic flute (1791) [6:14]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Overture to Egmont (1810) [7:55]
Felix MENDELSSOHN (1809-1847)
War march of the priests,from Athalie, op.74 (1845) [4:24]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Coronation march, from Le Prophète (1849) [4:00]
Richard WAGNER (1813-1883)
Forest murmurs, from Siegfried (1876) [8:20]
Engelbert HUMPERDINCK (1854-1921)
Overture to Hansel und Gretel (1893) [6:31]
Camille SAINT-SAËNS (1835-1921)
Le rouet d’Omphale, op.31 (1872) [8:31]
Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra of New York/Willem Mengelberg
rec. Carnegie Hall, New York (all except Mozart, Beethoven and Humperdinck) and Liederkranz Hall, New York (Mozart, Beethoven and Humperdinck); 14 December 1928 (Wagner), 15 January 1929 (Meyerbeer and Saint-Saëns), 16 January 1929 (Handel, J.S. Bach, J.C. Bach and Mendelssohn) and 14 January 1930 (Mozart, Beethoven and Humperdinck).

Willem Mengelberg’s long and highly regarded service as conductor of Amsterdam's Concertgebouw Orchestra (1895-1945) has largely overshadowed the years 1920-1930. That was when he spent considerable time also working in the USA with the National Symphony Orchestra and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (NYPO).

Those years have not been entirely forgotten. Mengelberg’s 1928 NYPO recording of Richard Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben - recorded at the same sessions as the Wagner Forest murmurs included here- has, in spite of its inevitable sonic deficiencies, long been accorded classic status. On my own shelves it is the chronologically earliest inclusion in a 1992 RCA Gold Seal two-disc set appropriately entitled Legendary Strauss Recordings (09026 60929 2).

Inevitably, given the economics of the recording industry in the 1920s, the primitive recording technology of the time and less adventurous public taste, such artistically ambitious projects were the exception rather than the rule. Any wider assessment of Mengelberg’s work in that period must also include, therefore, his recordings of popular and/or less challenging, listener-friendly material such as that included here from Pristine Audio.

Nevertheless, recordings of even such apparently short and “simple” works can often be instructive. They may, for instance, demonstrate a conductor’s special attributes and skills - his ability to discover something special even in the apparently trivial or mundane: think of Beecham with his famous “lollipops”. Equally, they can sometimes bring out an unanticipated side to a particular maestro. When, for example, Karajan recorded a disc of popular opera intermezzi, one player described it as “a real eye-opener for me ... I had never felt [he] was a particularly emotional conductor. There were none of those great surges of emotion you had when, say, Furtwängler was conducting. But on this occasion he was completely 'sent'. I don't think he'd have noticed if a bomb had gone off beside him.” [Sidney Sutcliffe, quoted in Richard Osborne Herbert von Karajan: a life in music (London, 1998) p. 362].

So what do we learn from these New York recordings? They certainly confirm that Mengelberg - who was well known for his thorough preparation of both scores and orchestras before concerts and recordings - took immense care over performances. Nothing here is at all slapdash: even hoary old warhorses like the Meyerbeer and Mendelssohn marches are taken seriously when it comes to establishing orchestral balance and controlling dynamics. Audio restorer Mark Obert-Thorn’s expert removal of clicks and hisses enables us to appreciate, for instance, the superbly nuanced control that Mengelberg exercises over his forces in Mahler’s arrangement of Bach’s air on the G string - a completely riveting account that compels the listener to concentrate on every carefully sculpted note.
This disc also demonstrates that the NYPO was very much an orchestra of its time. The most obvious evidence is a degree of portamento that sounds quite odd to modern ears - though far less so to anyone familiar with the few remaining recordings of that era that are still listened to today, such as Elgar’s recordings of his own scores. The baroque pieces are also performed on 20th century instruments and by rather larger orchestral forces than we tend to encounter in our more historically informed times. That will be no deterrent to those of us sympathising with Sir Adrian Boult who, when he used the full London Philharmonic Orchestra to record the Brandenburg concertos in 1974 (see here), reminisced fondly about the style in which Bach’s music had been played in the innocently “uninformed” pre-war era. 

What about the quality of the sound? These tracks are, after all, more than eighty years old and were originally set down in the very earliest period of electrical recording. Mark Obert-Thorn’s notes point out the difficulties he faced with source material that exhibited “a comparatively high degree of hiss” even in the best surviving copies. That was, it seems, not his only problem, for the Mozart, Beethoven and Humperdinck tracks were originally rather “dry” sounding, having been, probably for reasons of economy in the Great Depression, recorded with reduced forces and in a comparatively small venue. Consequently, in an attempt to match the other tracks, Mr Obert-Thorn has added some digital reverberation and has certainly, thereby, created a bright and comparatively substantial sound.
This disc will be of interest primarily to Mengelberg devotees, if for no other reason than that he left no other surviving studio recordings of the Handel, Mozart, Meyerbeer, Wagner and Humperdinck tracks. Nevertheless, even a casual listener is likely to appreciate a degree of quality in the performances that, even eighty years later, offers a potent reminder of one of the great figures of a golden age of conducting.  

Rob Maynard