Wolfgang Amadeus MOZART (1756-1791)
Die Zauberflöte Overture [6:04]
Giacomo MEYERBEER (1791-1864)
Coronation March from Le Prophète [3:50]
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Egmont Overture [7:47]
Symphony No. 3 in E flat major, Op. 55 Eroica [51:22]
New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra/Willem Mengelberg
rec. 1929/1930
OPUS KURA OPK2115 [69:44]

It was a great pleasure to have the opportunity to review this release, as I’m something of a Mengelberg fan, having collected quite a few of his recordings, both on LP and CD, over the years. It was the late record dealer Michael G. Thomas, a staunch supporter and promoter of the conductor, who put me on to him. He would freely impart his extensive knowledge on the occasional visits I made to his two shops in London, where I purchased several of his own excellent Mengelberg Edition issues.

Mengelberg, for all the controversy that surrounds him regarding his musicianship and politics, is one of the great conductors of the twentieth century, and can be mentioned in the same breath as Toscanini and Furtwängler. The qualities which helped establish his reputation can all be found in these newly re-mastered recordings, set down in New York in 1929-1930. Tempo, rhythm, dynamics and phrasing, all play a crucial role in his distinguished interpretations. The perfection of ensemble and attention to detail that he strove to achieve were the result of his extensive rehearsals. His unique rubato and portamenti were expressive devices he used to enhance his interpretations, and they certainly helped stamp his personal fingerprint on them.

It’s astonishing to think that he had a fifty year association with the Concertgebouw Orchestra from 1895 to 1945. Yet aside from his Amsterdam commitments, during the period 1922-1928 he also served as music director of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra. Eventually, clashes with Toscanini over interpretations and rehearsal techniques scuppered his tenure and resulted in his departure. I was amazed to read in Gary Lemco’s enlightening annotations that in New York Mengelberg was quite adventurous in terms of repertoire. He programmed such composers as Kurt Atterberg, Alfredo Casella, Darius Milhaud, Ottorino Respighi as well as lesser known names including Nicolai Beresovski, Simon Bucharoff and Emerson Whithorne. He also undertook many premieres, and much of this non-core repertoire he later took with him to Amsterdam.

The Beethoven’s Eroica here is the earliest of three inscriptions in the Mengelberg discography. It was set down at Liederkranz Hall in New York on 4 and 9 January 1930 for Victor. Ten years later on 11 November 1940 in Amsterdam he recorded it with the Concertgebouw Orchestra for Telefunken. There is also another version with the Amsterdam forces dated 6 May 1943. It has so far eluded me, being available on a hard-to-find Japanese label (King Records KICC-2054).

It’s been interesting doing a head-to-head comparison between the 1930 New York traversal, and the later Telefunken. I didn’t find much interpretative divergence between the two, but the later inscription, it has to be said, is in better sound with less surface hiss. What I prefer in the earlier version under review is that the conductor observes the first movement exposition repeat. There are no trade-mark tappings of the baton on the rostrum at the commencement of each movement here. The performance of the first movement is gripping, Mengelberg maintaining the drama and tension throughout. The Marcia Funebre is noble, solemn and tragic. Some may find the portamentos dated and old-fashioned, but they don’t bother me. I found the Allegro Vivace third movement a tad underpowered though, but all is made well in the finale, which is thrilling, triumphant and has lavish helpings of vigour and vitality.

A few days later on 14 January 1930, again at Liederkranz Hall, Mengelberg recorded the overtures to Egmont and Die Zauberflöte. Both are exhilarating, but it is the Egmont which has the edge. It’s an imposing reading with plenty of drama and a forceful sense of urgency. Meyerbeer’s militaristic Coronation March, with its fanfares and catchy tunes, is a real crowd-pleaser. It was recorded a year earlier in Carnegie Hall and is the icing on the cake.

K. Yasuhara’s transfers are vibrant and bright and bring these exciting and valuable recordings to life.

Stephen Greenbank

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