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Willem Mengelberg (conductor)
The Concertgebouw Telefunken Recordings - Volume 1
Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Symphony No 5 in C minor, Op 67 [30:57]
Symphony No 6 in F major, Op 68 ‘Pastoral’ [37:07]
Hector BERLIOZ (1803-1869)
Roman Carnival Overture [8:34]
César FRANCK (1822-1890)
Psyché et Eros [7:36]
Pyotr TCHAIKOVSKY (1840-1893)
Symphony No 6 in B minor, Op 74 ‘Pathétique’ [42:52]
Serenade for Strings, Op 48 [26:18]
Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam
Rec. 1937/38
Producer and Audio Restoration Engineer: Mark Obert-Thorn
PRISTINE AUDIO PASC624 [76:55 + 76:52]

Having issued Mengelberg’s complete Columbia recordings recently, Mark Obert-Thorn and Pristine have turned their attention to the less well-known Telefunken Concertgebouw recordings which succeeded them. As with the Columbias, the intention is to re-issue them complete, this time in chronological order of recording, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Mengelberg’s birth. Pristine has already issued the Telefunken recordings which Mengelberg made with the Berlin Philharmonic in 1940 on PASC 348 (review). In the second half of the 1930s, Telefunken was at the forefront of recording quality, so, good as the Columbias were, these performances give us the best idea of the actual sound of the orchestra of which Mengelberg had been chief conductor since 1895.

As the transfer engineer Mark Obert-Thorn explains in his notes, Mengelberg had recorded Beethoven’s 1st and 3rd symphonies for Victor with the NYPSO in 1930 (also available on Pristine PASC312 - not reviewed on Musicweb) and was anxious to record repertoire that he had not previously put onto disc, especially further symphonies of Beethoven. This composer was a central part of Mengelberg’s repertoire and he performed cycles of the complete symphonies on a regular basis (the live 1940 cycle is available on Pristine both as complete set PABX 008 or on separate CDs or downloads), so it is no surprise that his first Telefunken sessions included two of the symphonies, and equally unsurprising that he should begin with the 5th.

From a present day point of view, the performances of both of the symphonies here are somewhat paradoxical. On the one hand, the tempo flexibility is at a polar opposite to today’s HIP performances, but on the other the tempi and phrasing are fast and quite light (in places the Pastoral performance approaches Beethoven’s metronome mark) which is not at all what might be expected from a pre-war conductor in the German romantic tradition. In terms of the basic tempi and “Geist”, Mengelberg’s Pastoral is far closer to Norrington’s recording than to Pfitzner’s, to take an extreme example, whose 1930 recording was issued in a very mediocre transfer by Naxos in 2000 - how about doing a proper job, Pristine? (review). Norrington and Mengelberg both view the piece exactly as Beethoven describes each movement; the storm is just a nasty downpour which spoils the peasants’ knees-up, and is followed by relief in a “Hirtengesang. Frohe und dankbare Gefühle nach dem sturm” (Shepherd song. Happy and grateful feelings after the storm), and nothing more. To Pfitzner, the storm is the cosmic struggle of mankind, after which comes not just some jolly peasants, but a meditative "Heiliger Dankgesang an die Gottheit" (Holy song of thanks to the deity, to adapt Beethoven’s description of the slow movement of his Quartet Op 132), where all creation praises and thanks its Creator. I know of no present-day conductor who follows in Pfitzner’s footsteps (though Kurt Sanderling did; his Pastoral with the Phiharmonia at the RFH in 1997 was unforgettable and deeply moving).

The performance of the 5th Symphony is comparatively straight, much more so than the Max Fiedler performance which I reviewed a while ago (review). The opening motto theme is given a generous fermata, but not to anywhere near the same extent as Fiedler. After that there is comparatively little rubato until the final fortissimo statement of the motto just before the end of the movement which has a rhetoric which would not be countenanced today. The abiding impression of the movement is one of momentum and even the short oboe cadenza, which in Furtwängler’s 1943 performance is a moment of utter stillness, does not stop the flow. Incidentally, the oboe here is distressingly sour-toned, and I wonder if this is the fault of the recording or did actually Mengelberg like a sound which makes Viennese oboes sound positively voluptuous? Another interesting orchestral point is how much less portamento there is in these recordings than in the Columbia recordings of only 5 years before. It is quite astonishing how throughout the world orchestral string portamento almost entirely disappeared in the space of just a decade between the late 20s and the late 30s. Generally the andante and scherzo are fairly straight performances, again swift and forward moving. The finale has tremendous vitality of an almost Toscaninian force. I remember many years ago a reviewer on the BBC (probably on Record Review) saying about the last movement of this performance “You can hear the jackboots marching”. It struck me then and strikes me now as among the most tendentious pieces of stupidity I had ever heard. Reading back into a performance what the reviewer thinks he knows about the performers non-musical beliefs is about as dishonest a bit of reviewing as it’s possible to imagine. Sadly, this way of looking at the world has become a very 2021 position.

The Pastoral is a far more extreme example of the paradoxical nature of Mengelberg’s Beethoven that I mentioned earlier. I have already written about what you might call the philosophical aspects of the performance, so I will just add a few comments about the detail. The tempo fluctuations are much more extreme here than in the 5th. At the very start of the symphony, there is a substantial rit at the end of the first phrase after which Mengelberg takes off again at a much faster tempo than the main tempo of the first phrase. The basic tempo of the movement is fast - too fast for my taste; it seems positively restless, more a jog through the countryside than a walk in it. The second movement also begins in a very idiosyncratic way; the violin melody is slow and saturated in timbre, seeming to inhabit a completely different world to its accompaniment. I was reminded of someone going for a walk with a small child - the adult wants to saunter and pause to enjoy the scenery, but the child pulls at his hand to hurry up and get to the swings. The whole movement is sculpted and detailed in a way which is unique in my experience, but not, I must confess, entirely convincing, though the very free treatment of the bird calls at the end of the movement does convey a sense of wonder at the beauty of the natural world. The scherzo begins slowly and with a heavy, trenchant tread; these are genuine peasants, not second home owners visiting their weekend country retreats. The storm is quite straight and much less cataclysmic than I would have expected: something of a disappointment. The final Peasants’ Merrymaking is very swift, though with plenty of character. I had wondered if the restrictions of 78 side length had made Mengelberg rush it more than he wanted, but on checking the live 1940 performance the different in duration is only a handful of seconds. This is a performance which certainly has its interest, but it didn’t really convince me.

The final item on the first CD is Berlioz’ Carnival Romain overture. This is a tremendous performance, perhaps lacking Beecham’s aristocratic refinement in the first section and his headlong sauve qui peut in the second, but still wonderfully exciting and full of character.

The second CD continues in the French repertoire with César Franck’s Psyché et Eros, a rhapsodic (perhaps even formless) high romantic symphonic poem of luscious orchestration, and as such is right up Mengelberg’s street. Though there are undoubtedly some who would consider his style here as insufficiently French (and the stereotype of French style as delicate, graceful, refined, detached, somewhat ironic is certainly not Mengelberg’s way), I think he had his own deep, personal response to French music which can work just as well. His Debussy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faun is a gloriously sensual performance and his “Daybreak” from the live Ravel Daphnis et Chloé is my favourite performance (the infinite care and tenderness of the cadences is breathtaking). The ebb and flow of Franck’s symphonic poem works superbly, and I completely agree with Obert-Thorn’s assessment of it as “an ecstatic, passionate rhapsody which ranks among the conductor’s finest realisations on disc.” Unfortunately, it is the least satisfactory of the recordings, with grainy strings and a rather shrill sound. It was recorded at the same sessions as the Pastoral, Pathétique and Carnival Romain, so there is no obvious reason why this should be the case, but my own 78 copy shows the same characteristics.

The main work on the second CD is Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, the Pathétique. Tchaikovsky is a composer with whom Mengelberg is particularly associated, and his performances of Romeo and Juliet and the last three symphonies (despite the disfiguring cuts in No 5) are among the finest ever recorded. The conductor is in his element here; every phrase, indeed every note, is characterised. The first movement begins with a deep sense of tragedy which becomes unease at the allegro and panic as the movement progresses. Mengelberg sees the piece as more symphonic poem than symphony, and narrative takes precedence over formal considerations. Whether you like (indeed, approve) of this approach will be a matter of personal taste, but it’s effectiveness in this music is undeniable. The performance is in a constant flux of tempo modification, but never for a moment loses momentum; there is never a sense of dawdling to sniff the flowers. The recording is also back to full quality; the sudden fortissimo chord after the bass clarinet’s morendo (9:23 mins into the movement) still packs a huge sonic punch 83 years after it was recorded. The succeeding allegro is tremendously exciting with blazing brass and trenchant string articulation, and the saturated string sound at 12:40 is unequalled in my experience. The second movement is full-blooded rather than balletic or graceful and suffers a little from the decreased sense of contrast with the first movement as a result, but the central section with its ominous timpani beat is superb. The March is as full of fire as anyone could wish. There is very little rubato; the conductor knows that inexorability is the essence here, and even at the final appearance of the march theme, where many older conductors slowed down to a huge extent, Mengelberg does not do so to an extent which dams the torrent. There is no triumphalist strutting here. Mengelberg was never happy with the performance of the final movement on this recording, and despite its being in the midst of the war, he managed to persuade Telefunken to re-record the symphony in 1941. The last movement of that performance is a minute longer than this one, so we must see the present performance as a holding measure until Pristine get to that second recording. Having said that, this performance is still mightily impressive. The start is almost violent, the violin bows positively slash at the strings, and the effect is of expressionist extremity rather than depressive wallowing. I was regularly reminded of Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht.

The final piece is also by Tchaikovsky, the Serenade for Strings. We have become used over the past few decades to hearing this piece played by the strings of a chamber orchestra, and as a result this performance can sound rather heavy, though the tempi are often quite swift. The opening andante is an example of this, it is not as slow or portentous as many make it. The large body of strings does, however, make the allegro a little ponderous, but it is full of character. The second movement waltz also suffers a little from this (as I’ve said before, Mengelberg and graceful elegance are not natural bedfellows). The larghetto is the most successful movement, here he gets to the heart of the matter. I don’t really feel that Mengelberg quite “gets” the tentative bridge from the last movement’s andante into its allegro, but once there, he give a wonderfully bracing performance to end the piece.

It is marvellous that Pristine has embarked upon this series. Though all of them have been re-issued at some time, as far as I know it has never been done in a systematic way like this, and certainly not with as expert a transfer engineer as Mark Obert-Thorn. The sound quality is excellent, with seamless side-joins and minimal surface noise, and he eliminates the irritating mains hum that affects all Telefunken recordings of this era. If I am not mistaken, the matrices of all these recordings were destroyed in a flood at the Telefunken factory sometime in the 1950s, so there is no possibility of being able to use vinyl pressings from original matrices. Unless there is leap forward in transfer technology at some point in the future, this is the best sound we are likely to get from these recordings, and that sound was as good as it got in the late 1930s. These are fascinating performances whose originality will make even the most jaded mind think about the music afresh.

Paul Steinson

Recording details
4 May 1937 ∙ Matrices: 022110/7 ∙ Telefunken SK 2210/3 (Beethoven 5)
22 & 23 December 1937 ∙ Matrices: 022708/17 ∙ Telefunken SK 2424/8 (Beethoven 6)
22 December 1937 ∙ Matrices: 022676/7∙ Telefunken SK 2489 (Berlioz)
23 December 1937 ∙ Matrices: 022718/9 ∙ Telefunken SK 2463 (Franck)
20 & 22 December 1937 ∙ Matrices: 022666/75 ∙ Telefunken SK 2214/8 (Tchaikovsky 6)
7 November 1938 ∙ Matrices: 023643/8 ∙ First issued on Telefunken SK 2901/3 (Tchaikovsky Serenade)

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