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Mengelberg Telefunken v2 PASC664

Willem Mengelberg (conductor)
The Telefunken Recordings - Volume 2
Antonio Vivaldi (1678-1741)
Concerto No 8 in A minor from L’estro armonico, Op 3, RV 522 (two performances)
Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750)
Air from Orchestral Suite No 3, BWV 1068 (two performances)
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Symphony No 1 in C major, Op 21
Symphony No 8 in F major, Op 93
Franz Schubert (1797-1828)
Rosamunde - Overture
Johannes Brahms (1833-1897)
Symphony No 4 in E minor, Op 98
Richard Strauss (1864-1949)
Don Juan, Op 20
Claude Debussy (1862-1918)
Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune 
Concertgebouw Orchestra
rec. 1937/38, Grote Zaal, Concertgebouw, Amsterdam
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC664 [77:29 + 74:37]

I am delighted to be able to welcome the second volume in Pristine’s chronological survey of all of Mengelberg’s Telefunken recordings with “his” Concertgebouw Orchestra (as the Columbia record labels used to call it).

The first two items come in a pair of performances each, which came as a great surprise to me, and I would imagine everyone else with an interest in Mengelberg. It was only while Mark Obert-Thorn was comparing copies for transfer for this issue that he came to realise that there were in fact two different recordings made 12 months apart but issued under the same catalogue numbers of the Vivaldi Concerto Grosso and its Bach fill-up. The performances are almost identical, with only a few seconds difference in duration for any of the movements. The only clearly identifiable difference between the performances concerns the harpsichord continuo. For example in the first movement of the Vivaldi, if you listen to the performances 2:00 to 2:16 in, you will hear almost no continuo in the first version, but prominent harpsichord embellishments in the second. Similarly, at the very opening of the second movement the harpsichord is much more prominent and elaborate in version 2 than version 1. These are, of course, performances on a grand scale, utterly different from anything we would hear today, but I absolutely love them and refuse to feel any guilt for doing so. They have tremendous panache and conviction and work superbly on their own terms. I think by a tiny margin I prefer the second version; the solo playing in the second movement is even more expressive, and the tutti are even more decisive in the outer movements, but this may simply be because the later recording is a little sharper.

The first of the two Beethoven symphonies (No 1) is also (though to nowhere near as extreme an extent as with the Vivaldi) unlike any performance that would be given today. The late 1930s were a time before anyone took much notice of Beethoven’s metronome marks, so the performance seems distinctly leisurely compared to the hell-for-leather approach which is standard today. The adagio opening’s wind chords are beautifully modulated and the string continuation has considerable flexibility with a rit. before the transition to the allegro that would be unthinkable now, but which I find entirely convincing. There is slight rubato at a number of points in the movement, such as the slight slowing for the tutti chords 1:50 into the movement, and at the transition at 2:43. The slow movement has a delightful grace and point throughout. The minuet and trio are perhaps a little heavy, but the final movement is very fine, with a beautifully judged introduction and real wit and point in the allegro.

Beethoven’s 8th Symphony follows his 1st. The first movement is a little too moderate in pace, perhaps, and some of the rubato here is less convincing, but there is plenty of character. The second movement is delightfully relaxed and easy-going with some lovely phrasing. Again the third movement is rather heavy, especially when the trio section is reduced further in tempo, but the horns are excellent. The finale combines trenchancy and grace, and there is greater use of portamento in the section beginning 3:30 into the movement than in any of the other Beethoven movements. I found this performance less convincing than that of the 1st Symphony, but there are undoubtedly fine things in it.

The second CD begins with Schubert’s Rosamunde Overture (to be more precise, it is the Zauberharfe Overture). The distinctly sour-toned oboe in the introduction doesn’t get the piece off to a great start, but the allegro has a lovely poise and grace. Brahms’ 4th Symphony follows, and to my ears it is a good, but not a great, performance. The first movement is dramatic and detailed, and the rubato is less than Fiedler used, but it doesn’t have the momentum it really needs, and much the same can be said of the second movement. The third movement is better with a genuinely giocoso feels to it. The fourth movement’s introduction lacks the portentous atmosphere it needs and the allegro treads water at times. The performance as a whole simply can’t compare with Furtwängler’s momentum and sense of purpose.

The final two works show Mengelberg’s genius far more completely. Strauss famously dedicated Ein Heldenleben to Mengelberg and the Concertgebouw, so his admiration for them is clear, and it is a great pity that recordings of Mengelberg in Strauss’s works are so few - only Heldenleben, Don Juan and Tod und Verklärung. It is interesting that Strauss’s own way with his music is very different to Mengelberg’s; he was much more matter-of-fact, and to be honest I often find Strauss’s own performances disappointing, I prefer a more explicitly characterised style. The Don Juan in the set is simply superb. He manages to pull off the very difficult trick of combining a sweeping, thrilling excitement with highly detailed characterisation. The detail in this performance is simply astonishing, and the conductor seems to have an incredibly specific narrative in his head. Obviously, the piece is based on the fragmentary verse drama Don Juans Ende by Lenau, which was left unfinished at the poet’s death, and Strauss printed three quite substantial extracts from the play at the front of the score, but what Mengelberg does goes far beyond just following the play - he is Don Juan, and every shade of thought and reaction is reflected in the phrasing. Despite his own very different style, I think Strauss would have been delighted with what Mengelberg does; he famously told Ernest Newman “Music must progress until it can depict even a teaspoon”, and that is exactly what Mengelberg’s specificity achieves. Its onomatopoeia is almost like the music in the Tom and Jerry cartoons. But there is never a sense of getting tangled up or bogged down in detail; the momentum and joie de vivre never let up. This is a great performance.

Mengelberg is not perhaps an obvious choice for French music in general and impressionism in particular; his approach might seem to be too explicit, without the half-lights and suggestions that such music needs, but I find him very compelling. I’ve long loved his live Ravel Daphnis and Chloe suite - his moulding of the final section of the opening “Daybreak” is breathtakingly beautiful. The final piece in this set is Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune, and I find it utterly convincing. It is strange that some of the great romantic conductors are sensual but not erotic in their performances. I remember many, many years ago a television programme about Beecham (I think it was to celebrate his centenary) in which Felix Aprahamian described Beecham as being “a conductor entirely without eroticism”, and I think something of the same is true of Stokowski and Mengelberg. There are parts of this performance which are very sensual (there is more portamento in this than any other of the performances in this set), but a number of others which could easily be erotic but where Mengelberg is playful. His very free, improvisatory approach to tempo works superbly, and there is the same characterisation and sense of a specific narrative being in the conductor’s mind as there is in the Don Juan. I suppose whether you like this approach in this piece will depend much more than with the Strauss on what you consider to be the correct musical style (I rather think that Ravel would have disapproved of it), but it certainly works for me.

Mark Obert-Thorn’s transfers are superb. These were demonstration-quality recordings in their day and all their quality has been brought out here. Surface noise is almost entirely absent and it’s very nice not to have to put up with the mains hum which so irritatingly afflicts some of the original issues. I can’t wait for the third volume.
Paul Steinson

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