Willem Mengelberg conducts New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra = Works of MOZART, MEYERBEER, BEETHOVEN – Opus Kura

Opus Kura extends its formidable Mengelberg legacy with the conductor’s 1929-1930 RCA recordings.

Willem Mengelberg conducts New York Philharmonic Symphony Orchestra = MOZART: Die Zauberfloete Overture; MEYERBEER: Coronation March from Le Prophete; BEETHOVEN: Egmont Overture, Op. 84a; Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica” – New York Phiharmonic Sym. Orch./ Willem Mengelberg – Opus Kura OPK 2115, 69:44 [Distr. by Albany] ****:

Willem Mengelberg (1871-1951) took time away from his hand-picked Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam to lead a series of concerts in New York, 1921-1930. The RCA Victor label was quick to contract Mengelberg and the orchestra – then about to merge with the Walter Damrosch Symphony Society – in order to commit to records a portion of the conductor’s powerful repertory, enhanced by his penchant – even mania – for precision of ensemble.  Even given the typical, “period” style of performance, with its fondness for homogenous portamento, what emerges from the shellacs remains an impressive testimony to the thoroughness of Mengelberg’s preparation.

The recordings offered here by Opus Kura derive exclusively from sessions held 1929-1930. My former mentor at SUNY, Stefan-Bauer Mengelberg (1927-1996), praised the Overture to The Magic Flute for its ardent energy and uniformity of execution.  Typical of Mengelberg, tempos remain quick, so that within the “confines” of the classical structure, the Philharmonic finds room for bravura display. The popular Coronation March of Meyerbeer (1849), celebrating the 16th-Century Dutch king John of Leiden, enjoys a resonant energy, rife with slides and various flourishes in the NYPSO brass. The Egmont Overture receives a militantly brisk reading, particularly acute in Beethoven’s terraced dynamics. The singing line of the high strings proves no less compelling than the thunder in the basses, brass and tympani.  The last pages, taut and ferociously driven, command our attention via the sheer virtuosity of ensemble.

Mengelberg would traverse the Beethoven symphonies frequently throughout his active career, especially in Amsterdam, 1895-1945. When we consider that Mengelberg and Toscanini shared conducting duties in New York simultaneously, the opportunity to compare their respective approaches to Beethoven would have been sensationally instructive. The opening Allegro con brio opens with a manic, linear impetus that ordinarily would not bother with the 150 measure exposition repeat, but Mengelberg wants breadth as well as visceral drama. Besides the accelerated moments of grand energy especially in the string work – the quieter episodes enjoy a rare degree of repose that plays well for intimacy of expression within the wind and string choirs. Of course, we can well hear the Mengelberg tugs and stretches of internal rhythm, so critics will broil and enthusiasts will swoon.  When the heroic horn call makes its first appearance from within the morass of competing motives, it heralds a palpable, galloping victory over its own, agogic weakness. 

Mengelberg more than exaggerates Beethoven’s original markings for the Marcia funebre – its 280 measures should be realized in something like thirteen minutes – but we cannot complain, given the intensity of response, which lies well within a tradition equally palatable to Furtwaengler and Abendroth. The middle section achieves an optimistic brightness, rather leaning to a stylized waltz or courtly dance. The “fitful fever” of the opening returns, even more menacing, with the trumpet call’s ushering a potent sense of gravitas, enhanced by the “emotional” slides Mengelberg requires.   The Scherzo enjoys crisp accents and articulation of the layered voices. While the pacing of the secondary material remains rather staid and more indicative of the Weber style than Beethoven, the brass components project a smooth, molded character. The often frenetic finale, Allegro molto benefits by having Mengelberg etch each of the variants with its own color, and Mengelberg assumes a casual but refined elegance in the andante section.  A performance of colossal energies – of dramatic urgency and deep repose – the 1930 performance establishes a real sense of collaboration between creator and recreative principals.

—Gary Lemco

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