BEETHOVEN: Symphony No. 1 in C Major, Op. 21; Symphony No. 3 in E-flat Major, Op. 55 “Eroica” – Philharmonic-Sym. of New York/ Willem Mengelberg – [available in diff. formats from www.pristineclassical.com] Pristine Audio PASC 412, 77:50 ****:
In 1930, prior to his departure from the Philharmonic-Symphony of New York – and from his frequent battles of temperament with Arturo Toscanini – Dutch virtuoso conductor Willem Mengelberg completed a series of sessions for Victor here restored in smoothly – albeit plagued by consistent surface hiss – fluid sound by Mark Obert-Thorn, this despite the somewhat compressed music space of Liederkranz Hall. The C Major Symphony (9 January 1930) comes off quite well, briskly resonant and conceived, a youthful mischief quite active in the midst of its phenomenal fluency of design. The outer movements receive from Mengelberg attention to Beethoven’s repeats, which expand the piece to a scale that rivals the late Mozart and Haydn symphonies. Typically, there are Mengelberg’s willful accents and tugs at rhythm, but the airy response of the strings, winds, and tympani provides a vitality that assures the muscular con brio of Beethoven first movement.
Whatever Mengelberg’s self-indulgences in the Romantic tradition may irritate purists, his sense of arioso in the music he cherished remains undeniable. Beethoven’s Andante cantabile may well receive more “authentic” or stylistically accurate renditions, but the textural clarity and innate felicity of line in Mengelberg can still make us marvel. Mengelberg’s second movement palpitates with affection for its lyricism and polyphonic periods. The athletic Menuetto crackles as a scherzo in all but name. The opening of the last movement Adagio certainly teases us, as is its wont, until the Allegro molto e vivace kicks in with wonderful presence in the winds, low strings, and tympani. The string rocket figures – they seem to point directly at Reznicek’s Donna Diana – dance as well as sweep us forward, and the horns prepare us for the monumental Beethoven of the future. The tasteful addition of reverberation to the original sound has invested a degree of warmth that proves habit-forming to our ears.
Mengelberg made the Eroica Symphony a personal mission, having led innumerable performances and several inscriptions, but this one (4, 9 January 1930) bears a special respect for scale by observing Beethoven’s repeats. The vitality of the opening movement immediately takes our breath away. It is almost unnerving after 3:15 to repeat the exposition once more, since we have already been compelled by its magisterial intensity. The patented Mengelberg portamenti intrude on the string articulation, but the sincerity of expression never wanes or feels false. The massive development section moves forcefully, though I could wish for a lusher sound from the Victor “Z” shellacs. The transition to the final period of the first movement enjoys a wonderfully thrusting, nervous energy, the asymmetrical accents having finally aligned themselves with the heroic impulse that could have been easily seduced by a spirit of compromise.
Mengelberg retained a reputation for his slow Marcia funebre: Adagio readings, and this one, given its historical context, might be a dirge for the dissolving European way of life. The Romantic style idiosyncracies play a heavier role in this movement; but once accepted, the nobly valedictory sense of tragedy communicates a colossal integrity. The breadth and weight of the development section, with its layered counterpoints and lachrymose pageantry, well provides us with a glimpse of what Mengelberg’s Bruckner might have borne. The fervent Scherzo likewise receives the repeat, here in the idyllic hunting-horn Trio section. The glorious Allegro molto – with its famous “Prometheus” series of variations – enjoys lithe execution in all particulars, from the string work to the solo flute to the massive tuttis. Mengelberg plays the movement not so much for profundity but for its exercise of color and texture in the course of Herculean gestures in variation technique. The effect dazzles and compels us at once with its display by a master of instrumental control, willfully defiant and brilliantly flamboyant, forever.